'Not great after midnight': Gangs, drinking - sharp rise in random city violence

Elizabeth Binning
Elizabeth Binning

Senior Journalist

* Auckland: 'The guy punched me in my eye for no reason'
* Wellington: 'He knows because it's under $20 he's not going to get arrested'
* Christchurch: 'I missed my granddaughter's 21st': Assault victim still struggling

More than 1000 people have been assaulted in Auckland's CBD this year, many of whom have been randomly punched by strangers while enjoying a night out on the town.

Overall crime largely dropped during lockdown last year. Now, police statistics show the level of criminal activity is mostly at similar levels to what it used to be in most parts of the country.

An exception is in Auckland's city centre where there has been a sharp rise in violent crime since last year's national Covid-19 lockdown, which began in March.

There has been a 63 per cent increase in assaults for the first five months of this year compared with the same period in 2019. By May this year, when the latest figures were available, there were 232 assaults.

Police say it's not uncommon most weekends for people to end up in hospital.

"We would have probably two or three serious assaults a weekend, if not more," Auckland Central area commander Inspector Gary Davey told the Herald.

"Pre-Covid it tended to be one a weekend. It certainly wasn't as common and it wasn't as severe."

This year alone ACC has paid out $13 million to people who have been assaulted in the Auckland region, many of whom have required treatment for soft-tissue injuries, cuts, fractures and concussions.

Davey said violence was not restricted to members of the public.

"My police officer got knocked unconscious on a recent Saturday night. That sort of violent offending is becoming normal. Pre-covid that would be an exception, now it's a regular occurrence that type of assault."

"I have probably about eight officers at the moment that are still dealing with serious concussion-related injuries. I lose sleep over the fact it's becoming more prevalent."

Today, the Herald launches a series looking into crime in Tāmaki Makaurau to find out what's behind the violence, the effect on victims and businesses and what needs to be done to make our communities safe.

That perception of increasing violence is partly driven by high-profile incidents like the gang-related shooting at the Sofitel in broad daylight, the early morning death of MMA fighter Fau Vake on Symonds St and the Karangahape Rd attack on a police officer who was hospitalised after being hit from behind.

And the disorder is not restricted to the city centre.

Last month a man fleeing police after allegedly stealing a car held two motorists at gunpoint in Penrose before he was eventually shot by police.

In June a 69-year-old woman was injured after a man tried to steal her car in a violent assault in the New Lynn shopping mall carpark while a 25-year-old man was left fighting for his life after being assaulted at The Albany bar on the North Shore in early July.

There has also been a series of gang-related shootings in Counties Manukau that has left homes riddled with bullets and several gang members needing medical attention.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff believes the upsurge in the use of firearms links directly back to the increase in 501 deportees, many of whom have links to gangs not previously based here.

"The single biggest factor that makes the difference in that I think has been the policy by Australia to deport people who should by and large be their problem because they have been brought up in Australia since they were kids.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says one assault in the city is one too many. Photo / Alex Burton
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says one assault in the city is one too many. Photo / Alex Burton

"What you are seeing is different gangs fighting for patch protection and fighting over what can be a lucrative trade in things like narcotics and that worries me."

While Goff insists the city centre is still a safe place to visit he acknowledges there has been an increase in assaults in public places.

"The number of reported public-places assaults are relatively low but the number has risen in the last five months. But, one assault, particularly when you see the coward punch that people have died from, is one too many and you have to take it seriously."

Police Auckland Central area commander Inspector Gary Davey says assaults are becoming more frequent and severe. Photo / Mike Scott
Police Auckland Central area commander Inspector Gary Davey says assaults are becoming more frequent and severe. Photo / Mike Scott

Davey told the Herald he believed there were a variety of reasons for the sudden increase in violent crime.

"In my view, you've got an underlying stress in the community which is Covid and I think we are seeing this play out through the alcohol-related harm in the city. We have seen an increase in public disorder and assaults and we have also seen an increase in the seriousness of those assaults."

Davey said the changing demographics of the city have also played a part as there were no longer thousands of international students and backpackers living in CBD apartments.

"There's some emergency housing, there are some 501s, parolees and bailees now living in town and with the cheaper accommodation, it's attracting a new demographic, which in my view has changed the makeup of Auckland central.

"This is also highlighted by the fact that there has been an increase of about 60 per cent in calls for services for family harm in the Auckland Central area."

Assault numbers in Auckland were relatively stable for several years but have increased since Covid. Photo / Mike Scott
Assault numbers in Auckland were relatively stable for several years but have increased since Covid. Photo / Mike Scott

He said the increase in the presence of firearms is partly due to the arrival of 501 deportees and Australian gangs who are competing with established organised crime groups that have always been involved in the city's pubs, nightclubs and brothels - but not as visibly.

"When you have territory wars they are going to arm up because the Australian gangs are very, very violent, so in my view, all of the gangs have started to arm up for protection or to exert their power and dominance over certain areas. As a consequence, we are seeing more firearms on the street."

And it's those kinds of incidents that have people scared.

Many people who live, work and party in the CBD have told the Herald they have noticed an increase in the levels of crime.

Restaurant and business owners say they too have noticed more crime. Mandy Lusk, the owner of Vivace Restaurant, described the city as no longer being a desirable place to be in the early hours of the morning.

"From midnight onwards it's not a great place to be out and about. Since March we've kept the doors here closed, which means we lose quite a bit of walk-by traffic, but we also don't get the bad people trying to get in."



What's behind the rise in violent crime

On the beat in Auckland City

I was punched in the face by a drunk stranger



The booze problem, should bars close at 2am?

Our long, violent hangover in search of a cure


The impact on business


The cost to the health system


The scourge of robbery


The solutions