Police are planning to launch a dedicated operation across Auckland and smaller teams around the country to tackle the growing violence between gangs and intimidating behaviour in public.
The Herald understands that Operation Cobalt will start in June and run for at least six months, with a ring-fenced group of staff pooled from the Auckland, Counties and Waitemata police districts.
The other police districts will each be required to set up a unit focus on “suppressing, disrupting and enforcing” unlawful activity by gang members, in a crackdown that will be coordinated nationwide by a senior detective.
A spokesperson from Police National Headquarters declined to comment on specific details.
But the Herald understands Operation Cobalt will closely monitor gang runs and tangi processions, where large numbers of motorcycles ride in convoy, in tactics the police have employed in traffic stops on the Comancheros and Killer Beez gangs in recent weeks.
Other strategies are likely to include prioritising bail checks and arrest warrants for gang members, or responding in force to reports of gang-related assaults or disorder.
“The aim is to put pressure on gangs so they can feel it,” said one source, “and the public can see it.”
The proposal of a ring-fenced unit in Auckland and the wider nationwide strategy to focus on gangs comes after five years of radical change in the criminal underworld.
The arrival of Australian motorcycle gangs, such as the Comancheros, Mongols and Rebels has upset the gang pecking order in New Zealand.
Nicknamed “501s” after the section of the immigration law used to deport them on character grounds, law enforcement agencies believe these new gangs have a disproportionate influence because of their international connections, sophisticated counter-surveillance tactics, and aggressive approach to use firearms.
There has been an increase in the number of large drug seizures since 2016, including a record-breaking 613kg of methamphetamine in March linked to the Comancheros, as well as a spike in gun violence.
While New Zealand criminals have always carried firearms, the arrival of so many rival groups acting has escalated tensions to the point where someone is more likely to pull the trigger.
Most shootings are not reported to police because of the criminal code of silence, unless someone is killed or the violence spills into the public.
But in the past 2 years alone, there have been shootings between the Comancheros and the Head Hunters, once the most dominant gang in New Zealand, as well as a long running feud between the Rebels, another group with roots in Australia, and the King Cobras.
The Mongols have been involved in several tit-for-tat stoushes with the Head Hunters including at least two incidents where the Head Hunters’ pad in Mt Wellington has been targeted with semi-automatic firearms.
In retaliation, shots were fired inside the lobby of a five-star hotel in Auckland’s waterfront.
At a wider level, data recorded by frontline police show staff are coming across about 10 firearms every day.
“There doesn’t seem to be many days go by when you don’t hear about shots being fired,” Police Association Chris Cahill said earlier this week.
“That flows from the fact there is a willingness to actually pull the trigger. It demonstrates why we have to do everything we can to put this genie back in the bottle.”
In response to the escalation in gun violence, police brass launched Operation Tauwhiro in March last year.
More than 1500 firearms were taken out of criminal hands in the first 12 months, which is a figure often cited by Police Minister Poto Williams as “resounding success” and a result of Labour’s tough stance on gangs.
National spokesman Mark Mitchell said the “reality was it was business as usual”. This was because weapons attributed to Operation Tauwhiro included any taken from gang members or associates during routine police work, such as traffic stops or 111 calls, or other organised crime investigations already underway.
The success of Operation Tauwhiro can be measured in more than just numbers said Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, the officer in charge, who pointed out that police also created a dedicated firearms squad.
This ring-fenced team focused on how firearms were getting into the hands of criminals and identified the tactic of “straw buying” – also known as retail diversion where licensed firearms owners sell guns to criminals – was a much bigger problem than previously thought.
This month, the New Zealand Police will also gain access to an international database, eTrace, which is run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in the United States.
The system allows law enforcement agencies around the world to share manufacturing and sales data, to help investigators trace illegal firearms as far back as the factory plant where they were made.
Working more closely with overseas law enforcement is already paying dividends, said Greg Williams, referring to a United States Homeland Security tip which led to the discovery of methamphetamine and military-style firearms in Auckland last month.
“What we’re trying to do with Tauwhiro is change the entire environment and disrupt the illicit supply of firearms.”
The Herald understands that Operation Cobalt is considered by police brass as a natural next step of Operation Tauwhiro.
A dedicated gang squad will inevitably be compared to the infamous Strike Force Raptor in Australia, an elite unit set up following a fatal gang brawl in Sydney airport in 2009, which was later criticised for “hostile” tactics targeting gang members.
Three years ago, the then National Party leader Simon Bridges said police should set up an equivalent of “Raptor” to deal with the problems from growing numbers of gang members and gun violence.
Bridges is leaving politics on Wednesday but in recent weeks, the National Party has renewed calls in recent weeks for a dedicated gang squad through police spokesman Mark Mitchell.
“This is good news,” Mitchell said of Operation Cobalt “but it’s three years too late, and the gangs have grown stronger and more brazen since then.
“I look forward to seeing the details of what needs to be a properly manned and resourced taskforce capable of policing gangs with serious intent, and removing the belief they can take over public spaces, intimidate and assault members of the public, and carry illegal firearms.”
Sources say the aim of Operation Cobalt is to target the unlawful behaviour of gangs, as opposed to targeting individuals for simply wearing a patch.
This was a crucial distinction, according to gang researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert.
“There’s no point going after any old gang member with an outstanding warrant, or every gang across the board. It’s got to be targeted at the troublemakers,” said Gilbert.
“If you’re going to put resources in, you’ve got to pump them in where the problems are, because it assists in modifying behaviour. That sends a clear message and those groups say ‘We don’t want the heat on us, everyone better behave themselves’.”
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