Police Minister Poto Williams' 'leadership' jibe at National's Simon Bridges as gang debate heats up

Tackling gang crime is the hot topic in politics after National MP Simon Bridges accused the Police Commissioner of being "woke" and an expert questioned if a rise in gang numbers is accurate.

Bridges has been shutting down speculation he's making noise around gang crime to raise his political profile. Police Minister Poto Williams took a crack at him in Parliament on Thursday, saying: "Is this a leadership issue for you?"

It followed Bridges' much anticipated showdown with Police Commissioner Andrew Coster at a parliamentary review of the police on Thursday, after the former National leader called him a "wokester" and suggested he was soft on crime.

Since October 2017, the number of gang members on the national gang list has increased by 2264. The police have responded with the nationwide Operation Tauwhiro, a plan to crack down on guns held by organised crime groups and gangs.

"Operation Tauwhiro, which was launched last Friday, is part of a suite of services that the police are putting into place," Williams said in Parliament on Thursday as Opposition MPs jeered in a fiery debate.

"They're not going after crims!" National MP David Bennett shouted. 

"I would ask members just to be quiet while I answer this question, because it's very important," Williams said sternly. "They want the answer... otherwise I'll just sit down."

Coster told the parliamentary committee that, in contrast to Bridges' criticism, police have "put more pressure on gangs, taken more assets, taken more guns, in the last year, than we have in any time of our history".

Police Minister Poto Williams.
Police Minister Poto Williams. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

An expert says figures showing gang numbers on the rise are "heavily inflated" anyway. Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist and New Zealand author, told The AM Show the figures don't take into account the number of gang members quitting.

"It's incredibly easy to get on the [gang] list because the police identify someone wearing a patch and so their name goes onto this database. But if people leave the gangs - and so many people are - it's very, very hard for police on the street to identify when someone's left."

National's police spokesperson Simeon Brown described Gilbert's observations as "absolute nonsense" and "an attempt to make excuses" for the Government's "failures to address rapid increases in gang membership".

National leader Judith Collins agreed.

"Correct," she said in a re-tweet of Brown's post. "Are we supposed to believe that thousands of patched gang members have left the gangs to earn an honest living?"

The Government has often blamed the increase in gang numbers on Australia exporting Kiwi criminals back to New Zealand, but data shows they only make up a miniscule amount of new gang members

ACT leader David Seymour says the suggestion that the national gang list can't be relied on is irrelevant because "we know more and more New Zealanders are being victimised by violent thugs". 

Police have warned North Shore and Rodney residents in Auckland to prepare for a motorcycle run scheduled for Saturday involving members of the Hells Angels Nomads Gang.

"We shouldn't waste any more time debating the statistical reliability of the national gang list or the purpose of its compilation," Seymour said. "It's obvious to anyone with a set of eyes that gang membership is up and the stats say crime is up too."

He said it's an "outrage" that police plan to run Operation Tauwhiro for only six months.

"Right now this Government and the Police aren't convincing anyone that they're taking gangs seriously, and it will cost both of them in popularity and respect."