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Photo: Getty Images; additional design by The Spinoff
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by The Spinoff

PoliticsApril 23, 2024

Have gang numbers really ‘skyrocketed’ in recent years?

Photo: Getty Images; additional design by The Spinoff
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by The Spinoff

Public submissions on proposed gang control laws are being heard today. Rising gang membership has been cited as rationale for a crackdown – but what do we actually know about how many people belong to gangs in New Zealand?

What’s all this then?

A rise in the number of gang members in Aotearoa has been referenced repeatedly by politicians in the past few months. The context is to justify tougher law and order measures being brought in by the government under its Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill, which is having a select committee hearing today.

While hard-to-define metaphors like “ballooned”, “skyrocketed” and “through the roof” have been common, some fairly precise figures have been thrown about too. “Over the last five years, gangs have recruited more than 3,000 members, a 51% increase,” justice minister Paul Goldsmith has said in multiple press releases in recent months. These figures have been repeated by various coalition MPs in the house and to the media.

This is nothing new. According to Hansard, the first politician to cite specific gang numbers in parliament in recent years was Stuart Nash, then police minister in the Labour-NZ First government. In June 2018, he said gang numbers had increased by 2,000 between 2012 and 2017, while National was in power. By October 2019, Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern was telling Paula Bennett during parliamentary debate that the growth in gangs started in 2011, “under her watch” as police minister. By the following month, National MP Erica Stanford was pointing to a 26% rise in gang members, not specifying a timeframe but linking this rise to Carmel Sepuloni’s tenure as minister for social development. By March 2020, National MPs were pointing the finger at police minister Stuart Nash for a gang membership increase of 32% “under his watch”, which by July had become 34%.

And so it continued. By November 2022, National police spokesperson Mark Mitchell was pinpointing day-by-day gang growth (“nearly six new gang members every single day”) and by April 2023 – the heady early days of campaign season – he was referencing a 61% increase in gang membership “after five years of this soft-on-crime Labour government”. By June 18 that had become “a staggering 66% increase” since Labour came to power and by July 30, an increase of 70%. 

Mark Mitchell, Christopher Luxon and Paul Goldsmith in June 2023 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Where do such specific figures come from? Kinda sounds like gangs employ fancy recruitment companies and advertise on Seek?

Not as such, no.

But they keep detailed recruitment records and regularly report this data to the government when they gain or lose a new member?

That would be very helpful of them, but again, no. The figures are taken from the National Gang List (NGL).

What’s that?

It’s a list collated by NZ Police’s Gang Harm Insights Centre that records “patched and prospect members of New Zealand adult gangs”. The information is collected, according to NZ Police, “for the purpose of maintaining oversight of the gang environment, to enhance our understanding of the scale of social harm caused within the gang environment, and to support the identification of prevention and intervention opportunities… It cannot be accurately represented solely as an increase or decrease in membership.”

It’s a list of gang members though, right? So surely it’s a pretty safe way to keep track of their numbers? 

The list, which is updated every two months, has been increasing since it was established in 2016, but police have cautioned that these increases are “attributable to a variety of factors, including changes in recording processes and methodology, improved intelligence collection, and collation capability, as well as new individuals being identified as joining gangs”. They’ve also said that people who drift away from gang involvement are unlikely to be removed from the list “due to the challenges of corroborating their exit”. 

Reading between the lines, could one infer that the police aren’t that stoked when politicians use the NGL to point to rising gang membership?

One could. In fact, police commissioner Andrew Coster sparred with then National MP Simon Bridges over this very issue in 2021 during a select committee appearance, with Coster telling media he would prefer the NGL numbers weren’t released as they were so inaccurate. He said it was easy to get on the list, but hard to get off it.

Is that true – that it’s easy to get on the NGL but hard to get off it?

University of Canterbury sociologist and gang researcher Jarrod Gilbert has said the numbers are “likely to be highly inaccurate”, and that it’s very easy to get on the list and very difficult to get off it.

“That’s not to say there hasn’t been growth in the scene because there has, but these exact figures give the impression we are more certain about the percentage growth than we are in reality,” Gilbert told the Bay of Plenty Times in 2021. 

A parliamentary library research paper from July 2022 elaborated. “Indicators leading someone to be added to the NGL, such as being observed wearing a gang patch, are much more visible and reliable than those that might lead to them being removed, such as good intelligence suggesting they have been de-patched. The names of people who simply drift away from gang involvement are much less likely to be removed.”

That’s not to say names are never taken off the list, however. The same paper said that from 2019 to April 2022, 2,599 individuals were removed from the NGL. In June of that year, Act’s police spokesperson Chris Baillie suggested the government had been “desperately trying to take people off” the list, “scrambling to remove as many names as it can so it can’t be used as a yardstick for how useless it’s been at keeping New Zealanders safe”. 

