The Herald is looking at the state of crime in our country and the solutions available to address it in the latest instalment of our series The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better.
Today, Jaime Lyth looks at what police have achieved one year after announcing a nationwide “crackdown” on gangs, and the other potential solutions to prevent violence and crime.
In June last year, Operation Cobalt was launched following a spike in intimidating behaviour and violence by gangs, particularly the drive-by shootings between the Killer Beez and Tribesmen in Auckland in the first half of 2022.
The launch also followed increasing pressure on the Government to act on crime, with National and Act regularly accusing the Government of being “soft on crime”.
The nationwide crackdown - which included a specialist ring-fenced team of 40 staff in Auckland - was intended to finish in December but was extended into February 2023.
What have police achieved?
- 39,958 charges have been laid in relation to the operation since June 8
- 51,273 traffic infringement notices
- 405 firearms seized
- 1147 search warrants executed
- 729 warrantless searches executed
- Over 8300 people arrested
Officer in charge of Operation Cobalt Detective Superintendent Uraia Vakaruru said criminal activity by gangs requires accountability and consequences, but he also admits the police can’t fix gang crime alone.
“It’s a complex issue and requires a whole-of-government, not just a policing approach to managing the gang issue in our communities.
“We’re just providing one option, one tool for addressing unlawful gang activity, and there are a lot of other initiatives under way,” Vakaruru said.
Despite this acknowledgement, police and the justice system are the two major methods New Zealand currently use to respond to gang crime.
Almost 40,000 charges were laid by police in the first year of Operation Cobalt. The charges include patched gang members, gang prospects and gang associates, but Vakaruru said police did not have a breakdown of the numbers by these categories.
“I think the operation has progressed well.
“Anecdotally, the lack of any further conflict gang shootings in Tāmaki Makaurau is probably one sign of that.
“I think nationally, we have seen the drop in some of that [gang] activity in districts where they are really focused on the unlawful behaviour of gang members,” Vakaruru said.
On whether Operation Cobalt would have an impact on gang crime in the long term, he said police were working on preventative initiatives to assist partners and children of gang members alongside other agencies.
“Policing is very much reactive, and we’re having to respond to an issue in the community.”
Vakaruru said a wider community and Government response was needed to prevent younger people from joining and growing up in gangs in the first place.
“After over 30 years in the police, what I will say is that it’s a complex issue.
“I’d like to see a community where we can get around, we feel safe,” Vakaruru said.
The crime debate
Operation Cobalt comes amid a debate on the approach to policing, crime rates and public perception of safety.
An NZ Herald poll showed two-thirds of Kiwis are more concerned about being a victim of crime today than they were five years ago and harsher prison sentences and more police would make them feel safer.
Meanwhile, a Herald data analysis found that reported victims of crime had increased 11.9 per cent between 2017 and 2022, while the number of people convicted and offenders arrested had decreased by 26.2 per cent and 25.4 per cent respectively.
However, the numbers are complicated by a number of factors, including multiple different recording practices and historic under-reporting.
The debate over how to approach gangs has been around since the mid-1950s, when teenage gangs such as Currie’s Cowboys and the Saints became common in Auckland and Wellington, inspired by their United States counterparts.
Experts warn that public perceptions of crime are affected by increased media coverage. Crime has dominated the headlines this year regarding events such as the death of Ōpōtiki Mongrel Mob Barbarians president Steven Taiatini, whose tangi attracted a large police presence.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins recently attracted controversy after condemning gang members who had reportedly “shut down” Ōpōtiki and Whakatāne for the tangi.
Police descended on the funeral proceeding with new powers related to Operation Cobalt to seize firearms, ammunition and offensive weapons.
Te Pāti Māori co-leader and Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi hit back at the comments and said the Government needed to offer “as much support as they can” to local organisations and iwi to de-escalate tensions.
“Right now, [National leader] Christopher Luxon [and Prime Minister] Chris Hipkins need to shut their mouths and stop using our iwi as a political football to score points.
“When was the last time you were in Ōpōtiki? When was the last time you had a discussion with our whānau out there?”.
Just days after the Ōpōtiki tangi procession, National’s justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith announced a policy intended to give gang members tougher criminal sentences.
“Currently, a judge can only consider gang membership as an aggravating factor if the offence was gang-related.
“That means if a gang member engages in domestic violence or an unprovoked attack on a member of the public, the fact they are a gang member wouldn’t affect their sentence unless there was a connection between the gang and that offence.”
Goldsmith said the policy would help restore law and order to New Zealand by cracking down on gangs, but if the police leader of Operation Cobalt thinks there needs to be greater social intervention, why are crackdowns still being heralded as the solution?
