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Andrew Coster on a black background
Andrew Coster (Image: Getty)

The BulletinMay 15, 2024

Strike Force Raptor 3.0? The new anti-gang unit, and the questions that remain

Andrew Coster on a black background
Andrew Coster (Image: Getty)

A new national gang unit – coupled with smaller ‘disruption units’ – will target and ‘harass’ gang members, writes Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A gang crackdown

Throughout National’s election campaign and into its time in government, we’ve repeatedly heard Christopher Luxon trot out three priorities for his leadership: rebuild the economy, restore law and order, and deliver better public services like health and education. With budget day coming up very shortly, we’re sure to hear more on the first. But yesterday saw the government take action on the second of those pillars, unveiling a new police gang unit – coupled with smaller gang “disruption units” pegged to the 12 police districts – to target and “harass” gang members. The Post’s Anna Whyte has the key details from yesterday’s press conference, where police commissioner Andrew Coster explained that the new units would build on the work of 2022’s Operation Cobalt, while new legislation – such as that banning gang patches – will provide police with additional tools to respond to the harm caused by gangs.

How we got here

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. Let’s go back to 2019, when then-National Party leader Simon Bridges announced an anti-gang unit modelled on Australia’s Strike Force Raptor. At the time, National’s then-police spokesperson Brett Hudson said the taskforce would “interrupt gang activity”. This Newsroom report from back then looked at the proposal and compared it with Strike Force Raptor, which at that point had been operating for a decade. A year later, in 2020, Bridges’ replacement Judith Collins unveiled a new “gang unit”, which she specified was “not Strike Force Raptor because that’s an Australian term”. It too was tasked with “harassing and disrupting” gangs across the country. Now, four years on, we have two separate units – but this time, they’re being announced by the government and not the opposition. Police minister Mark Mitchell acknowledged the similarities to Strike Force Raptor when asked by media yesterday, and said he hoped the new gang unit would become as popular. “Normally, when the [Australian] gangs start to break out in gang warfare, the communities immediately ask to have Strike Force Raptor come in – they solely focus on gang harm and gang offending and organised crime,” he said, as reported by Newshub.

Labour’s police spokesperson Ginny Andersen claimed the new announcement was just a “rebrand” of work launched by her party while in government. “I’m glad the strong law enforcement focus on gangs under Operation Cobalt and Tauwhiro will be embedded into each police district. This was supported and funded by Labour,” she said in a statement.

What the new taskforce will do

Expected to launch in July, police commissioner Andrew Coster said “almost every district” would have a specialised gang unit. “The National Gang Unit will support district-based staff to plan and coordinate enforcement, resources and police responses, in a determined effort to continue applying pressure on gangs to disrupt and prevent gang-related crime, disorder, and intimidation,” he said. As this report by Hawke’s Bay Today explained, the district-level units will help identify, target and catch “priority offenders” and “maintain a focused view of the gang environment”. If you’re wondering whether police are already doing this, Coster told RNZ’s Checkpoint that they are – but he said the new units will allow police to be “much more focused on gangs specifically, which is a clear priority for the current government”.

The unanswered questions

Firstly, there’s the question of funding – we’ll have to wait for budget day to learn that. Then, there’s how they will be staffed. Coster said he imagined 25 to 30 people will staff the new national unit, and the smaller district teams will have about seven officers each. But he can’t say yet where those staff will come from, telling Checkpoint that consultation hadn’t started yet but it would include some “reprioritisation”. So will it reduce gang numbers? Neither Coster nor the minister in charge, Mark Mitchell, would say for sure. Coster told reporters yesterday that he would know the scheme had been successful when there was reduced gang visibility in communities and a reduction in harm from gangs, which isn’t quite the same as promising a drop in gang numbers and he wouldn’t set a measurable target. Mitchell, too, struggled to commit to any measurable outcomes from the unit during his interview on Checkpoint. As The Spinoff’s Alice Neville noted last month, the government has a habit of claiming that gang numbers have “ballooned” in recent years, though the available figures are not the most accurate.

Mitchell made several references to the recent Ponsonby shooting at yesterday’s press conference, though in response to a question from RNZ’s Lisa Owen, would not say if that act – carried out by an unpatched gang member – could have been prevented by the new unit. He talked more about this on The Front Page podcast today. Coster also wouldn’t answer that, telling Checkpoint the issue of tackling gang crime was broader than just these units.

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