Baillie was referencing a table provided to Act MP Nicole McKee by then police minister Poto Williams in response to a written parliamentary question, which showed that 1,074 people were removed from the list in 2021 and 942 added, which, figures provided to The Spinoff show, resulted in an overall decrease of 225. 

It’s certainly the only year that saw a decrease in numbers on the list, an anomaly for which there doesn’t appear to be an easy explanation. Unfortunately for Winston Peters, it does perhaps disprove his assertion that gang numbers have “ballooned” in the past three years (over which time there was an increase of only 19.3% – a lesson in the dangers of cherry-picking data, perhaps). 

Image: Archi Banal

But ‘ballooned’ isn’t really quantifiable. Has the list actually increased by 51% in the past five years, as the justice minister said?

Responding to a question from The Spinoff via email, Goldsmith said the 51% figure was based on the NGL’s increase between October 2018 and December 2023 – which is slightly more than five calendar years. Taking the most recent figures (released to The Spinoff under the Official Information Act) and counting back five years gives us a timeframe of February 2019 to February 2024, during which time there was an increase of 3,085. So yes, it’s more than 3,000 – but the percentage increase is 48.5%, not 51%.

Isn’t that splitting hairs?

Yes, yes it is.

Are politicians aware of the limitations of the NGL as an accurate record of gang membership?

They appear to be. “We understand use of the NGL is not a perfect measure, however given current data limitations it is the most robust source for understanding the gang numbers in New Zealand,” said Goldsmith in a response to an emailed question from The Spinoff. 

“It’s important to note, the total number of gang members in New Zealand is not held conclusively by any agency. However, the National Gang List provides the best available information on known gang membership in New Zealand. Regardless of which way you look at the data, the reality is clear, there has been a significant increase in gang numbers over recent years.” 

He’s got a point though, right – there’s been a significant increase?

He does. In a 2021 interview with Stuff, gang researcher Gilbert said the gang scene in New Zealand was in a “period of quite dramatic growth”, with established gangs gaining new members and new gangs being created – both of which are heavily influenced by the number of 501 deportees from Australia arriving in Aotearoa.

OK, so while very specific claims like ‘over the last five years gangs have recruited more than 3,000 members’ are hard to prove, it’s pretty clear gang numbers have gone up. Can we link this to a rise in crime?

The government implicitly has – nearly every time the 3,000/51% figure is mentioned, it’s followed by a claim that violent crime is up 33%. Take the wording of this statement from a Goldsmith press release: “Gangs have recruited more than 3,000 members over the last five years, a 51% increase. Meanwhile, gang-related violence, public intimidation and shootings have significantly escalated, with violent crime up 33%.”

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. 

But has violent crime gone up 33% in the past five years?

That’s a question for another story, but National MPs have been referencing a 33% increase in violent crime for varying periods – usually coinciding with “since Labour took power” – for more than a year. As others have reported, crime data can be counted and interpreted in many different ways, but it seems unlikely that the figure would be exactly the same for the period between November 2017 and March 2023 and the period between February 2019 and February 2024. Maybe 33% just rolls off the tongue nicely? 

As Kate Newton at Stuff concluded in early 2023, no matter how you look at it, police statistics do record a substantial increase in crimes of violence in recent years. But police-recorded crime data can often be influenced by changing reporting patterns and behaviour. In June last year, a major data analysis by Chris Knox and Michael Neilson for the Herald found that the bulk of reported violent crime between March 2017 and March 2023 was family harm-related incidents, which coincided with two new offences introduced in December 2018 through changes to the Family Violence Act.

As around 37% of the prison population is gang affiliated, gang members are certainly more likely to engage in criminal behaviour than non-gang members, but there doesn’t appear to be any readily available data that categorically links a rise in violent crime to a rise in gang membership.

So, acknowledging the limitations of using the NGL to track membership, are we likely to see the forthcoming gang crackdown translate into a decline in gang numbers?

During the first reading of the Gang Legislation Amendment Bill on March 7, Goldsmith said, “We’ve seen a 50% increase in gang membership under the previous government, and we want to stop that”, as well as, We need to take action to reverse the growth of gangs.”

The following week, in response to a question from The Spinoff about whether the legislation would likely have an impact on the NGL numbers, he said that wasn’t the aim. “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. The legislation introduced was focused on providing police new tools to crack down on criminal gangs to reduce gangs’ ability to engage in criminal behaviour.”

Whether the new measures “reverse the growth of gangs”, “reduce gangs’ ability to engage in criminal behaviour”, or neither, remains to be seen. But it’s safe to say this isn’t the last we’ll hear of the ebbs and flows of the National Gang List – from either side of the house.

Keep going!