New Zealand National party leader Simon Bridges wants to stop gang members from gaining access to welfare if they cannot prove their income is from legitimate sources. This comes at a time when some gangs are wanting changes in their community. However, sociologist Jarrod Gilbert, author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand thinks working alongside gangs is a better way to help lower family violence and drug abuse rates. Jemima Huston spoke to Gilbert about working with gangs instead of rallying against them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Jemima Huston: Why should we be working with gangs and what crimes would be affected the most as a result?
Jarrod Gilbert: Well gangs are far more criminally inclined than your average person, of course, we know this to be a fact. And we also know they are heavily involved in meth and they are heavily involved in family violence. Now, we can police them all we like and we have policed them hard over the years, but it doesn’t seem to change too much, the gangs have just endured that. So if we can work alongside gangs in a couple of areas such as reducing the use of meth and the rates of family violence then all else can stay the same. But if we change those things by working alongside the gangs to fix those as best we can then we will see great improvements in their communities and that is in everyone’s best interest.
JH: How are we going to work alongside gangs? What sort of ideas do you have to do that?
JG: Currently, we really rely on the police and a law and order approach to the gangs. So that is the only real interaction – that and social welfare I guess – that they had with the state. They are suspicious of the state; they are anti the state, and that is largely because the only time they really see the state is when the state is banging down a door. So we need to connect through social agencies, those agencies that already exist to help with social harm in communities for non-gang members, we need to connect gang communities up with those. So things like alcohol and drug assistance, Plunket support, all these things that can just chip away and assist people. All of these agencies already exist, but gang families don’t connect with them so we need to help make those connections. And what’s more, this particular point in history, we have a very good opportunity to do that because the gangs have matured and there are some pro-social leaders emerging in pockets, not across the board, they are looking for help, they want to make the lives for their kids – better than their lives have been.
JH: In saying that, is this a crime reduction stance that you have seen already in gang families?
JG: Absolutely. You can go to certain gang chapters now and even within gangs that we think of as the worst of the worst such as the Mongrel Mob and you can see leaders preaching to their membership and saying we need to change, we need to start doing things differently because the path that we have chosen is a highly negative one and we want to fix that. So that is looking to move the membership away from dealing and use of meth, and particularly around family violence. Those are the two places to start because they are the least controversial and they are the ones that the gangs are seeking assistance for.
JH: Why do you think that gangs are best placed to reduce crime?
JG: We tend to see crime as a law and order issue and it is, and certainly I am not arguing that we release the pressure of the police on the gangs – that is very important. The police have an important role to play here, there is no doubt about that. But we have to start addressing the causes and the drivers of crime to affect significant community change, and until we do that and we continue doing what we are doing and pretending that is working then we are on a hiding to nothing. History has not been kind to us in this area, and we just have to be slightly smarter about it. Now it may sound controversial to some people and that is because it is a new idea so I suspect it to be controversial, but to anybody familiar with crime and justice issues it is hardly startling, it is just simply seeking to address drivers of offending to reduce the instances of crime which is a common practice in the literature.
JH: How do you think the police force will react to this idea of working with gangs?
JG: I think many in the police will welcome it because instead of them continually going to the same families time and time again, if efforts can be made to reduce the problems within that family or stop the police having to go there so regularly, they will welcome the help. However, we have just got to be very careful, and we need to make it clear to the police that we are not saying that their role isn’t important and that their role stops, it is very important we continue to police gangs when they step out of line. If they are asking for help in ways that can assist them and ways that will benefit their kids and their families and communities and remembering that often that will be the best wave of gang members and offenders then that is in all of our interests. It will be difficult because the gangs are tough to work with, the gangs are communities of people who have taken a highly negative stance, through their entire lives they have been battling a system that they have been against. To turn that ship around is a big ask and hence why they will need help to do it because generally gang members are not well equipped to make those big life changes so they will need support. Furthermore, this is not an easy road; this is not something that will be done simply and we have to expect some setbacks and hurdles along the way but generations down the line will thank us for it.
JH: So obviously with that, gangs have to be receptive to it and you said you have seen some gang families are interested in making this happen, but do you think there is the potential for backlash from other members that are not particularly interested in this help?
JG: Without a doubt. It is only certain chapters who are reaching out, some still just want to be left alone and will be resistant to change. That is fine, that just continues as normal. We can potentially talk to them and make them think differently, but that is a very tough ask. What I am saying is those ones that are open to change then we should be giving them a hand.
JH: Do you think that this work with gangs could affect prisons in any way, potentially reduce violence in prisons?
JG: Yes, of course. The idea of working with the gangs is not really to benefit gang members; what it is, is to benefit the community. We have to take a long-term outlook here. If we thought thirty years into the future thirty years ago we would have done things very differently than we did. We didn’t know the gangs were going to endure like they have, we didn’t know the gangs were going to become these semi-institutions within communities, and now we know that that is a reality and I think we have to adjust our thinking accordingly. Again, I think history will take a dim view of us if we don’t.
JH: Why do you think it is important that we work with gangs to reduce crime in our communities?
JG: It is in our interest to do so. If we want to reduce offending, the costs of offending, the victims of offending then we have to address the drivers of crime. We cannot arrest our way out of these problems, we cannot simply bash the gangs into submission because if that was going to happen it would have happened by now, despite the rhetoric of certain politicians. We need to do something differently if we want a different result. This will sound new, but it ought not to be controversial, it is a practical solution to some significant issues.