IT IS FASHIONABLE, in some quarters, to sneer at political parties who advance the issues of law and order in an election year. As if it is not one of the prime duties of the state to ensure that its citizens live in peace and safety. With more than two dozen gang-related drive-by shootings dominating (entirely justifiably) the headlines of the past few weeks, there would be something amiss with our democracy if at least one major political party did not raise the issues of law and order in the most aggressive fashion.
The National Party has done just that and, over the weekend, spelt out in some detail how it proposes to address the rising level of gang-related violence. For the most part the measures announced: banning the public wearing of gang patches; passing non-consorting legislation; issuing immediate dispersal orders; and empowering the Police to undertake unwarranted firearms searches/seizures; have been borrowed from the Australian states – most particularly, Western Australia.
National’s Police spokesperson, Mark Mitchell, insists that these measures have proved to be highly effective against the Australian gangs. Criminologists and lawyers beg to differ: arguing that the principal effect of this kind of highly intrusive law enforcement is to drive the gangs ever deeper underground. Meaningful engagement with the authorities is rendered even more difficult, and there is an amping-up of the aggro between the “outlaws” and “law-abiding” citizens.
The banning of gang patches, for example, is unlikely to slow down gang members for very long. The most obvious workaround for such a ban would be to substitute the wearing of coloured items for the banned patches. For many years, those associating themselves with the Mongrel Mob have worn red, while their traditional rivals, Black Power, have favoured blue. Any number of indicators might be used to denote a member’s position in the gang hierarchy: bandannas, tattoos, hats, belts, boots. It is hard to see how Parliament could ban the wearing of particular colours or items of clothing without inspiring all manner of legal challenges.
Laws forbidding certain classes of persons from consorting with one another have a long history. The rationale behind such laws is that since most serious crimes require careful organisation and planning, making it a criminal offence for known felons to be found in each other’s company would render the orchestration of criminal activity especially difficult. Australia’s anti-consorting laws not only make it illegal for criminals to communicate face-to-face, but also electronically. Telephoning, texting and e-mailing are verboten, along with social-media messaging and online meetings courtesy of Skype and Zoom.
The issuing of immediate dispersal orders, and the carrying out unwarranted firearm searches and seizures, raise all manner of health and safety objections. It would be a very brave collection of constables that would order a couple of hundred patched gang-members en route to a fallen brother’s funeral to turn their Harley-Davidsons around an go home. How, exactly, would they respond if the gang leader did a quick head-count of the officers present and politely informed them to stick their dispersal order where the sun don’t shine?
“Or you’ll what?”, is the oldest question in law enforcement. (Or politics, for that matter.) Throw a search for unlawful firearms into the situation described above and the potential for serious – even fatal – violence rises exponentially. Simple prudence would suggest that before attempting such measures the Police would first have to assemble an enforcement body of sufficient size and fearsomeness to give even the staunchest gang leader pause.
What’s more, such a force would have to be available more-or-less instantaneously. It took the NZ Police upwards of a week to assemble the 250-500 police officers needed to clear Parliament Grounds of its anti-vaccination protesters. Gang members are not going to sit on the side of the road for a week while the Police assemble a force equal to the task of disarming and dispersing them!
Building-up such a force is not impossible, but it will require a lot of officers, a lot money and a lot of time. What’s more, the existence of such a highly-trained and fearsomely-armed company of Police Praetorians may prove to be no less disconcerting than the gangs they were created to eliminate! Add to this unease the Bill of Rights ramifications of National’s draconian law enforcement proposals, and the chances of their early introduction are slim.
With the National Party Opposition so far declining to confirm the dramatic increase in Police numbers and resources required to implement its tough anti-gang policies, taking its promises seriously is rather difficult. More knee-jerk than needful, perhaps?
To make an appreciable dent in the gang phenomenon, it is necessary to address its principal raison d’être – the making of money. Risking injury, incarceration and death makes sense only when presented with the prospect of massive profits. Eliminating this incentive may be accomplished in two ways: Politicians can reduce the demand for illicit substances and/or services by legalising them. Or, law enforcement agencies can reduce dramatically the supply of these substances/services. This can be achieved by seizing the product, arresting the suppliers, smashing the distribution system, or, preferably, managing to do all three at the same time.
If this is your strategy, then it is brains you need, not brawn. The key to interdicting and reducing the supply of illegal substances/services is intelligence. Law enforcement needs to know where it is coming from and when, who will be carrying it and uplifting it, where it will be stored, and who will be organising its distribution. Discover these facts, and supply cannot help but be disrupted. What’s more, the management structure of the organised criminal enterprises involved will be seriously damaged. Two birds, one stone.
Disrupting supply in this way can be achieved in three ways: by persuading well-informed gangsters to inform on their confederates; by infiltrating undercover operatives into the heart of the criminal organisation; and by using state-of-the-art electronic surveillance techniques to intercept the communications of the criminal organisation. Preferably, all three of the techniques will be used by the Police. Certainly, this was how the five Mafia families of New York were brought down by the FBI in the 1980s.
The drive-by shootings currently plaguing Auckland are a reflection of a supply operation that has grown either too loose or too tight. Control of “the corners” (as they used to say in the TV series The Wire) is being contested by The Tribesmen and The Killer Beez because there is either an over-supply of product and one gang is attempting to seize the entire market for itself, or, there is a shortage of product and the two gangs are competing for the corners (distribution points) because until one or the other controls the lot, their respective operations will become increasingly unprofitable.
The National Party Opposition would be better employed talking to the Police Commissioner about the best ways to hack the communications of the distributors as well as the suppliers of illegal substances and services. It is difficult to shoot up somebody’s house if you are intercepted en route, your weapons confiscated, and you are sent down for criminal conspiracy to commit murder for five years.
In the immortal words of Sun Tzu: “Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.”
Gang violence will not be ended by politicians getting tougher, but by police officers getting smarter.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 13 June 2022.