The intelligent approach

NZPA | Thu March 1st, 2018

If you’re a gang member, associate or prospect living in New Zealand, Police has got tabs on you. Ellen Brook reports.

Using ground-breaking collaborative techniques, the Gang Intelligence Centre (GIC), “hosted” by the National Intelligence Centre at PNHQ, has compiled a list of individuals called the National Gang List (NGL). It’s currently at 5500 names of gang members and prospects – and counting.

The GIC was set up two years ago under the previous government, as part of a wider gang harm reduction strategy, and tasked with building detailed intelligence about gang activity in New Zealand with the ultimate aim of reducing gang harm.

Police Commissioner Peter Marshall had previously said it was time for the country to find a “circuit breaker” for intergenerational gang culture.

After two years, the GIC is getting into its stride and the NGL is one of its major accomplishments, along with its innovative “whole of government” approach.

GIC team

Effecting change from the 12th floor: From left, GIC supervisor Les Maxwell, GIC manager Cathy Toi-Cassidy, NIC manager Travis Benson.

Travis Benson, Police National Intelligence Centre manager, says the multi-agency GIC has evolved from “uncharted beginnings” into a “genuine New Zealand Government fusion centre”.

It is the largest centre of its kind in the country, with representatives from Police, Customs, Corrections, Housing New Zealand, the Ministry of Social Development and Internal Affairs.

This year, it is hoping to get seconded staff from several other social and regulatory agencies.

Collaboration and buy-in from other agencies are key aspects of the GIC’s mission to provide “insight to inform action across a spectrum of social and law enforcement options”, which continues to align with the new government’s stated focus on tackling organised crime and reducing poverty.

Is it “Big Brother”? If you’re a gang member, you may well think so, but there are strict rules around the gathering and use of such information.

From a bundle of material arriving from disparate sources, the GIC seeks to shine an analytical light on gang activity – from the home front to overseas connections – to more accurately inform policy and strategic responses across government.

Intelligence supervisor Les Maxwell says Police simply couldn’t do it alone.

“The information Police gets is not always accurate because the individuals we deal with can have several aliases. The Department of Internal Affairs, however, can be more precise regarding identity validation and can more easily see where something may not line up.”

Travis says that before the GIC began, many agencies were not fully aware of the impact that gangs could have on the work of their organisations. “Now we can actually count the cost to society and it’s quite an eye-opener,” he says.

A Ministry of Social Development report on gang activity shows that cycles of violence within gang families collectively cost the welfare system $714 million over their lifetimes. Between 1993 and 2014, nine out of 10 gang members received a benefit or other welfare, costing $525 million, the report said.

The report said 60 per cent of children born to gang parents were abused or neglected and it estimated that Child, Youth and Family spent up to $189 million supporting the children of gang members over their lifetimes.

More than 30 per cent of the country’s prison population are affiliated with a gang. Inmates often feel pressured into aligning with a gang for their own protection.

Regular GIC reporting highlights the number of gang members involved in serious violence offences, including homicides, kidnappings, firearms and meth offences. This intelligence also informs other reporting. For example, the GIC prepares intel reports for Housing New Zealand, which has about 400 gang members living in its properties. Information on methamphetamine and violence offences involving any of these gang members is invaluable.

“With that information,” Les says, “Housing NZ can prioritise meth contamination testing and safeguard tenancy managers and contractors. We can also highlight opportunities for partner agencies to provide support if children or victims of family violence are present in the home.”

Some of the “bigger picture” snapshots that the NGL highlights are, for example, that particular chapters of the Mongrel Mob are evolving and expanding and there are now more Comanchero motorcycle gang members arriving in New Zealand since Australia began deporting gang members back here.

The GIC also works with the Australian Gang Intelligence Co-ordination Centre, overseen by the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission, and the Pacific Transnational Crime Co-ordination Centre based in Samoa.

The South Pacific is an area of concern, says Les. “Organised crime is a significant threat to the region. With the knowledge we have of gang activity, such as the names and whereabouts of individuals, we have been able to disrupt dozens of movements.”

For example, he says, as a result of good intel, on one occasion at least 12 members of the Tribesmen gang were prevented from travelling to Fiji.

Gang members

The GIC also monitors changes in gang membership and connections. Travis says police intelligence on certain gang members has been enriched by 40 per cent by the GIC because of more “accurate views of networks”.

He says it’s a trap, however, to talk about the GIC only in law enforcement terms. “It’s a collaborative effort and a progression to build a strategic intelligence picture for the whole country.”

In the first couple of years, more of a law enforcement approach had been necessary to help build the picture, he says, but the next phase of the GIC’s mission is to increase support for strategies that tackle social harm. “The real value is the strategic intelligence that enables system-wide harm reduction and prevention,” he says.

So how does that translate at the grassroots level? What does all the data and number crunching achieve for the social agencies on the ground?

The overview helps all agencies, they say, with intel that can be as good for a social worker in the suburbs (being kept apprised of gang family connections) as it can be for a policy analyst at Treasury (just how much that family is costing the country) or Police (intel on the character of a person seeking a firearms licence).

The GIC is studying its expanding big picture to see if it can find the answers to reducing family and societal harm. For example, it has embarked on a project to utilise the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), a massive research database owned by Statistics NZ but with data from a range of government agencies, to answer policy and evaluation questions with respect to gangs.

One of the main aims is to break the cycle of gang life. Nobody thinks that’s going to be easy, or that it will happen quickly.

As the GIC’s new manager, Cathy Toi-Cassidy, puts it: “We are taking small bites of the elephant.” She’s optimistic, however, that with the overview and input of many government agencies working together, they will at least have a fighting chance.

A key initiative in the whole of government plan is the Start at Home programme, led by MSD, to try to turn people away from the gang lifestyle and reduce the likelihood of young people joining gangs.

It will take generations to see change, so it helps to be a believer. “The information is all right here,” says Travis. “The intel does the work. The fusion model is the best chance we have for dealing with gangs.”

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