Moves to introduce a gang patch ban in Timaru have gained momentum. But does the district have a gang problem, and what would a ban achieve? Claire Allison investigates.
Timaru has long been touchy about its reputation as a gang town. In the early 1990s, when television news described it as "a town under seige", locals were not impressed and felt the label was undeserved.
That was despite the 80s and 90s being characterised by outbreaks of gang violence shootings, stabbings, firebombings of cars and torching of trucks.
Dave Gaskin remembers those days well. And now, as area controller for Mid and South Canterbury, the police inspector doesn't want to see the town in that situation again.
Janie Annear wants Timaru's reputation to be one of a place where it's difficult for gangs to get established. As mayor, she would rather introduce a patch ban as a pre-emptive measure, rather than wait until the situation deteriorates.
Main street retailers aren't so sure. Moves last year to have every Stafford St store sport a sticker banning gang patches from their premises lost momentum and failed to gain wholesale support. However, the South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce this week moved to wholeheartedly support the council's initiative.
Patch bans are already in place in some areas. Timaru bars ban the wearing of patches and gang regalia, as does the courthouse. A ban on gang regalia at the last Caroline Bay Carnival was deemed a success, with several people being removed from the Bay mostly teenage gang wannabes.
This new initiative was introduced in the wake of Black Power and Mongrel Mob presence in Timaru during the year.
The presence of those two gangs, and their efforts to recruit young people, was the catalyst for the creation of Project Y an initiative between Timaru's safer communities committee, police, government departments and social agencies to address gang issues.
In the wake of criticism from some quarters about the patch ban proposal, Annear reminds people it wasn't that long ago there was sufficient community concern to warrant 300 people turning out to a public meeting.
Gaskin says that was the difference between the problems of the early 1990s and last year's gang situation.
"Timaru in the 1990s, we had a serious issue because people ignored it for a long period of time, and allowed the gangs to gain strength. The difference this time was that there was a real community willingness to deal with it early, and attack the problem before it got out of hand. No-one sat back and said there's nothing we can do."
Gaskin believes the elements were there for matters to deteriorate to 1991 levels of visible, overt presence, intimidation, and people afraid to speak out or give evidence in case they were targeted.
"I don't ever want to see Timaru go back to that stage. Even now, police around the country say, `Timaru? that's a gang town'."
The escalation of violence saw five new police positions in Timaru and police were sent down from Christchurch.
"To rein them in was a major effort, and came at enormous cost to the country."
Key players in the 1980s and 90s were the Devils Henchmen and the Road Knights local men, many of whom had lived here all their lives and were employed locally. Those decades and particularly 1991 were marked by a battle for dominance and tit-for-tat attacks between members and associates of both gangs.
Patched Road Knights and Henchmen were conspicuous by their absence last year when Mongrel Mob and Black Power members were making their presence felt.
Gaskin says the Henchmen always considered the smarter, more savvy group have now essentially assimilated into society.
The Road Knights numbers are believed to be low, with little local leadership. Senior members have moved out of town, or died. Many were on bail during last year's flare-ups of gang activity. One is serving a long sentence. Police consider his release may be a catalyst for further activity.
"The lid is on it at the moment, but I don't think this is finished though. Something will happen in the future."
FAST forward to 2008. The players were Black Power and Mongrel Mob, but again, it was an attempt to establish dominance.
A difference was that members were predominantly from out of town, but they were targeting young locals to enlist.
There were rumours of sexual offending against young girls, incidents of violence although the weapons were mostly baseball bats and knives rather than molotov cocktails and firearms. Many incidents went unreported because of the fear of retaliation.
Known offending included arson attacks on houses, public stoushes, intimidation and assaults. The murder of a young Timaru man was said to have a background of gang affiliations.
Gaskin says the situation wasn't as serious as that experienced in the 1990s.
"But the only reason it's not serious is because there has been some really good work done recently. We got a lot of community groups together to tackle the issue head on, rather than wait for it to get too big."
Gaskin says a patch ban is another tool in the arsenal against a group of people behaving in an unsociable way, and gives police the ability to deal with the overt presence.
"It's not the answer to all the problems in the world, and it won't stop gangs existing, and I don't think anyone expects it to do so ... but what it does, it removes the fear of gangs...
"These people live here, they are members of our community whether we like it or not. A lot of them make the effort to keep their nose clean in their own patch, but others don't."
While Gaskin says the overt presence of gang members isn't as high as it has been in the past, he warns against people assuming that means the gangs don't exist. Annear remains firm in her belief that a patch ban is worth having.
"We have to make sure that we do everything we can. I want to be able to put my hand on my heart and be able to stand up in front of my community and say that as mayor and as a council we have done everything we could possibly do to make sure that this community is one of the safest in New Zealand to live in ... that we care about our kids and aren't letting the gangs prey on them."
Annear says Timaru is sandwiched between Christchurch and Dunedin where there are major gang issues.
"We know that strategically, the gangs want to infiltrate the whole of the South Island. It's organised crime, and it's about drugs, and we have to make the Timaru district one of the hardest places that you possibly can for gangs to set up.
"We've also got to remember that gangs prey on our vulnerable young people, and they prey on the most vulnerable of our young people."
Annear says a patch ban was effective at the Caroline Bay Carnival, and helped make families and children feel safe on the Bay. "It should be the same in the central business districts and in our parks and reserves."
Annear says the ban would send a message that people are welcome here as long as they are not wearing their regalia patches earned by serious criminal activity.
"We all have the basic right to feel safe in our community and free from intimidation of any kind."
She says it's amazing how quickly people forget what has happened here.
"Our community's been quiet for a year, but that's why we had 300 people come to a public meeting, because people were so concerned.
"When things are calm here and we have little activity, I'd rather we avail ourselves of a tool, rather than wait for something awful to happen and then say `let's do something'.
"Do we wait until it's in the last stages before we do anything, or do we attack the problem when it's small and it's something you can deal with?"
Annear sees a patch ban as a pre-emptive move, rather than a reactive one.
"We're aware that gangs in New Zealand are going to be a problem from time to time. Let's make sure that we are a hard place to flourish in. It doesn't hurt to have it (a ban) there. If it doesn't have to be used, that's fantastic."