Approaches to gangs
There are three main strategies for dealing 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 since the 1980s. Gang problems have increasingly been treated as law-enforcement problems rather than as issues for social agencies or communities.
Historically, New Zealand has tried all three strategies, generally in reaction to immediate issues (such as an incident of serious gang-related violence) rather than as long-term responses addressing the causes of gang formation. 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. The committee’s September report was distributed free to every New Zealand household. The committee recommended measures such as greater censorship, and denying youths access to contraceptives, to curb what it saw as a decline in moral values. This report, and others in 1955, 1964 and 1981, had no observable impact on youth delinquency, and gang involvement continued to increase.
In the 1970s, government schemes tried to hinder gang recruitment by helping underachieving students 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 making subsidised work available to gang members. The government acted on this recommendation, and in the mid-1980s millions of dollars was given to gang collectives for work-related activities. Although most funds went to genuine projects, in some cases they supported extravagant clubhouse renovations and opulent lifestyles. This abuse of the schemes resulted in their cancellation 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 reduced gang offending and anti-social behaviour is unknown, but the profits gleaned from them certainly enriched and strengthened certain gangs, making 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, Black Power members performed a haka in his honour.
An interventionist 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 aimed at reconnecting youths with their culture. From 2008 this approach was used in other parts of New Zealand.
During the 1972 election campaign, Labour leader Norman Kirk promised that if Labour won he would ‘take the bikes off the bikies’ (a promise which proved legally impossible to implement). In 1973 legislation aimed at gangs prohibited unlawful assembly. Further legislation in 1976 enabled the confiscation of vehicles used to commit offences.
On New Year’s Eve 1973, in an attempt to crush the gang, 25 carloads of police descended on an Epitaph Riders party in Christchurch, arresting 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 rising hooliganism on Auckland’s streets.
In 1997 the Harassment and Criminal Associations Act gave 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 specialist unit within the police – was set up to disrupt and dismantle organised crime. The Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 gave police greater powers to seize the proceeds of crime and use them to fund policing.
In 2009 Wanganui District Council passed a controversial bylaw banning gang patches in the city. Several other cities considered following suit, but in 2011 a High Court judge found the bylaw to be unlawful on human rights grounds. In 2013 gang regalia was banned from public premises such as schools, swimming pools and government buildings.
In 2020 the police estimated that New Zealand had more than 7000 patched gang memberrs