Prisoners, gangs and dinosaurs
The National Party's proposal to create a new armed police unit focussing on gangs, based on Australia's Strike Force Raptor teams, is hollow and redundant.
The politicisation of crime in the lead-up to an election is nothing new. The tripartite of economy, education and health often dominate election discourse, however, social welfare and crime are also regular fodder for politicians and wannabes as they jostle for attention and votes.
The prospects for mature policy debate on crime and punishment appeared to be on shaky ground from mid-October, when the New Zealand Police Association began sabre-rattling on gangs and drugs at their annual conference. It felt, call me cynical, like we were being softened up for something.
Fast forward one day and Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced at a slick press conference that NZ Police would be trialling permanently armed police units, euphemistically named ARTs (Armed Response Teams), that would cruise communities in tinted-out SUVs looking for work. While these units represent a fundamental change in the way our communities are policed, the National Party was curiously muted in the weeks following the announcement, doubtless a sign that they liked the idea of more cops with guns on our streets. Also doubtless, if they wanted to maintain their title as the Toughest on Crime in Parliament, they would need to announce something bigger and tougher.
We didn’t have to wait long. This week, the party’s leader Simon Bridges, a former Crown prosecutor, and justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell, a former NZ Police dog handler and a former private security contractor in Iraq, came out hard, launching National’s law and order discussion document ‒ a tough gig when crime rates are at their lowest in 40 years. They lent heavily on an apparent 26 percent rise in gang member numbers (now at 1400 since October 2017), and not much else, when they said National wanted Police to harass gangs and eliminate them from society ‒ pretty grandiose stuff.
National’s discussion document describes a variety of proposals, ranging from potentially interesting policies, to ideas best described as bizarre, like tying parole to passing NCEA. One of the key headline-grabbing tools cited in their quest to rid Aotearoa of gangs was the introduction of yet another policing unit, modelled on the asinine named Strike Force Raptor squads operating in New South Wales. Like NSW Raptors, the kiwi Raptor would focus exclusively on gang members and associates and would target, harass and arrest gangs into oblivion. Oh, also, they too would be armed.
Bridges described NSW Raptors as “devastatingly effective” in the fight against gangs, and suggested they had gone a long way towards dismantling gangs in NSW. That sure sounded promising, alas it was not remotely true. Experts in Australia say that in the 10 years since these modern NSW Raptors were born, there was no reduction in gang numbers, organised crime activity or drug dealing.
Despite this, it is worth considering what a Raptor-type unit could bring to New Zealand. Most obviously, they would increase the number of armed units regularly dealing with gangs, by one. Pre-existing armed units in New Zealand that deal with gangs on a regular basis include the Special Tactics Group, Armed Offenders Squad (both on an on-call basis), Crime Squads and the newly minted ARTs.
But it’s not all about cops with guns. The Raptors wouldn’t just be an armed team kicking in gang doors, they would have investigative functions too. Presumably the investigative Raptors would be in addition to the multitude of teams already working on gangs in this country which includes the umbrella National Organised Crime Group and its Motorcycle Gang Unit, Financial Intelligence Unit, regional Organised Crime Units, Drugs Squads, Asset Recovery Units, ARTs and others ‒ it’s quite a list. One could be forgiven for thinking that NZ Police already focus quite heavily on gangs.
There’s nothing in National’s discussion paper that suggests Raptor-style policing would make much difference to the organised crime landscape, besides more guns and an unhealthy dose of masculine aggression, an escalation sure to be matched by gangs. For the most part, New Zealand has the legislative tools and personnel necessary to target high-end organised crime, which sometimes presents in the form of gangs.
Criminal offending is an artefact of complex societal factors including socio-economic deprivation, social marginalisation and childhood trauma (sometimes inflicted by the state). If we are serious about restricting and managing organised crime in this country, our solutions need to address those issues, be evidence-based and enduring. A pumped up version of what we already have is unlikely to yield the results being promised ‒ it would be little more than a politically driven rebranding exercise. In the criminal underworld, aggression and violence are primary currencies, responding in kind with unproven tough-on-crime initiatives, like kiwi Raptors, is unlikely to be a recipe for a better, less violent society.
Tim McKinnel is an investigator and former policeman who led the effort to overturn Teina Pora's convictions.