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OPINIONPoliticsMay 15, 2024

The police minister loves numbers. Except when he’s asked about lowering them

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Why worry about accurate messaging around gangs when you can throw out some scary numbers instead?

As sure as night follows day, Mark Mitchell will premise a gang policy announcement with a spine-tingling stat about soaring gang membership. “New Zealanders need only look at the fatal shooting in Ponsonby recently by a gang member to see the impact that a 73% increase in gang membership from 2017 to 2023 has had on violent crime in our communities,” began a press release sent from the police minister on Tuesday to welcome the establishment of new police gang units.

It’s scary stuff: soaring gang numbers resulting in innocent people being shot on Ponsonby Road. Never mind that the shooting Mitchell referenced was an isolated incident, nothing to do with gang tensions but the act of a lone, clearly disturbed individual who wasn’t wearing a gang patch. And never mind the lack of data linking a rise in gang members to a rise in crime. 

Mitchell loves numbers, even if they sometimes confuse him. He specifically loves numbers that skyrocket and go through the roof, especially when they come from the National Gang List, which keeps track of gang membership in Aotearoa. The police minister must’ve decided the 51% increase in five years that justice minister Paul Goldsmith fixated on earlier in the year wasn’t quite galling enough, so yesterday he took it back to 2017  – handily, the start of the previous Labour government’s term – to get 73%. 

As reported by The Spinoff last month, the National Gang List (NGL) numbers nearly always increase between each bimonthly release, but at varying rates, so shifting the periods you focus on results in a wide range of percentages. Sometimes it seems like our politicians say whatever number pops into their head – in parliament on May 1, Mitchell referenced a 76% increase, while a few weeks before that Goldsmith stuck with a more subdued 50% rise. Because they don’t specify the time period to which they’re referring, and most people can access National Gang List figures only through an OIA request, these figures can’t be disproved without a lot of effort.

With such a focus on this alarming rise in gang numbers, you’d think our politicians would be prepared to answer questions about how they plan to lower them. But apparently that’s not the goal. Despite saying in parliament things like “we need to take action to reverse the growth of gangs”, when pressed, they deny that’s the aim at all. The gang legislation introduced to parliament earlier in the year is “focused on providing police new tools to crack down on criminal gangs to reduce gangs’ ability to engage in criminal behaviour”, Goldsmith told The Spinoff in March. “I have not asked for, nor been provided, any advice on whether our government’s new gang policies are expected to have an impact on the NGL numbers.”

Mitchell has also said, if not as directly, that a reduction in gang membership is not the aim. Asked by Lisa Owen on RNZ’s Checkpoint on Tuesday afternoon if he anticipated the number of gang members to drop as a result of the new police gang units, he pointed to the government’s violent crime target: 20,000 fewer people being the victims of assaults, robberies and sexual assaults by 2029. 

Pressed on specific gang targets, Mitchell said yes, he did want gang members to leave gangs, and hoped that the government crackdown resulted in it becoming “too miserable to remain part of a gang”. 

But when Owen asked for some specific targets for lowering gang numbers – only fair, one would think, given Mitchell’s fixation on specific gang number increases – Mitchell resorted to nonsensical accusations. “Your thinking and rationale is hard to understand,” he said to Owen, a distinct note of irritation in his voice. “What are you saying, that we should just leave the gangs to continue to grow and we should leave the gangs to continue to cause their harm? You seem to be proposing to me that we should leave the gangs alone, that we shouldn’t be putting pressure on them, that we shouldn’t be trying to get them to leave the gang, and I just don’t accept that.”

I get it, Minister, it’s silly. Surely the focus should be a reduction on gang harm, not a reduction in numbers? That makes a lot of sense. Surely gang members causing harm is what should concern us, not their mere existence. If only someone would stop going on about it!

A selection of Mark Mitchell sound bites about gangs

Maybe the data that links gang members to crime just doesn’t exist. Except that at the very same Tuesday press conference, reporters were given a handout featuring a range of data that focused not on gang numbers but on gang harm, with some of the figures repeated by Coster – who has not once referenced rising gang membership – during his allotted time. 

That data is a little vague, but stark: 18% of reported victimisations associated with serious violent crime in the past 10 years were linked to people on the National Gang List, is one stat given, with the addendum that gang members make up just a quarter of a percent of the New Zealand adult population. There’s no comparison with earlier periods though, so there’s no suggestion it has risen. (A “victimisation” is an instance of a crime against a victim that’s reported, and “serious violent crime” includes homicides, assaults, abduction and kidnapping, and robbery offences that have a maximum penalty of seven years or more of imprisonment.)

Coster, during the press conference and answering media questions that followed, focused on the fact that “gang members commit a disproportionate amount of crime in New Zealand”, and said police would know the new measures have worked when they “see reduced gang visibility in communities and a reduction in harm from gangs”. Mitchell, on the other hand, talked about doing “maximum damage” to gangs, who thought they were above the law.

Gang members being responsible for 18% of serious violent crime in the past 10 years seems to me quite a high figure. But I doubt it will make it into a future press release from Mark Mitchell or Paul Goldsmith, for whom the irresistible lure of the ever-growing National Gang List will prove too strong. The very concept of rising numbers provokes images of massive hordes of gang members taking over your town. A couple of years ago, there might have been just one gang member living around the corner from your kid’s school. Last year, that became two, and this year it’s four, and before you know it, the sophisticated recruitment drive of the Killer Beez has netted young Johnny.

So in announcement after announcement, the increase in gang membership will continue to be pointed to as the root cause of the problems gangs cause in society. “Over the last five years, gangs have recruited more than 3,000 members, a 51% increase,” said a Goldsmith press release from February. “At the same time, we’ve seen a significant escalation in gang-related violence, public intimidation and shootings, with violent crime up 33%.” 

It’s a clever but misleading statement. The 33% figure at the end of the second sentence doesn’t refer to the gang-related activities mentioned in the first part of the sentence at all, but most people are not going to read it that closely. Never mind that we don’t have the data that actually links gang membership increases to crime increases – and certainly not gang-related crime increases – we’ll just make it sound close enough. And media will continue to copy-and-paste these statements without interrogation.

Keep going!