Gang membership in New Zealand has hit its highest level ever recorded, with more than 8300 members across the country.
According to the multi-agency national gang list, which is maintained by the Gang Harm Insights Centre (GHIC), members grew by 338 between August 31 and October 31 - a rise of nearly six new gang members per day.
Citing the data, the National Party’s police spokesman Mark Mitchell said there has been a 56 per cent increase in membership since 2017.
The gang list total is now at 8357.
Mitchell blamed what he described as the Government’s “soft on crime” approach to policing, which he claims has “failed to keep gangs under control, and tougher measures are needed to get on top of the problem.”
But Police Minister Chris Hipkins said the numbers were “misleading”.
He said the national gang list was “never intended to be a definitive measure of the number of the people involved in gangs in New Zealand”.
Earlier this year, the Government introduced the Criminal Activity Intervention Legislation Bill, which includes a new warrant power to search for and seize weapons during a gang conflict.
Places and vehicles able to be searched included those that the judge had “reasonable grounds to suspect are owned, occupied, or used by 1 or more gang members of a gang specified in the warrant”.
In July when the reform was announced, at least 23 houses had been targeted in drive-by shootings in the space of a fortnight. Police Minister Chris Hipkins at the time conceded that gang tensions had deteriorated in the past 18 months and the Government needed to do more to curb the violence.
The new legislation, however, faced opposition from the Privacy Commission earlier this month.
Hipkins said the gang list is a “police intelligence tool” that records who may be associated with gangs, not who may or not may be a member.
It was only started shortly after Labour came into government and there was little to no data on registered gang members before 2017. Hipkins said.
“It should be noted that the indicators that would lead to someone being added to the list, such as being observed wearing a gang patch, are much more visible and reliable than the indicators that might lead to them being removed from the list, such as good intelligence suggesting they have been de-patched,” Hipkins said.
“The names of people who simply drift away from gang involvement are much less likely to be removed from the list due to the challenges of corroborating their exit.”
However, Hipkins did not question that there had been a major increase in gang activity in recent times.
Last month, Hipkins told the AM show: “Something like the gang register, for example, you will see that the police will be picking up more of the prospects, more of the gang associates and they will be added to the register because of more active policing.
“That’s not the reason that the list is growing, though. It’s a contributing factor - we’re picking more people up - but, actually, there’s no question that the overall number is growing as well.”
Act Leader David Seymour agreed with Mitchell and said the Government is to blame for the increase in gang activity.
He also said the admission from Hipkins that the national gang list doesn’t accurately represent the country’s gang members is an insult to his own party.
“They are starting to disown their own activities, it’s our job to attack the government, not the government’s job to attack its own national gang list,” Seymour said.
Today, Mitchell said there were four “tools” National would implement to assist with supporting police in tackling gang influence and offending.
These include; banning gang patches, allowing police to issue dispersal notices where gang members come together in public to intimidate, and giving police non-association powers to prevent gang members from communicating and planning criminal activity.
Hipkins fired back and said if National were to ban gang patches, Mitchell would “use that to claim gang numbers are going down.”
National also wants to give police “warrantless search powers” to “take the guns out of the hands of violent armed gang members”.
The GHIC is a multi-agency unit supporting the Government’s strategic response to the harm caused by organised crime in New Zealand communities.