The increasing use of firearms in Hawke's Bay gang disputes has put gang members in the sights of a new police operation.
But the sheer number of Mongrel Mob chapters, and a rise in public displays of violence with rivals Black Power, mean the challenge for officers on the streets is significant, police say.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster's nationally co-ordinated Operation Tauwhiro announced one of its first big wins in Wairoa on Thursday.
The six-week crackdown on gang activity in Wairoa resulted in 15 arrests, including members of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power.
Acting eastern district crime manager, Detective Inspector Brent Greville, said five men had been charged in relation to recent incidents including violence, firearms, and drugs charges, and a further 10 were arrested on warrants to arrest.
Twelve search warrants were executed as part of the ongoing operation targeting organised crime, including one in Napier, where three pistols and a set of ballistic armour were seized.
Greville and two other top Hawke's Bay police officers, Inspector Dean Clifford and Detective Inspector Rob Jones sat down with Hawke's Bay Today on Friday to discuss the operation.
Clifford said the overall intent of it is to disrupt illegal gang activity in Hawke's Bay and identify and secure illegal firearms.
Earlier this week Hawke's Bay Today reported that the number of recorded offences in Eastern District Police region by known gang members decreased from 2229 in 2019 to 1884 in 2020.
Clifford said he felt the six-week Covid lockdown was primarily the reason.
"Even though offending dropped, the concern we have has increased because the visible tension has increased. We're certainly not seeing it as a success."
Public displays of inter-gang violence have increased dramatically in Hawke's Bay compared with other regions, he said.
"Visible increase in gang tension and public displays has increased in the last 12 to 18 months, stemming from increased visibility of gang members, expansion of numbers and the methamphetamine trade," Clifford said.
"Even though its gang on gang, it's visible and causes harm to the communities."
This week Black Power life member Denis O'Reilly told Hawke's Bay Today although 14 gangs had a presence in Hawke's Bay, the main battle was between Black Power and the Mongrel Mob, which O'Reilly said now had 22 chapters in the region.
Jones said when gang-related crimes are committed in Hawke's Bay, those responsible are primarily affiliated with MM and BP.
"They occupy the bulk of our time. Within the Mongrel Mob expansion comes with different chapters who attract different types of people.
"Some have an outlaw motorcycle theme like the Barbarians, while others are more traditional."
Clifford said establishing a relationship with leaders from the two main gangs, as well as individual chapters, is key.
"For the public, if you're wearing a Mongrel Mob patch, you are a Mongrel Mob member. But for us, there are differences between chapters in terms of culture, leadership and impact on crime."
Clifford said although12 other gangs have a presence, including the arrival of King Cobra, Mongols MC and Tribal Huk in 2020, they may not be active within the world of crime.
"When we see a new gang on the National Gang List [NGL], we explore whether it's a random person now living in Hawke's Bay because his partner's moved, which happens all the time, or a move into the patch business-wise.
"There may be one member in the district, but that doesn't mean the gang is here – Tribal Huk's presence is just one or two people, for example."
Police Association president Chris Cahill said an influx of gang members deported from Australia, increased availability of methamphetamine, and inter-gang tensions have caused escalating dangers to officers and the community across New Zealand.
Jones said while 501s (Australian deportees) with gang affiliations live in the district, they may not be active members, but will still appear as gang members on the police list.
As part of the tailored initiative under Operation Tauwhiro, a morning meeting to review gang-related crimes will now be held by Eastern District Police.
Jones said the meth trade continues to be a big problem in the community, and within gangs.
"The supply of meth causes behaviour and criminal offending in the supply and protection of supply networks, as well as causing friction between different factions internally in gangs and between gangs," he said.
"We've got five wastewater testing sites across the district and all of them show a high prevalence of meth every month."
He also said an increase in gang members carrying firearms and using firearms to settle disputes has been noticed.
"These incidents don't necessarily result in significant injury, but the increase in carriage of firearms causes concern."