Bringing gangs in from the cold

By Raniera Harrison

Official figures released in June show that gangs have recently had a resurgence in membership, forcing the government to add 700 more officers to the Organised Crime Squad. 

Now, the country's leading academic says gangs could play a vital role in creating positive change.

The country's leading academic on gang culture says New Zealand's approach is outdated and a collaborative approach should be considered.

"What we do see in the system is there's a distrust of working with elder Māori gang leaders which needs to be broken down because if we don't work with them we're not going to get anywhere at all," says University of Canterbury sociologist and author of 'Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand', Dr. Jarrod Gilbert.

Gilbert says gangs may have a lot to offer.

"It's undeniable that gangs are maturing and changing...if we don't recognise it and try to work with the gangs, like taking some of the community harms away, community violence, issues around methamphetamine, then I think we're missing a 'trick' for sure." 

There were 5,785 identified members and prospects of gangs in New Zealand as of April- an increase of nearly 1,500 from 2016- with much of the growth coming from the East Coast and Hawke's Bay regions.

"Gangs still create huge community concerns...huge community problems.  Let's not put on rose-tinted glasses here but there are certain leaders within certain chapters, within certain gangs who are behaving in ways that we are wanting to encourage and in that sense, are more part of the solution and less part of the problem."

Gilbert says that New Zealand is stuck in an outdated ideology of making more excuses about why not to work in collaboration with gangs to effect social change.

"The most obvious thing about the gangs is in the 70s and in the 80s, what it was was a young mans game.  If you were 30 in the gangs in the 1980s, you would have been seen as an old man. 

"Nowadays, the gangs have matured and so what we're seeing is men in their 50s and 60s don't behave in the ways young men do and so they're moving into more responsible roles."

Gilbert says that there is evidence that suggests gangs are willing to change if provided with the correct mechanisms..