25 Feb 2024

Turning officers into 'wardrobe police' not the way to tackle gang crime, Labour says

4:21 pm on 25 February 2024
Items of clothing emblazoned with the Killer Beez gang logo.

Clothing seized by police emblazoned with the Killer Beez insignia. Photo: NZ Police

The government's move to outlaw gang patches in public places will only put more pressure on stretched frontline police officers, Labour says.

Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith and Police Minister Mark Mitchell announced the policy - part of the coalition agreement between National and ACT - on Sunday in Auckland.

It was first signalled last year during National's election campaigning.

The legislation, which Goldsmith said would be introduced to Parliament in the next few days, would see those wearing patches in public issued a fine or even prison time.

Police would also be given extra powers to stop gang members congregating.

"The law will also be changed to give greater weight to gang membership as an aggravating factor at sentencing, enabling courts to impose more severe punishments," Goldsmith said.

But Labour police spokesperson Ginny Andersen said simply eliminating patches would not address Aotearoa's underlying gang issues.

"New Zealanders are concerned about the high level of gang activity that we have, but I'm just not sure that taking jackets off them and giving tickets is the way to do it.

"I'm also really concerned that the cuts to the police budget will prevent this type of policy from actually being operationalised."

Andersen said frontline police were already stretched, and turning them into the "wardrobe police" would not help matters.

Mongrel Mob member

Gang insignia is already banned on premises operated by the government, like schools and hospitals. Photo: RNZ

The best way to tackle organised crime was to hit gang members in the pocket, she said.

"We need to be going for their money and their assets to cripple organised criminal organisations, not just taking their jackets off them."

Labour justice spokesperson Duncan Webb said the policy "adds little, if anything" to existing powers.

Gang insignia was already banned in or on premises operated by central and local government, including schools, hospitals and swimming pools.

Under the Crimes Act, gang members can also be sentenced up to 10 years in prison for participating in an "organised criminal group".

Webb said asking the police to spend their time chasing people down for wearing gang jackets or bandanas, rather than tackling criminal behaviour, was "not the best way" to stop gang intimidation.

Goldsmith said at the Sunday announcement it was ultimately up to police to decide where to direct their frontline resources.

"What this is simply doing is giving them extra tools to be able to use to deal with gang influence in our society."

Mitchell said frontline officers would have more time for "core policing" through a proposed shake-up in the way police dealt with mental health and family harm callouts, signalled earlier this month.

"People think that we should wave the white flag and say there's part of our society that is above the law and that can break the law. We're saying that's not the case," he said.

"The police have got the capability, and I've got confidence in them that they'll work out how to actually apply a law that we feel very strongly is important for us as a country, to put a line in the sand and say that we're no longer going to tolerate these gang members thinking that they run the place."

Labour MP Ginny Andersen

Labour's Ginny Andersen says turning officers into the "wardrobe police" won't solve the problem of gang activity. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

ACT justice spokesperson Todd Stephenson welcomed the announcement, saying it was "time for gangs to see consequences for their actions".

ACT campaigned on police and judges being able to issue gang members with dispersal notices and non-consorting orders, he said.

"Imposing tougher sentences on gang members by making their membership an aggravating factor is an ACT policy that will mean less people see their only prospect as becoming a gang prospect."

'Doesn't seem fair, practical'

Eugene Ryder at the Powhiri for Te Matatini at Waitangi Park.

Social worker and reformed gang member Eugene Ryder says the new laws will do nothing to change behaviour. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Eugene Ryder, who was once a patched Black Power member, said the law would just drive gang activity "underground and behind closed doors".

"In terms of banning patches, people are going to be judged by what they wear not their behaviours, I understand this is based on criminality but making it a crime for a person's choice of what they wear doesn't seem practical either."

Instead, he said, helping gang members' children see they can have a future outside of joining a gang was a better way to curb membership.

Ryder said Māori would be disproportionately affected given they made up about 80 percent of the country's two biggest gangs.

Everyone should be treated the same in the eyes of the law, he said.

"It seems interesting that there are only around 8000 people on the national gang list that these laws have been created for - 8000 people among 5 million."

The legislation will also give police powers to break up gang gatherings and allow the courts to stop gang members from associating.

"That's potentially a human rights issue, especially if it comes to family members that live in the same house that aren't allowed to communicate with each other; doesn't seem fair, doesn't seem practical."

A spokesperson for the Police Association said it did not want to comment on the legislation until it was introduced to Parliament.

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