Story: Gangs

Page 5. Gangs and society

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Approaches to gangs

There are three main strategies to deal with gangs: prevention, intervention and suppression. Prevention focuses on discouraging youths from joining gangs through effective parenting, early childhood education, school activity and after-school programmes. Intervention uses education, work opportunities, counselling and health services to move existing or fringe gang members away from crime. Suppression involves policing and legislation. Suppression has been the most common international approach used since the 1980s. Gang problems have increasingly become treated as law-enforcement problems rather than as issues for social agencies or communities.

Historically, New Zealand has tried all three strategies. In general, strategies have been reactive to immediate issues (like an incident of serious gang-related violence) rather than long-term responses addressing the causes of gang formation. The bulk of research suggests that an approach using multiple strategies simultaneously is the most effective.


In 1954 a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents (the Mazengarb Committee) was set up by the government. When the committee reported in September of that year, a copy of the report was distributed free to every New Zealand household. The committee recommended such measures as greater censorship, and not letting youths have access to contraceptives, to try and stop what it saw as a decline in moral values. This report and others that followed in 1955, 1964 and 1981 had no observable impact on the youth delinquency problem, and gang involvement continued to increase.


In the 1970s government schemes tried to reduce youth gang recruitment by helping underachieving students make the move from school to employment, and by providing recreational and sporting activities outside of school. In the mid-1970s work cooperatives for adult gang members were set up. A 1981 report recommended subsidised work should be made available to gang members. The government acted on this, and throughout the mid-1980s millions of dollars were given out to various gang collectives for work-related activities. Although most funds went into genuine projects, in some cases government revenue was used to support extravagant clubhouse renovations and opulent lifestyles. This resulted in a cancellation of the schemes in 1987.

Muldoon and the gangs

Robert Muldoon, prime minister from 1975 to 1984, had an unusual relationship with the gangs. He believed in engaging with gangs through government-subsidised work schemes to keep people from a life of crime. Whether the schemes effectively reduced gang offending and anti-social behaviour is unknown, but the profits gleaned from them certainly enriched and strengthened certain gangs, and made them more attractive to young prospects. Negative publicity resulted in a sudden decision to close the schemes to gangs in January 1987. At Muldoon’s funeral in 1992 a group of Black Power members performed a haka in his honour.

An intervention approach was used in South Auckland in 2006 to combat youth gangs. In Counties Manukau the government funded youth workers, services for high-risk young people and families, and parenting information and support programmes reconnecting youths with their culture. From 2008 this approach was used in other parts of New Zealand.


In the run-up to the 1972 election Labour leader Norman Kirk promised that if elected he would ‘take the bikes off the bikies’ (which proved legally impossible to implement). In 1973 legislation aimed at gangs was introduced prohibiting unlawful assembly. Further legislation in 1976 allowed for the confiscation of vehicles used in offences.

On New Year’s Eve 1973, in an attempt to crush the gang through intimidation, 25 carloads of police descended on a party being held by the Epitaph Riders in Christchurch, resulting in the arrests of 81 people. In 1974 a specialist police unit called the Task Force was established in Auckland to deal with public drunkenness and violence. Although not specifically an anti-gang measure, the Task Force was used to combat what was seen as a rising problem of hooliganism on Auckland’s streets.

In 1997 the Harassment and Criminal Associations Act was passed giving police greater powers. In the 1990s the Local Government Act was used to tear down gang fortifications. Other legislation such as the Proceeds of Crime Amendment Act 2002 and tax laws have been used to deprive criminals of illegally gained wealth. An amendment to the Evidence Act in 1997 empowered judges to allow witnesses to give evidence anonymously if they feared intimidation or attack. In 2008 the Organised and Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand – a special unit within the police – was set up to disrupt and dismantle organised crime. In 2009 passage of the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act gave police greater powers to seize the proceeds of crime and to use them to fund further policing efforts.

In 2009 Wanganui District Council passed a controversial bylaw banning gang patches in the city (subsequently overthrown), and several other cities considered following suit.

How to cite this page:

Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui, 'Gangs - Gangs and society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 January 2020)

Story by Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 2 Oct 2018 with assistance from Jarrod Gilbert