What do the rowdy gang tangi, Brian Tamaki, and rascals blasting around Auckland on dirt bikes have in common? God knows, but the responses to them have all been examples of sound policing.
Last year, some high-profile gang tangi raised the ire of many as gang members and their associates blocked streets and performed burnouts. Many people called for police to take forceful action to break up the disruptive events, saying that letting them away with this behaviour was at best the police abdicating their responsibilities and at worst cowering to gang intimidation.
Similarly, reports of people on dirt bikes roaring around Auckland streets, making a racket and racing one another was viewed by many in the same way. Few police chases and immediate arrests, and the noisy hooligans were making a mockery of all things good.
But what is less well recognised is that there were arrests after those gang tangi, and vehicles impounded to boot. They just happened after the events, based on evidence collected by police and members of the public.
The hooning dirt-bikers have also got their rude awakening. Earlier this month it was revealed that 130 people had been arrested and 100 of their bikes impounded.
The images of outlaw elements leering it up to make great news for the media and get an enormous amount of coverage and discussion, but the diligent policing that follows gets much less so. The emotive public talk that is pumped up at the time of the events is not countered when those people breaking the law are held to account. Consequently, the police take a great deal of criticism because their approach is not well understood.
Imagine for a second if police took the advice of those who hollered that they should break up any of the gang tangi. What would the consequences have been? Yep, there would have been immediate arrests, but there would also have been the inevitability of terrible conflict – perhaps riots – with ensuing property damage and injury.
Even at the most basic level, any type of confrontation would have meant the tangi went longer and caused more disruption within those streets.
Similarly, if police had en masse chased the dirt-bikers around Auckland streets, the likelihood of serious harm through crashes – involving innocent motorists – obviously increases greatly.
In both of these instances, the consequences of the enforcement would have been more significant than the original activity.
Instead, the police allowed the situations to play out quickly, and in time those who broke the law were ultimately brought to justice.
This policing isn’t just intelligent and pragmatic in the short term, it’s also critical in the longer term, too. Think about the anti-vax protesters and Brian Tamaki, for example. The anti-vax movement is less a cohesive whole and more a collection of subgroups ranging from the bamboozled through to the befuddled and each subset holds different beliefs. While the vast majority are peaceful, among them are small groups who are spoiling for a fight – and even smaller groups who are looking for a genuine revolution (calling for public executions of politicians, health professionals and academics, I kid you not).
Tamaki has never been arrested in front of a crowd. Sensibly, the police have waited and arrested him quietly and efficiently. In this way, the peaceful protests remain non-violent. Stirring that hive may lead to future protests becoming something ugly. Internationally, people of violent subgroups are swelling on the idea that at such events violence will occur. Sidelining rather than exciting those groups is eminently sensible.
There will be times when the police need to use significant force, but this ought not to be seen as the go-to when better means are available. The police at this time clearly understand this, and they’re acting appropriately.
Some people may recall that I have not always been so charitable in my views of certain police actions and activities. And there will be times in the future when I will criticise them. That’s not just because they are a large organisation and will invariably get things wrong, but also because it’s important to be critical of the police. They hold great power, and a check on that is important. But we should also have a mature understanding of what they are doing, and not fall into kneejerk characterisations.
It’s very easy to fall into two traps, depending on which side sets them; it’s the Twitter and Talkback Radio dichotomy.
On the left of politics, there is an inclination to think the police are thugs. There’s a tendency to conflate international issues with local ones – think Black Lives Matter, for example – and have a lens that views all New Zealand police activities as sinister and racist.
On the political right, and perhaps more pervasive currently, is the view that the New Zealand police are too timid – “woke” as one unthinking opposition politician described them last year. This view holds that the police are too soft-footed, allowing crooks too much leeway.
We should ignore the noise of these extreme views, and have confidence that – in these instances at least – the police are at the top of their game and ensuring justice is served in ways that are pragmatic and minimise short- and long-term harms.
Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the Director of Independent Research Solutions.
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