Bullets are flying in Tauranga as gangs go head-to-head but an expert says there is a risk the violence will spread to Rotorua as gang numbers continue to rise. Cira Olivier reports.
A father whose son was murdered by gang members six years ago says a tougher line on gang violence needs to be taken to protect innocent people.
His comments follow a suspected arson attack in Tauranga which is thought to have sparked shootings at Tauranga and Te Puke addresses which were said to be Mongol and Mongrel Mob properties.
Rotorua man Rendall Jack, who has been outspoken about gangs since his son was killed and no one was charged, said the Government's "soft-on-crime" approach was "further endangering innocent people's lives".
He said gang members were recruiting faster than police, gangs were relaxed about law enforcement and the courts were not as harsh as they should be.
Jack's son, Israel Jack, died in a random and brutal killing on Te Ngae Rd on August 18, 2013. Police confirmed gang members or associates were "probably" the killers.
Despite new information being given to police in 2018, no one has been charged.
Jack said recent gang tensions in the Bay of Plenty proved laws were needed that prevented gang members wearing patches and consorting in public.
"As the number of gang members increase at a faster rate than police are being recruited, it is clear that this Government's soft-on-crime approach is further endangering innocent people's lives."
He said despite gangs' deliberate anti-social, intimidating and illegal actions, courts were too often discounting sentences.
He said gang members used softened laws to their advantage and gang numbers were rapidly increasing.
He said the level of violence showed just how relaxed gang members were when it came to law enforcement.
"Gang members will get prospects with less convictions to take the rap for serious crimes and do a shorter sentence in prison where they are rewarded for protecting the more senior members from consequence."
Gang expert Dr Jarrod Gilbert, director of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury, said gang violence would get worse.
He said there was always a risk when gang tension was high that it would spread and while the majority of gang violence was contained within themselves, civilians might get caught in the crossfire.
"When people are firing shots in public, then there is a threat to people outside of the gang realm," Gilbert said.
Gangs had been growing since 2008 when the Rebels arrived in New Zealand, he said, and the last time growth was seen like this was in the 1970s and 1980s.
"New gangs have established here and existing gangs have swelled in number, as a response."
He said the violence was "utterly inevitable" when opposing gangs encroached on one another's territory.
Gilbert said drugs were a small part of the equation and growing numbers were also linked to a sense of brotherhood and status.
"Until the growth is stabilised, we will see more violence," he said.
Minister of Police Stuart Nash said people could be reassured by more armed police on Bay of Plenty streets over the next few days, in response to gang rivalry flaring up.
Since 2015, more than 1800 offenders have been deported from Australia.
"These returning offenders are bringing a level of professional organisation and business skills to the meth trade which has not been seen before," he said.
Nash said while there were record numbers of police on the frontline, officers "cannot simply arrest their way out of the gang problem".
"The 25-year-old gang members getting arrested today were drifting teenagers when the first Australian gang, the Rebels, arrived a decade ago. Those teenagers also faced poverty, mental health and addiction issues, and unemployment. The gang problem is more than a police problem.
Since 2017 Police have also seized cash and assets of more than $100 million from gangs.
"But let's not kid ourselves it's only people wearing patches who are driving this. Recent meth busts have involved the arrest of business professionals like lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, sports stars, media personalities, as well as foreign nationals from the UK, Canada, and Australia. Their money laundering and other activity enables gang offending."
Rotorua MP Todd McClay said an innocent life would be lost if the gang problem in the Bay of Plenty was not taken seriously.
Members of the community had told McClay about their concerns as they saw more patched members and gang colours in the CBD.
"They aren't feeling safe and secure any more," the MP said.
He said police needed more resources to keep up with the pace of the growing numbers.
"We're seeing firearms-related incidents in Tauranga, Te Puke and Hawke's Bay and it comes back to drugs. I'm really concerned we're going to see the same thing happen in Rotorua."
"I'd hate for an innocent person to be harmed because these idiot gang members are shooting at each other.
Rotorua area commander Inspector Phil Taikato said the gradual increase in gang numbers around the country was mimicked in a gradual rise in Rotorua.
"It is my belief this rise in the gang populations is providing them with street dealers and products ... synthetic cannabis, cannabis, methamphetamine."
He said New Zealand had a lucrative meth scene.
"Who are the best people to peddle this stuff on our streets? It's our gangs," he said.
Gang activity and violence in the city, like the numbers, were gradually increasing, but nothing compared with what was being seen in the Western Bay of Plenty, Taikato said.
Tauranga had seen an increase in deportees from Australia who were "bringing a different game to our shores".
"That game is at a higher level of violence," he said.
While that level of violence was not present in Rotorua, Taikato said there were still issues with gangs in the city and work needed to be done to reduce violence and conflict.
"It's there and it's a concern we have.
"We have to look at other areas and districts to see what's happening there and take the same precautions because nothing is saying it won't happen here."
He said local police had contingencies in place to manage if gang violence increased in the district.
Taikato would not comment on the plans because he wanted to ensure their tactics and operations were effective, and for the protection of the community and police officers.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said she was aware of the presence of gangs in the city.
She said the council would "continue to meet regularly with police to discuss and co-ordinate on all matters relating to safety in Rotorua and our collaborative inner-city safety".