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Police 'can't punch our way' out of gang violence problem, inmate-turned-advocate says of nationwide operation

An ex-con-turned-advocate working on the front line of New Zealand's drug and gang conflicts says boosting police presence will hinder efforts rather than help them. 

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Poto Williams told Breakfast she believes working alongside others will help disrupt gangs. Source: Breakfast

Billy Macfarlane, who served 14 years in prison, now runs the Rotorua-based Pūwhakamua programme that works with transitioning people out of a life of crime. 

He's wanting authorities and community leaders to focus on reconnecting gang members with their whakapapa, or culture, to realign their values. 

"If we look at a rise in the gang and crime statistics and the fall in people going to our marae... people aren't actually engaging in our culture." 

Police Minister Poto Williams agreed, saying authorities need to work with the community on the ground if they're wanting to make long-term change. But she also defended a nationwide police operation targeting gang violence through arrests.  

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"It's about building our relationships in the community. The police can't do this on their own," she told 1 NEWS. 

Williams says the Government has a "real opportunity" to instill change and prevent the next generation of gang recruits from taking off. 

"Having it in our mind that we want to disrupt our young people from getting involved in gangs is really important."

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Billy Macfarlane told Breakfast that increasing police in the Napier area won’t fix the problem. Source: Breakfast

They've already boosted police in areas like Napier, where gang tensions are growing, as well as rolling out Operation Tauwhiro nationwide. 

It's focused on gang offences, particularly shootings and other incidents that pose a "significant risk" to the wider population. 

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But Macfarlane disagreed, saying it's likely to heighten tensions between gangs and police if they try and break up gangs. Macfarlane has never been a patched gang member himself, but he knows many through his community work and his past. 

"We can't punch our way out of the problem," he explained. "Putting more police on gangs isn't going to fix the problem. You're gonna arm them and they're gonna fight back."