Gangs and guns: Police unveil operation targeting firearms and organised crime

Organised crime and gang members with firearms will be targeted by police over the next six months in response to an apparent escalation in gun violence.

For years, frontline police have warned about the increasing number of illegal firearms being seized in raids – particularly for drug investigations – and the risk those weapons pose to staff.

And although New Zealand’s criminals have long carried firearms to intimidate one another, police and underworld sources say criminals are now more willing to use them.

This apparent escalation is put down to the arrival of motorcycle gangs such as the Comancheros and Mongols after the deportation of senior members from Australia, where turf war is far more common.

The establishment of new players has ratcheted up tension with existing gangs, particularly over control of the lucrative methamphetamine and cocaine trade, but those crimes often go unreported unless the violence spills into the public, or the consequences are fatal.

Most notably in the past 12 months, there have been tit-for-tat shootings in suburban Auckland, Christchurch and an episode in Tauranga where 96 rounds were fired into a gang leader’s house. Five children were inside watching television.

“We see that as a very undesirable shift in our criminal landscape,” Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told the Herald in announcing Operation Tauwhiro, which will be carried out across all 12 police districts for the next six months.

“While this is predominantly an issue between gangs and organised crime groups, people are dying and that’s not okay. And, understandably, that causes fear in our communities. People should not have to live in an environment with this level of violence around them.”

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Ten years ago, 1735 people were charged with 2828 firearms offences and 860 firearms were confiscated.

Last year, those figures had increased to 2399 people charged with 4552 offences and 1862 firearms seized.

The Herald also asked for data that showed how many of those offences were committed by gang members or their associates, but this was not supplied before the publishing deadline.

Coster said the data was “mixed for a number of reasons” but there is clearly an increase in firearms-related injuries. The Herald has previously reported 350 people in Auckland have been treated for gunshot wounds in the past five years.

“Regardless of what the numbers are doing, we have seen a shift in the level of violence and a greater willingness to use firearms.”

The proliferation in firearms also increases the risk for frontline police. Constable Matthew Hunt was fatally shot in West Auckland last year, the first police officer to be killed on duty for a decade.

Coster said each of the police districts will be expected to gather intelligence on people using firearms and prioritise those investigations. There will be a particular focus on how firearms are being illegally supplied to gang members and organised crime individuals.

Most illegal firearms in criminal hands were stolen from legitimate gun owners, said Coster, but one current trend in gun violence was the use of starter pistols, which are readily available for athletic events, modified to fire live ammunition.

Coster said there were also regular examples of firearms licence holders legitimately buying firearms, then selling on the black market.

This often involves buying rifles and shotguns, then shortening the barrels or adding pistol grips to make them easier for criminals to conceal, or fire with one hand.

The impending reintroduction of a national firearms register where individual firearms, not just the owner, are recorded in a centralised database would help end this practice, said Coster.

The register was scrapped in the 1980s but a new one was announced as part of widespread gun law reform after the Christchurch mosque shootings in which 51 people were murdered on March 15, 2019.

Another loophole closed after the terrorist attack was the ability to legally buy a semi-automatic rifle such as an AR-15 (the weapon of choice for mass shootings around the world) with the most basic A category licence type.

Such firearms could then be easily converted into a Military Style Semi Automatic (MSSA), which would need a more restrictive E category licence to buy, simply by slotting in a high-capacity magazine.

It was illegal to do so but the sale of high-capacity magazines – some of which can hold 100 rounds – was unregulated.

That is how the Christchurch shooter got his firearms.

All semi-automatic firearms were banned after the terrorist attack and the government spent $102 million on a buy-back scheme. More than 60,000 firearms were handed in.

Most of those firearms would likely have come from legitimate gun owners, not criminals, say critics of the gun law changes.

Coster concedes there is no way of knowing how many weapons are still circulating in the underworld, which is a consequence of the firearms register being cancelled in the 1980s.

“We are still seeing those firearms in the hands of criminals and it’s a cause for concern,” said Coster.

“We believe with effort over the coming years we will gradually remove those firearms from the unlawful fleet.”

Although Operation Tauwhiro would be targeting organised crime and gangs, Coster was also keenly aware of the potential impact on enforcement on families and wider community,

He said police staff were expected to work with iwi and partner agencies, like Oranga Tamariki, as well as NGO social service providers and churches to help address the underlying causes of violence and organised crime.

“There needs to be some nuance in how we deal with organised crime and gangs. If that means our gang liaison officers meet gang leaders to de-escalate tensions between themselves, then that’s a strategy we can take,” said Coster.

“This is not a black and white issue. We recognise there are significant social drivers which sit alongside these issues and we can’t arrest our way out of the gang problem.”

Gang researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert, the director of Criminal Justice studies at the University of Canterbury, described Operation Tauwhiro as having “greater sophistication of thought” than simply raiding every gang member.

Where potential problems could arise was how frontline police carried out the strategy devised in police national headquarters, said Gilbert.

He noted the concern around the trial of the Armed Response Teams, which were heavily armed police officers patrolling in vehicles 24/7.

The ARTs were supposed to help staff deal with dangerous situations involving armed offenders, but routinely became involved in low-level incidents like routine traffic stops.

The police recording of data was “exceedingly poor”, according to an internal evaluation, and Coster cancelled the ARTs after an outcry from the public.

“If you’re raiding houses, it’s not to be done lightly,” said Gilbert.

“if you’re picking up illegal firearms then terrific. But the more houses you raid without finding anything, that can lead to people feeling they are being unduly targeted. That can create problems as well, just like the Armed Response Teams.”

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