Gangs are considered by many people to be a scourge on our community. But despite their feared reputation and connection with violence, drugs and other serious crime the number of people joining gangs in the Bay of Plenty has risen by a third in two years. Reporter Katee Shanks looks at what's behind the increase as local leading politicians and a senior police officer speak out.
One in five of the country's patched gang members live in the Bay of Plenty - and a 30 per cent rise in numbers has been attributed to the amount of drugs available in the region.
Figures released by Police Minister Stuart Nash through written parliamentary questions showed a jump from 1058 Bay of Plenty gang members in 2017, to 1380 to the end of August this year.
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National leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said the Bay of Plenty was a breeding ground for gangs.
"When New Zealand's biggest port is in Tauranga and our regional deprivation is high, you get a combination ripe for gangs to breed," Bridges said.
"Drugs symbolise instant wealth for a lot of people and, with no criticism of the port, we have a point of entry into the country on our doorstep. Drugs make gang involvement alluring to people within low socio-economic communities."
Bridges said there was no getting away from the fact gangs pedalled misery.
"Gangs are about big money and about violence. They are getting meaner and harder as the stakes get higher and our communities are suffering.
"Higher stakes have also seen more gangs in the region and breakaway chapters of existing gangs as members try to make money from methamphetamine. This has increased turf wars and gang infighting."
Bridges said National was working on a policy that would give police the powers they needed to crack down on gangs.
"One of those tools would be a firearm prohibition for gang members. Police would be able to enter premises of known gang members and take firearms."
The policy would require gang members to prove they don't have illegal income before they receive the benefit.
"You need to be prepared to do these things to stop the vicious cycle of offending."
Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey said the rise in gangs had not happened overnight.
"The explosion in the methamphetamine trade over the past decade is driving gang recruitment in our community, and destroying our families," Coffey said.
"While the previous government froze spending on new police and focused on plans for American-style mega-prisons, which would just turn low-level criminals into better criminals, this Government is working across a number of fronts to target the harm caused by organised crime and gangs behind the methamphetamine trade in the Bay of Plenty."
Coffey said the Government's increased investment in police and Customs services had led to this being the biggest year ever for meth seizures – more than 1.5 tonnes.
"As part of our commitment to 1800 extra police, 138 new constables have been deployed to the Bay of Plenty.
"We are also boosting mental health and addiction services, partnering with mana whenua, engaging with gangs, and using kaupapa Māori in our Corrections system to break the cycle of reoffending.
"Māori are disproportionately represented in our prisons, making up about 70 per cent of prisoners with a recorded gang affiliation."
Rotorua MP Todd McClay said there was a direct correlation between the increase in gang numbers and the increase in the amount of methamphetamine within the Bay of Plenty region.
"Gangs and meth go hand in hand. They [gangs] prey on the vulnerable and create misery," McClay said. "And the communities are left to mop up the mess."
McClay said the significant amount of money being made through organised crime was an attractive recruiting tool for new "foot soldiers" to join the gangs.
"Let's face it, all gangs are involved in the manufacture and/or distribution of drugs, even if they say they are not.
"It's time for the Government to stop making excuses and back local police. I know they want to sort these criminals out."
Inspector Steve Bullock, Bay of Plenty police district prevention manager, said the low socio-economic makeup of the Bay of Plenty was a predisposition for people to join gangs.
"I believe some of the increases in the region can be attributed to a growth of numbers in international gangs now in the Bay," Bullock said. "Gangs like the Rebels and the Comancheros which have grown since Australia started exporting Kiwi offenders.
"The growth in these gangs have prompted local gangs to up their numbers."
He said another aspect of growth was a push from gangs to legitimise themselves and their purpose. "They're promoting themselves as being there for family - we don't buy into that," Bullock said.
"It's a marketing campaign of propaganda while violence on family and community continues."
He said crime in the Bay of Plenty was up and was directly related to methamphetamine.
"We [police] look at the Australian jurisdiction and the powers they have to deal with gangs and know we do not have the same powers. While it's not up to us to make laws, any legislation that would support us would be welcome."