The latest strategy for tackling our gang problem is just a start, but dealing with the festering wound of drug abuse and poverty is crucial.
When the police announced a new crackdown on gangs the other day, it was tempting to think pandemic management had given them a few new ideas.
Covid lockdowns showed that freedom of association could be decimated overnight. Police supervised people's social distancing, but had to make very few arrests, as the social stigma of breaking the rules was instant and powerful. The baddies, gangs included, appeared to stick to their bubbles, as evidenced by a drastic downturn in reports of burglaries, assaults and driving offences.
Officials have seriously considered selective district application of alert levels. So, what about a long-term Level 4 for gang members? It would be hard to hold your head up as a menacing Mongol or Comanchero if every time you nip to the dairy for smokes, officious bystanders are brandishing yardsticks at you to remind you about the one-metre rule.
And there's this wonderful new, human-rights-skirting tool: managed isolation. Strike Force Raptor wasn't a runner, but how about Strike Force Captor? "You have tested positive for gang membership, sir. You will be confined to the Mercure for quarantine until you return a negative test for several successive months."
Tune up the old ankle-bracelet system with a Covid-type track-and-trace phone app, and there's an end of it.
It was, therefore, a bit of a letdown that the core strategy announced so far is a crackdown on unlicensed weapons. Trotting into police stations to fill in forms and provide character witnesses for the registration of their arsenals isn't a practice known to be prevalent among our career crims, as evidenced by the official stats showing only 12 known gang members have gun licences.
Bless the Opposition, they made a hullabaloo about how even that many had got through the system.
But this slightly bizarre factoid just goes to show how complex a problem this is. The social-media era brought us the useful neologism "truthiness". We probably need to add "ganginess". Not all gang members are seriously gangy, hence some passing muster for a gun licence. There's a scale of ganginess from the benign to the malignant. And how many of us understand what exactly is meant by the commonly used term "gang affiliate"?
Australia, for the purposes of ridding itself of as many New Zealanders as possible, seems to think affiliate can mean having had an ex-brother-in-law who has been in a gang within the past hundred years.
And that, aside from the pesky tradition of freedom of association, is the police's other problem. It's all very well to get tough on crime and on the causes of crime, but when a contributing cause of our gang-crime escalation is Australia, there's an issue with "toughiness".
We can't crack down on Australia. The ugly truth is that its deportation policy, as with its immigrant-detention policy, is domestic political gold. The only reason Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears to be rethinking the deportation of alleged terrorist Suhayra Aden is that she has young children, whose welfare needs to be considered before they're separated from their entire wider family in Australia.
We're saddled with having our gang problem regularly topped up from next door, and with the grim knowledge that, despite political rhetoric, the gangs can't simply be broken up.
People often wonder why the police don't just raid gang premises and throw the book at them for a menu of obvious infractions: drug possession, unlicensed weapons, illegally modified vehicles, truanting children, lack of building consents for their fortifications, unregistered dogs, tax arrears, unpaid parking fines, failure to floss … whatever it takes. This is Australia's Raptor approach: to try to harass the gangs to a standstill.
It's a popular strategy because, if nothing else, it holds criminals to account not just for their criminality but also for their antisocial behaviour as citizens. Gangsters tend to get away with the petty infringements that law-abiding people get pinged for, and it's a grating injustice.
But as we know, this approach doesn't break up gangs or address what causes them. Gangs get the show right back on the stage inside prisons, and those left behind at gang HQ are unlikely to throw up their hands and embark on a life of honest toil, either. The problem is just reticulated through periods of custody and parole. Ganginess fulfils a social need for a lot of people who feel they have few options. It's also extremely lucrative, and doubtless also meets a psychological urge to discomfit the more advantaged in society.
None of this is a justification, but it is an explanation.
The Aussie "section 501" repatriations may have swelled their numbers, but the strongest bonding substance for gangs is still methamphetamine.
The police say this notoriously addictive substance is now easier to buy than milk, and though it would probably ruin a nice cup of tea, its manufacture and use might give tea a run for its money in terms of prevalence.
Although the police's announcement looked a bit sparse, there's apparently more to come. Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and Employment Minister Willie Jackson are developing more pathways from prison to employment, with work involving iwi, employers, local councils, and even Provincial Growth Fund projects.
It's work of the type that National's Simon Bridges, who favours the Raptor approach or at least catching gangs and criminals, would doubtless term "cuddling the crims". The Government will have to pitch such initiatives carefully to avoid fuelling its opponents' growing – though not yet authenticated – taunt that it's moving to "policing by consent".
Like a magic drop box, the latest child-poverty stats this week arrived just in time to invite the "wokester" critics to join the dots. Māori and Pacific Island children are drastically more deprived. They're also considerably more likely to respond to that deprivation by joining a gang.
That's the true size of the problem: solving child poverty at one end and developing "job pathways" that can somehow trump the cash allure of the meth trade at the other.
If what the police say about milk is true, let's hope we make progress before meth outstrips dairy as our biggest earner.