Saturday, March 18, 2006

Editorial: Gang patches nothing to do with councils

Britain's largest shopping complex, the Bluewater in Kent, got a notable response last year when it banned youths wearing hooded clothing. Virtually overnight, the number of shoppers rose by 23 per cent. Some people clearly relished the removal of what they viewed as an intimidating presence. Other British shopowners, suitably encouraged, were soon extending the ban to the wearing of baseball hats. Now a ploy with some similarities is being proposed in Wanganui, where the city council wants to ban gang patches in public places.

"Hoodies" and gang colours are uniforms of a sort, providing the wearer with all the attractions that entails. Most of all, the choice of clothing delivers an anti-social message and a sense of bravado. It provides what Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws described, quite aptly, as the "strut factor".

But there are differences between the bans. One was initiated by shopowners trying to protect their customers and their reputation. The other sees a local authority moving into largely uncharted territory in seeking to impose what amounts to a dress code. The distinction is important. As is the fact that, with the exception of Paisley in Scotland, no British local authority has sought to mimic shopowners by banning the wearing of hoodies in a town centre.

There are good reasons for the reticence, reasons that have led other New Zealand local authorities to step back from such a move. Some feared they may be exceeding their powers; others pointed to the freedoms and articles of non-discrimination incorporated in the Bill of Rights Act.

There is, in fact, an unsettling dimension to local councils' involvement in such issues. Determining what people can wear is hardly normal fare for them. Already, some Wanganui councillors are sensing precisely why limits have been placed on local-authority powers. They have qualms about how wide-ranging this ban would be. They might also ask that if clothing can be added to an orbit normally reserved for mundanities such as footpaths and waste water, what could be next.

Local councils, rather than pass bylaws of doubtful merit, effectiveness and legality, would do better to wholeheartedly back the police response and press for a more effective Government reaction. They should be supporting initiatives like that of the Whakatane police, who have reinforced their own ban on the wearing of gang patches and regalia by bringing prosecutions for disorderly behaviour that is likely to incite violence.

The Government, for its part, should be allotting more police, especially intelligence specialists, to the problem, instigating a more co-ordinated approach nationally, and enacting stronger legislation in terms of gang assets and the carrying of weapons.

It should also be recognised that those who lash out at clothing and regalia are, to some degree, tilting at windmills. The fear of youth crime in Britain, which underpins the bans on hoodies and baseball caps, far outstrips reality.

And patches and Harley-Davidsons are becoming something of an anachronism in a gang world that has reduced its public confrontations and focused on the lucrative business of making and distributing methamphetamines. Metaphorically, leathers are being traded in for business suits, a uniform more amenable to the middle-class consumers of the gangs' drug industry.

In the final analysis, even the most astute of approaches is unlikely to eliminate gangs. Equally, youths will always express their sense of alienation through rebel clothing. This should never justify situations in which mainstream society feels unduly intimidated. Where this occurs, it must be tackled.

That, however, is not a place where prudent local authorities would wish, or should have, to go.

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