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Curbing gang activity: How easy is it to leave a gang?

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As police focus on curbing gang activity, community leaders say making arrests won’t solve the multi-generational issues that run deeper.

Police will set up a new National Gang Unit by July, which will be supported by district teams, and tasked with reducing gang visibility and gang-related harm.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said staff in the unit would have the same powers as the general force – but they would be freed up to focus solely on gang crime.

Lifetime Black Power member and gang rehabilitation advocate Denis O’Reilly said he wanted to see all New Zealanders able to participate in society.

Denis O'Reilly. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle
Denis O’Reilly. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle

“Gangs have come upon us through the rural to urban shifts, through abuse in state care, and through the neoliberal policies of the fourth Labour Government,” O’Reilly told Morning Report.

Citing Dame Juliet Gerrard’s report on gangs, he reiterated the view colonialism had a part to play and that “we can’t arrest our way out of this”.

He said the “idea of egress from gangs would be helpful”, but to also separate the reasons why people joined gangs as opposed to organised crime.

O’Reilly said society needed to move away from labelling whānau that came from particular neighbourhoods so that children could move on in life, study and get good jobs.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“If you come from Raupunga, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re Black Power’, which is absurd.

“We [need to] get away from the labelling, the judgmental stuff, the fact that your family for three or four generations may have been associated with one gang or colour.

“Strengthening the stick in one hand, if we were able to provide a bit of carrot in the other, that would be an intelligent approach.”

So how do you leave a gang?

“You stop being a gang member I suppose,” O’Reilly said.

He said the process was different for different crews.

“I come from a cluster of whānau that if you wanted to leave the Black Power, for instance, and pursue a life and whatever, you wouldn’t get any obstruction on that,” O’Reilly said.

The new police gang unit was “an opportunity here to turn things around. We’ve got a smart commissioner and a balanced approach”, he said.

While it was a difficult task, whānau members could be persuaded to leave the gang culture, Ngāti Kahungunu chair Bayden Barber told Morning Report.

Bayden Barber says it comes down to educational and employment opportunities. Photo / RNZ / Kate Green
Bayden Barber says it comes down to educational and employment opportunities. Photo / RNZ / Kate Green

“That’s a good start. But often they’re induced into the gang, they see the big bikes and the bling.

“And then when they get in there and and see what it really involves and try to get out it, it’s often a very hard path to come out.

“Often there is the price to leaving gang life, and if you can’t come up with what they’re after, that comes with repercussions. And they can extend out to the wider whānau,” he said, adding he had experienced it in his extended family.

It came down to educational and employment opportunities, he said.

Barber said people needed to feel safe and he supported the idea of trying to break that cycle.

“Gangs are a big issue around the motu.”

But the national gang unit was not the “silver bullet”, Barber said.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done and these are multi-generational issues.”

The unit would only get people off the streets and into prison.

The root causes needed to be addressed, he said.

“You need to sit down with these whānau, show them that that life can be more than what they’re doing. There needs to be aspiration, give them the vision of what can be.

“It’s very difficult. It starts with the child, that can break that cycle.”


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