27 May 2024

New name, old gangs, same policing

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 27 May 2024

The latest gang-fighting tools to be introduced by police are part of a long line in a combat that's constantly evolving.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon shakes hands with a gang member employed on a work scheme, Bairds Road, Otara, November 2 1979.

With international organised crime groups reaching into New Zealand police and customs and law enforcement have had to lift their game with cops going back to their old methods of catching criminals. Photo: Stuff

Police are returning to crime-fighting ways of old in their fight against gangs, as technology becomes harder to hack, experts in New Zealand's criminal underworld say.

In light of the recent police announcement on national and local gang units, today's episode of The Detail looks at how police and governments have fought back against gangs over the decades. 

New Zealand Herald investigative reporter Jared Savage has been focusing mostly on gang-related crime and justice stories for the last half-decade. He's also written a couple of books - Gangland and Gangster's Paradise.

Jared Savage, author of Gangster's Paradise

Photo: supplied

He says the introduction of methamphetamine in the late 1990s and early 2000s "supercharged the criminal underworld in which gangs belonged to".

"Then around 2015 we started seeing a bit of a sea change. It wasn't just local gang members and local organised crime figures working together locally to import drugs into the country, we actually started seeing [international] organised crime groups reaching into New Zealand.

"The police and customs and law enforcement have had to lift their game." 

Savage says this means cops have had to go back to their old methods of catching criminals - before cellphones were even a thing. 

"Fifteen-twenty years ago, everyone was carrying Nokia handheld cellphones around and criminals were too. They were communicating via text messaging and phone calls. The police were able to intercept these text messages and phone calls...and present that in evidence.

"The introduction of smart phone technology and apps on people's phones - different ways of communicating - mean most people don't send text messages anymore, they use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp and many other apps that are out there - which are encrypted end-to-end, so the police can't intercept those like they used to.

"That's made it a lot harder to investigate these different groups.... so the police sort of changed their methods and it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between the criminal world and the covert investigation world."

Lance Burdett

Lance Burdett Photo: Babiche Martens

Police have upped their physical surveillance and put listening devices in homes and cars, Savage says.

Beyond that, public policing operations have helped police get some "good results".

"They launched Operation Tauwhiro, which was designed to essentially be focused on seizing and collecting as many illegal firearms as possible. That led on to Operation Cobalt which was sort of a precursor to this National Gang Unit that we've seen here - the police districts were tasked with creating teams to focus on gang members."

Former senior cop Lance Burdett, now a trainer in crisis intervention and personal stress, spent much of his policing career dealing with gangs.

He tells The Detail the new gang unit is really just "policing in general" with a "different name".

"Unless they're ringfenced and unless you've got a particular group that aren't allowed to be touched... the ringfencing doesn't last for long. There's always something that comes with a higher priority.

"If you're going to target gangs, it's ongoing. It needs to be a continual thing, intergenerations." 

He talks about an approach from his early days of policing in West Auckland, which he calls an "ideal model".
"There was a detective there who was very good at liaising with gangs. They used to have what was called a 'gang liaison officer' who would actually meet with the gangs on a regular basis to befriend them a bit, but more around intelligence gathering...very helpful when things got a little bit sketchy."

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