Government's gang package: National, ACT want more action, Greens concerned new police powers 'attack' on rights

The Government's gang package is just tinkering around the edges, National says, while ACT believes ministers have just pinched its ideas.

The Green Party is concerned new police powers are "an attack" on protections set out in the Bill of Rights and that Māori and Pasifika will be most affected.

Chris Hipkins and Kiri Allan, who became the Police and Justice Ministers last month, on Wednesday unveiled new measures the Government is planning to give police to crack down on a spike in gang activity in recent months.

The suite of new tools includes closing a legal loophole in New Zealand's firearms laws, expanding warrant and search powers, and allowing police to seize more cash found in suspicious circumstances.

"The announcements today simply tinker around the edges of a problem that the Government is not taking seriously," National's acting police spokesperson Chris Penk said in response. 

"The new proposals don’t go far enough. We need to back Police and give them the tools they need to tackle gangs so our communities can feel safe again.

"National has long called for greater search powers for Police to take firearms out of the hands of gangs, so it is positive the Government is finally acting to provide these for Police. But this still doesn’t go far enough."

Hipkins said the Government had taken advice from police when developing the package, while the Police Association welcomed the measures, which it said showed "the Government is obviously listening to police". 

"The new proposals don't go far enough," said Penk
"The new proposals don't go far enough," said Penk Photo credit: Newshub.

ACT's justice spokesperson Nicole McKee believes Labour had resorted to pinching her party's ideas, saying the new powers allowing police to seize firearms from gang members' properties and vehicles are similar to a proposal of her's to Parliament two years ago.

"Labour’s soft on crime approach over the past few years has seen gangs become emboldened and more violent gun crime on our streets. It’s a shame that things have had to get this bad before they’ve finally taken some action," she said.

"I hope this new focus on gangs means Labour will now stop targeting law-abiding firearms owners, and that they will scrap their plans to create a firearms register that gang members will see as a shopping list for firearms they can steal."

Both opposition MPs said there has been an increase in violent crime and gang membership since Labour came to office in 2017. 

"Their soft on crime approach is making Kiwis less safe," Penk said.

According to the data compiled by the parliamentary library from the National Gang List (NGL), the number of patched and prospect gang members has jumped from 5196 in August 2017 to 7722 in April 2022. It peaked in August 2021 at 8175. Police have previously said the NGL is an intelligence tool and not an accurate measure of gang numbers.

Chris Hipkins is the new Police Minister.
Chris Hipkins is the new Police Minister. Photo credit: Newshub.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Hipkins said he had no time for terms like 'tough on crime' or 'soft on crime'. 

"Rhetoric like tough on crime and soft on crime means absolutely nothing," he said. What we want to know is that we're giving the tools to the police to do things that are going to work to disrupt criminal offending. That's exactly what we've been doing."

He said the growth in gang membership is complex, pointing to the number of 501 deportees from Australia as one reason, but police and the Government "haven't been doing nothing" in the meantime. 

"I reject the idea that this is something that we're suddenly doing. There's been a whole program of work. If you look at Operation Tauwhiro, you know, 1800 firearms seized through that operation alone. There has been a lot of activity in that space."

Allan, the Justice Minister, said the Government is constantly assessing whether its policies "are landing".

"What we don't want to be is a Government of rhetoric. We are a Government that's focused on outcomes," she said. 

"What we don't want to be is a Government of rhetoric. We are a Government that's focused on outcomes," Allan said.
"What we don't want to be is a Government of rhetoric. We are a Government that's focused on outcomes," Allan said.

The Green Party's Golriz Ghahraman said while recent spates of gang violence "will be scary for whānau and our communities", new expanded police powers won't "address the problem of organised crime, prevent violence, or keep people safe".

"Protections in our Bill of Rights Act require the police to have real cause to suspect someone of offending before they can enter their home or take their property," Ghahraman said.

"Expanding police powers of search and seizure is an attack on these minimum standards. We know that Māori and Pasifika are many times more likely to be the subject of these searches - and that is just going to get worse because of today’s announcement."

The new powers will allow police to respond to emerging gang conflicts and remove weapons from possible participants.

This is a change from existing search powers where suspicion of specific offending by a specific individual or group needs to be established, but don't allow police to search the property or vehicles of all gang members despite the risk of future violence. A judicial officer still needs to sign off on the warrant.

Ghahraman wants to see by-Māori, for-Māori solutions and evidence-based regulations to keep communities safe.

The Government should also be addressing the underlying causes of crime, she said, "not more of the same simplistic solutions that we know do not work and risk harming communities".

"If the Government is serious about building safer communities then it must respond to the social drivers of crime and violence, and ensure all children and young people have what they need to thrive," she said.

"The Green Party is the only party that understands that our communities are safer when everyone can make ends meet, put a roof over their heads, or food on the table."

Alongside announcing the new police tools, Allan said she was interested in looking into the drivers of crime.

"We know people don’t become gang members overnight, and that the causes are complex and often inter-generational," she said.

"We will continue to ensure we are upping the ante on intervention and prevention measures that are focused on steering young people away from a life with organised criminal groups.

"I will be looking closely at the youth justice system in particular to see how we can make changes that will improve both the lives of at-risk young people and public safety over the long term."

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman. Photo credit: Newshub.

Penk continues to advocate for National's policies of banning gang patches, dispersal and anti-consorting notices and warrantless search powers.

But Hipkins said he doesn't believe stopping gang members from wearing their patches will "make a huge amount of difference" and could simply force them underground.

"I don't just want to drive the gangs underground and then say, that's the problem solved. We want to drive their criminal activity out of the community completely."

The minister said on Wednesday that the new measures followed the Government's $562 million Budget investment into increasing police numbers, establishing a new firearms unit, and helping businesses protect themselves against ram raiders.

The Government's Firearms Prohibition Orders (FPOs) legislation is currently still at Select Committee. It would introduce the power to stop serious criminal offenders from accessing or being around firearms.

The Prime Minister has previously said the Government would support expediting the legislation through the House once it is reported back on by the Select Committee.