6 May 2020

Gang numbers on the rise, but a slight drop in gang crime comes with a warning

8:40 am on 6 May 2020

In the past two and a half years, the number of gang members in New Zealand has risen by a third, while gang crime has dropped by seven percent.

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Crimes committed by gang members may have dropped off, but that's mainly due to a drop in dishonesty-based offending. Photo: 123RF

It comes as the government has funded an increase of more than 1000 extra police officers, with the promise of 700 extra officers to fight organised crime and gangs.

The police national manager for organised crime, Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, said the gang landscape was complex.

Crimes committed by gang members may have dropped off, but that was mainly due to a drop in dishonesty-based offending, he said.

The police's national manager of organised crime, Greg Williams

The police's national manager of organised crime, Greg Williams Photo: RNZ/Carla Penman

Serious offending, like violence, drugs or firearms offences was all on the rise.

"Criminal groups diversify their offending, so it's not all related to just drug dealing," Williams said.

"They're involved in fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, receiving stolen property, and a lot of the drug dealing houses still, when we execute warrants, we're finding stolen property.

"It's a commodity being used by users to pay for their drugs and the like, so some of that dishonesty based offending can include receiving."

Williams said the increased professionalism of gangs was no secret, and made tracking them tougher.

The drop in overall offending could also relate to the increased use of pre-charge warnings.

Criticism of government approach

National Party police spokesperson Brett Hudson said it still did not make sense for crime numbers to be dropping among gang members.

"Well, I don't want to sound to flippant, but it could be due to the fact that gang member numbers are rising faster than the number of frontline police officers," he said.

"It really confounds any sort of logical reasoning of what's been happening."

Hudson said the government's goal to reduce the prison population could also be playing a part.

"One of the few targets they actually committed to was reducing prison numbers by 30 percent.

"Now there are two ways you can go about that, in effect. You either let people out, or you don't put people in.

"I don't think New Zealanders would believe that all of a sudden fewer crimes were being committed. But it certainly could be the case that people that are committing crimes are no longer necessarily being charged with offences that might lead to incarceration."

No response from police minister

RNZ approached Police Minister Stuart Nash for comment on the numbers.

He declined, saying the police made decisions about enforcement and prosecution independently of the minister.

Hudson criticised Nash, saying he should be fronting on the issue of gangs and that he was answerable to the House on policing matters.

Nash has led the push to increase the number of police officers, saying he would strive to boost overall policing numbers by 1800 in the government's first term.

Of those, 700 were destined to fight organised crime and gangs.

That target will not be met on time, but by adding more than 1000 new officers to date, the police have seen their largest ever growth in constabulary.

Williams said those staff were still filtering into the organised crime group.

"To date the resource that's come to police primarily has been focused at the front line and the build up of the back end support that we need before the front line organised crime investigators arrive.

"That's been occurring, and in the next couple of years you'll see a significant increase across all districts."

Williams said the majority of policing was still reactive, but when the organised crime group had the full additional 700 officers, more focus could be put into preventing crime and the harm caused by gangs.