Why stripping gang assets might not work: Black Power life member’s plan to fix gun crime ‘contagion’

Some of the lessons learned from New Zealand’s Covid-19 response should be put into practice as the country deals with the drivers and other factors of gangs growth and crime, according to Hawke’s Bay gangs behaviour authority Denis O’Reilly.

Calling for research of a kind not undertaken in more than three decades, his hopes are finding some support, including that of Napier MP and former Minister of Police Stuart Nash who agrees sending gang members to prison hasn’t worked and says at more than $100,000 per year for each inmate it’s costing the taxpayer way too much.

O’Reilly, referred to publicly as a Black Power life member but who also carries such credits as being a graduate in social policy, a scholar at Oxford, a former manager for the Department of Internal Affairs, and an employment schemes consultant, agrees with Nash that it doesn’t mean stopping policing gangs.

Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise also has an eye on the long-game, saying gang crime requires a combination of enforcement to address illegal behaviour and investment in programmes to achieve better social outcomes.

The two politicians were responding to comments in a statement to Hawke’s Bay Today following Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi’s references to asset stripping as a means to hitting at gangs – including assets said to be being used to lure new young members.

Gang members could have to prove they can legally afford assets in proposals being considered alongside other measures such as the Firearms Prohibition Orders being introduced specifically for people convicted of serious firearms or violent offences, organised crime or terrorism, despite such bans already being possible within the law.

O’Reilly says “a lot of work” is done “behind the scenes” among gang leadership, including recent agreements in-effect to invoke the Otatara Accord, an agreement made at a retreat of Mongrel Mob and Black Power leaders at Waiohiki 10 years ago, in an attempt to avoid conflicts among gang memberships.

He says the approaches being considered now ignore the reality of steps which should be taken, in such issues as housing and employment for those considered by the minister as “high-risk”.

“Anything that decreases the threat or actuality of gun crime should be supported,” he wrote. adding later: “Let the police do their job, but we have to treat this like Covid: Track and trace and find out what is behind this. Every instance should have two inquiries – the criminal inquiry, and the social inquiry.

“This envisaged policy, as expressed, is so confused as to be combustible and likely to produce difficult-to-neutralise unintended consequences,” he says.

“Gun crime should be treated as a contagion,” he says. “The Government has been exemplary in dealing with Covid. Evidence-based and science-driven. Do the same thing here.”

He says no comprehensive review has been undertaken since the 1987 Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence headed by retired judge Sir Clinton Roper.

“In my view, the current gang-directed effort of Government towards the unavoidable reality that we really have a significant and complex problem should be directed towards two outcomes,” he says – identifying jobs and homes issues.

Engagement with those on the social edge in mobilisation of a labour market force for the seasonal industries is required, he says, adding: “We can’t rely forever on the false economy of migrant workers.”

“Engage those on the social edge in building or reconstructing buildings for social housing purposes,” he says.

“Get gang members out of motels and emergency housing.”

“It is counter-productive to conflate gun policy, organised crime, and gangs,” he says.

“In New Zealand, ‘gangs’ whakapapa to colonialism, abuse in State Care, and the policies of the 4th Labour Government. This is a socio-economic issue, not a criminological feature. Māori aren’t a criminogenic factor.”

He says blaming “the 501s” – people deported to New Zealand from Australia – is wrong, because the issues facing New Zealand “predicated that policy”.

He says the first Māori to speak in the Parliament, Tareha Te Moananui, said that the power of good is stronger than the power of evil.

“He said focus on good and when evil arises let all parties look at it and figure a solution,” O’Reilly says in his plea to those in Parliament.

“Zip it on policy until we draw on existing knowledge and institutional memory,” he says.

“Clearly describe, and then define, the core problem. That’s when we can figure out a sustainable way forward. At a gut level I don’t think it will involve seizure of shoes through proceeds of crime.”

An architect of group work schemes in the 1980s, and 1990s issues of filling jobs in seasonal work, O’Reilly said: “I think we are going to end up with a model like shearing gangs were, where communities and families responded to a family’s needs.

MP Nash said he agrees “we should be talking with the people on the edge”, and tackling the housing and socials contributing to gang growth.

He said using motels for accommodation of those without permanent homes is “disastrous” but “the least-worst” situation given the dehoming caused in stripping state houses from the suburbs during the second-half of the last National government, but homes are now being built.

“And Denis is right,” he said. “We’ve got to get people in work.”

Mayor Wise says she is “very proud” that Napier City Council has recently sponsored two Te Whare Ā-io Whānau Transformation Programmes through Māori Movement, which a number of gang members as well as other community members participated in.

“These programmes gave Māori and Non Māori an opportunity to learn self-development skills and understanding through tikanga and whakapapa, utilising cultural concepts that apply universally to all people,” she said. “The programme was designed to effect positive change at individual, whānau and community levels.

Also asked to respond to O’Reilly’s comments, Opposition National Party spokesman on Police, Youth and Corrections and Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown said: “There are many social issues surrounding gangs but a responsible Government must enforce the law and ensure the public is safe.”

“The violence and harm caused by gangs and the risk to the public currently is increasing and is unacceptable,” he said.

“I am pleased to see the Government is waking up the increasing level of harm being caused by gangs, but their proposed Firearm Prohibition Orders will be toothless without additional search powers which will allow the Police to effectively enforce them and to get tough on gangs.”

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