Facts matter. In a time when public discourse is riddled with ‘alternative facts’ and conspiracy theories, they perhaps matter now more than ever. Particularly in the media.

In 1987 Sir Clinton Roper wrote: “There is probably no subject in the field of law and order that can provoke more selective and distorted coverage from the media, or a more emotive, and often ill-informed, rhetoric from those in authority, than gangs”

I’d argue that this is as true today as it was then. So when the media started reporting official police data in the last year or so, it seemed like a big step in the right direction. Unfortunately, these statistics are not fit for purpose.

Examples include:

“Uncontrolled growth….gang members now number more than 7000 for the first time, up 50 per cent between December 2016 and December 2019.”

“At least 900 people reportedly joined a gang in 2020, an increase of 13 per cent on the year before.”

These data are alarming and understandably stick with the public. And although they are wisely collected by the police, the numbers themselves are highly inaccurate.

In short the problem is this: it’s incredibly easy to get on the list and difficult to come off it.

In academia we call this a methodological issue; in normal terms it is simply how information is collected. If a person is seen wearing a gang patch, then his name will go on the list. But if that person leaves, how will the police know? In other words there are swathes of people who remain on the list who are no longer in a gang.

For example, there are a number of people on the list who belong to a gang that folded at least three years ago. Wild discrepancies can also be found in examining small chapters – numbers that local police might know accurately – but the official gang statistics record them as being more than twice as large.

Within the mythology of some gangs it’s said the only way to leave the group is to die. But not as far as the official list is concerned. I’d bet anything you like that there are deceased gang members on the list too.

This is not to say there hasn’t been growth in the scene. Since 2011, with the establishment of the Rebels – Australia’s largest outlaw motorcycle club – the entire gang scene has been expanding, but the police data are not an accurate reflection of that. One really interesting phenomenon of this period is the rapid patching up of people. Many gangs now recruit with little or no prospecting (initiation) period. Patches used to be hard earned but now that they are not, they’re just as easily abandoned. So with all of the movement into the scene in the past decade or so, there has also been an enormous amount of churn, people moving in and out of gangs at a high rate. The moves in are counted, the moves out not as quickly.

In gambling terms: it’s a fixed deck.

This is not a criticism of police, it’s important they keep track of those people entering gangs; and if they didn’t issue the numbers they would be criticised for blocking Official Information Act requests. And those who collect these data are aware of their shortcomings, even if many within the police – and those in the media – are not.

I believe the new head of the Gang Intelligence Centre will make important changes within police, including correcting this problem with the data and how they are used. But in the meantime, the media should be extremely wary of using those numbers.

Media commentators and journalists have used the police gang data to call for a ban on gangs by curbing fundamental freedoms. They have also been used to question why police have temporarily halted recruitment. If we want to have such debates, that’s fine. But, as has been the case recently, if we are talking about curbing human rights of association and expression or about slowing police intakes, then let’s at least have them using accurate statistics.

History and international evidence tells us this: policies based on poor or misread data are financially costly and likely to be ineffectual or, worse, more serious than the problem.

And don’t get me wrong, there are problems.

In January 2014 I wrote that the gang growth would likely lead to increased gang violence – and this is what we are seeing. The gangs do and will require policing, and potentially special police responses.

Growth in the scene is happening, but the police gang number count is currently not accurately portraying that. And the media shouldn’t use the figures as if they are; because now, more than ever, facts matter.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and the author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand

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