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The proposed legislation by the New Zealand government to ban gang patches in public places and introduce measures like dispersal notices and non-consorting orders has sparked a heated debate over its effectiveness and potential repercussions.

While some argue that such policies are necessary to combat the worryingly rising tide of gang violence and intimidation, to say nothing of recruitment of young New Zealanders that is outpacing the recruitment rate of law enforcement officers, others contend that they are little more than political posturing with uncertain outcomes.

One of the key criticisms levelled against the proposed legislation is its lack of evidence-based support. A University of Auckland law academic has pointed out as quoted in the media that similar measures implemented elsewhere have failed to demonstrate any significant impact on gang membership or violence. Moreover, she highlights the recommendation from the Government’s chief science adviser to focus on primary prevention and harm reduction strategies rather than punitive measures.

Indeed, simply outlawing gang insignia and gatherings may not address the underlying reasons why individuals are drawn to gangs in the first place. It sounds all too simplistic, as if the phenomenon is an open and shut case. It is not. It is far more complex and is the culmination of a range of reasons stemming from the neglect of the social sector by successive governments over decades. Factors such as disenfranchisement, family violence, and disengaged communities play significant roles in driving gang involvement, and addressing these root causes requires a more nuanced and comprehensive approach.

While proponents of the legislation argue that it sends a message of authority and reassurance to the public, critics warn of potential unintended consequences. There are concerns that such measures could actually serve as recruiting tools for gangs, further alienating marginalised communities and exacerbating tensions between law enforcement and the populace.

Additionally, questions have been raised about the practicality of enforcing these laws. For instance, it will be all the more challenging to identify gang members without visible insignia which could have the potential for overreach in policing public spaces.

If the New Zealand government is serious about addressing gang-related harm, it must consider a multifaceted approach that goes beyond punitive measures. Investing in community-based initiatives aimed at providing alternative pathways for at-risk individuals, addressing socio-economic disparities, and strengthening support systems for vulnerable communities are essential components of a comprehensive strategy.

Moreover, collaboration between law enforcement, social services, and community organisations is paramount to effectively tackling the complex issue of gang violence. By fostering trust and cooperation between these stakeholders, it becomes possible to implement targeted interventions that address the root causes of gang involvement while also ensuring public safety.

The Government’s apparent haste in pushing through this legislation may very well stem from a desire to demonstrate proactive action in tackling the issue of gang violence, fulfilling an election promise, and addressing heightened public concerns about safety and security in the wake of unabated ram raids on retail premises and violent crime including home invasions.

However, it is imperative to drive home the point that policy decisions driven solely by optics and political expediency run the risk of being superficial and ineffective in addressing the underlying complexities of the problem. While there is undoubtedly pressure to deliver tangible results, prioritising meaningful and evidence-based solutions over quick-fix measures is crucial to avoid the perception of mere politicking. The government must resist the temptation to prioritise short-term gains and instead focus on implementing comprehensive strategies that address the root causes of gang-related harm while safeguarding the rights and well-being of all citizens.

Merely banning gang insignia and imposing dispersal orders is unlikely to yield significant results and could potentially exacerbate existing problems. A holistic approach that prioritises prevention, community engagement, and collaboration is needed to effectively address gang violence and ensure the well-being of all New Zealanders.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender of March 1, 2024