What effect will Operation Cobalt have?
Will Operation Cobalt cracking down on gangs make New Zealand communities made any safer or have a long-term impact on decreasing gang tensions and membership numbers?
University of Canterbury sociologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert noted that while gangs get the headlines and political reaction, issues such as family harm are a more far-reaching problem that receives far less attention.
“Gang violence is more topical, but not remotely close to as deadly,” Gilbert wrote in a column for the Herald. On average, once every five weeks a child is killed in the home, Gilbert wrote.
Gilbert told the Herald that gangs are often linked to poverty and social inclusion: “Unless we get ahead of the curve, we’re always going to be behind the eight ball.”
“Cobalt will be effective in dealing with the acute issues of gangs, but in the longer term, it will require a different set of tools.”
Gang member prison rates were at a seven-year low in 2022, but the ratio of gang members to other prisoners was at 35 per cent, the highest it had been since the data began being recorded in 2010.
“Operations like Cobalt can’t and shouldn’t target all gangs, because it spreads itself far too thinly. What it needs to do is identify those really problematic groups and target them incredibly forcefully because that way you’re getting far greater community outcome.”
Drug busts and firearm confiscations are important, but they’re not long-term solutions, Gilbert said.
“It’s important we remove as many illegal firearms as we possibly can. But again, some of the more effective measures ... like [the] firearms registry, for example, get political pushback.
“We like these short-term initiatives. The longer-term ones are often more controversial, which is crazy, because it’s only a longer-term one that will have a greater effect.”
Vakaruru said drugs can devastate communities, while organised criminal groups profit from illegal trade, so disrupting the operations and drug supply will prevent harm.
“People that continue to manufacture [and] supply [drugs impart] misery on communities with drugs or individuals. You know, [they’ll] tend to get to some quite extreme methods to look after the business, right, and so it’ll naturally involve firearms and all the harm that comes with it,” Vakaruru said.
“I think that’s just the work that we’re doing to prevent that kind of continual harm in the community.”
But evidence also shows drug supply disruptions can lead to more potent and harmful drugs becoming available, as seen in America’s opioid epidemic, where those addicted to heroin replaced it with the much stronger and dangerous fentanyl once it became scarce.
“Drugs are the perfect example because if you bust even significant dealers, the demand for the drug remains the same,” Gilbert said.
“When it comes to gangs, we are incredibly quick to say this is a police problem now, and a significant part is a police problem, particularly in the short term, but for the longer term, it’s far wider than a police problem. We’re not very good at acknowledging that.
“It’s a dynamic environment and it’s kind of like Whac-a-Mole... something else will pop up somewhere else.”
Manaaki Moves Trust project manager Tuta Ngarimu said gang issues are too often used as a political tool, and over the years in his community, he hasn’t seen any meaningful change resulting from “crackdown” policies.
“I believe there’s a huge imbalance in the way New Zealand looks at crime, specifically around drugs... everything seems to be politically driven.”
Ngarimu led a hui with iwi, police and social services in October to try to stop a spate of gang warfare and surge of violence in his community.
“We’ve been involved with this for years now. We’ve seen elections come and go, and we’ve seen all the hype around closing down gangs, taking away patches... none of it ever works, it just seems to be the narrative that they drive every three years.
“It’s just a fantasy.”
Ngarimu is a community worker, housing advocate and a lifetime member of the Mongrel Mob in Tairāwhiti.
“These are whānau that are going now into the fourth generation, they didn’t just join last year.
“All these kids that are coming through now don’t know nothing else [sic].”
Ngarimu said there needs to be more support for communities like Gisborne so social services can work better together to try to stop desperation leading to crime.
“Let’s target our kids before they actually put the pipe in their mouths. But everyone’s focused on the end result.”
Auckland-based community advocate Dave Letele said to truly address crime, New Zealand needed to focus on big social issues, such as housing, income equity and education, as well as the intergenerational effects of colonialism – and the loss of assets – on Māori.
“Prison and tough punishment are simply and demonstrably not solutions. Prison is the biggest gang recruitment facility in the world.”
A report released in June examined the context within which gangs exist in New Zealand and concluded there is no quick way of reducing gang harm.
But the report does warn that “New Zealand cannot arrest its way out of the gang problem.” Enforcement serves a purpose, but is not the only solution.
Reducing harm, the report said, would require tackling the underlying and unsolved societal issues, including inequity, intergenerational trauma, housing and family violence.
Jaime Lyth is an Auckland-based reporter who covers crime. She joined the Herald in 2021 and has previously reported for The Northern Advocate.