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Case for gang law remains a tad patchy

The select committee process regarding Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith’s proposed new law outlawing gang patches in public was in full swing yesterday.

Under the Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill – which includes funerals and tangis – anyone wearing a gang patch in public could face a fine of up to $5000 or a maximum of six months in prison.

Although Attorney-General Judith Collins has noted her government’s desire to prohibit gang patches in public places would be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights – namely, rights to expression, association, and peaceful assembly – Goldsmith has indicated his intention to forge ahead with it anyway, while Collins has also argued that because “gang insignia is associated with intimidation and criminal activity … it is more susceptible to justified limitation than other forms of expression”.

Several organisations appeared before the select committee yesterday to express their disquiet about the proposed law and its potential for undesirable, unintended consequences, including the New Zealand Law, the Free Speech Union, the Chief Children’s Commissioner, and the Māori Law Society.

While it remains to be seen whether Goldsmith will heed any of these organisations’ concerns, it’s already pretty obvious the minister won’t be taking on board the views of two gang affiliates who also appeared to argue that the bill won’t achieve anything because it in no way addresses the reason gangs exist in the first place.

The gang submitters do have a point, though – as canvassed in Angela Yeoman’s Times-Age series about the subject at the end of last year, one of the primary appeals of gangs is that of a surrogate family for people who are already alienated from wider society [having been abused in state care, for example].

If New Zealand really wants to see the back of gangs, then there’s a great deal of long term work that needs to be done to address these underlying social issues – a point various police spokespeople have made in recent years, while noting that’s well outside the brief of the thin blue line.

What police are effective at is cracking down on gangs in the short term, especially in the event of their anti social activities spilling over into wider society. On a purely pragmatic basis, then, perhaps the first question needs to be whether a ban on patches will make this enforcement work easier.

It appears very unclear that it would. Although the Police Association supports the bill, even that organisation has warned against the expectation it will result in police stopping every gang member they come across and taking their patches away, and noted that in areas in which police are outnumbered by gang members, a flexible approach would be required.

But perhaps Goldsmith will heed the words of his former colleague Chester Borrows.

A past National minister and police officer, Borrows was withering about a patch ban law when it was floated by his party two years ago, suggesting such a policy was more about “big headlines” than combating crime – on which it would have “negligible impact” – and merely put further, unneeded pressure on police.

“Think about this,” Borrows said. “250 gang members riding to a funeral. What are you going to do? How will you actually do that? It would take at least 1000 cops, shutting down a road and causing more public disruption, to arrest and process people.

“Police will either spend a lot of time trying to enforce this … or the police will ignore it and the public will be upset it isn’t being enforced.”

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