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FRINGE: Maverick

Gerrit Gray Doppenberg
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Jarrod Gilbert in his office at UC  Gerrit Doppenberg

For a professor of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury, Jarrod Gilbert has a fair few stories for the watercooler.

You might expect him to have written a few books and to have spent much of his life in a library but Gilbert runs his path a little wilder than most. He’s been in bar brawls, gang houses, and has had one serious motorcycle accident. He wrote the most comprehensive study of gangs in New Zealand, after eight years of time spent in the field hanging out and learning from the gangs. Name another professor who can bring up a story where he and famous British actor and documentary maker Ross Kemp were involved in a jail break in Papa New Guinea.

But this is all by design. Gilbert loves what he does.

“The most interesting parts of my job are in the field. You leave the ivory tower and go out and hang out with people who ordinary people don’t associate with.”

Born in 1974, Gilbert grew up in Auckland without any exposure to what would become his calling card in academia.

“It was boringly middle-class. I came from a good family, born parents still together. I don’t think I’d see a gang member until I decided to study them.”

Gilbert went to Westlake Boys where he says, although he was a good student academically, he had some attitude problems.

“I was a pretty questioning student. In fact, all the things that got me in strife at school are the traits that made me successful at my job. The stuff they tried to cane out of me have served me incredibly well.

“I just questioned teachers and thought having a laugh was as important as showing up to class.”

Gilbert studied advertising at Auckland at AUT, getting a scholarship to work at an agency in Auckland. After getting an offer to work for the New Zealand Herald, he received some advice a mentor, Peter Grace, gave him that changed the trajectory of his life.

“I got offered a job working as a gopher at the herald and he said don’t take that job, it’ll kill your creativity. So, I said I’ll move to Christchurch and write a novel. And he said if you move to Christchurch and write a novel you’ll become an alcoholic. A brilliant alcoholic, but an alcoholic.

“He said go to university, it’ll keep you focused. I never did write that novel but that advice was the best advice I ever received in my life.”

At the University of Canterbury Gilbert thrived studying sociology. He became the Student Assocation president. While studying, Gilbert had a lightbulb moment talking with Greg Newbold, a professor of criminal justice, at the time.

“There’s small moments in life where if you know it or not, everything changes. I was in a lecture with Greg Newbold in my second year.

“He said there’s a dearth of research on New Zealand gangs. I remember the line. I remember thinking to myself that’s so peculiar. How can there be so little research on such an important issue?”

Gilbert wrote an essay and an honours project on the topic, and then started his PHD. He warns against doing PHDs, calling them a daunting task.

“I don’t recommend them unless you’re really committed to them. I got sick to death of people asking when mine would be finished.”

Gilbert figured that the best way to write about gangs would be to hear from the gangs themselves. And so, he jumped into the field, attempting to ingratiate himself with New Zealand’s underworld. The reaction from people around him was about what you would expect.

“Most of my peers thought it wasn’t a worthwhile project. It wasn’t seen as academic enough. I was inspired by sociologists from the Chicago school of the early nineteen hundreds who say you have to go to the laboratory of the street.

“My supervisor didn’t think it was really possible. My mother thought I was going to get murdered. Overall, there wasn’t a huge amount of encouragement.”

Gilbert knew there would be ethical concerns.

“I sure as shit wouldn’t be allowed to go into the field. Ethics would have stopped me in a heartbeat. But the way I go around ethics was just to lie to them. Which isn’t recommended but there’s no way on Earth they would have allowed me to do what I did.”

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Some of the awards Gilbert received for his book Patched Gerrit Doppenberg

To go from an academic background to working in the field was a culture shock for Gilbert, who found it difficult to develop trust.

“It took so long because I didn’t know the language, how to behave, how to meet these people. It took years. I spent about six years in the field.

“You’ve gotta make friends with people who you have, in many instances, nothing in common with. So once you talked about the weather, and the Warriors’ score, where do you go from there? There’s so little common ground.

“You tend to say yes to everything. Never have a strong opinion, anything that could bring you into conflict with people you just absolutely avoid.”

He went to gang houses, would party for three days straight, writing notes when he could.

“There were plenty of times where it wasn’t hardship. You make friendships in the scene, you’d go on adventures or bike rides or party. I had a ton of fun. Some tremendous, tremendous times.

“But it was still work. Even after three days of partying I was coming back and writing field notes, transcribing interviews if I got any, so work was never far away.”

But he says taking notes was the most difficult part.

“Taking notes is one of the hardest things because initially I carried a notebook and would scribble things down in the toilet. But I thought if I get caught doing that, I mean it just makes you look like exactly what you are, right?

“The only person who carries a notebook is a detective.”

After seven years of writing and field work, Gilbert had produced “The Rise and Development of Gangs in New Zealand” - a work that was later revised into “Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand”. He still keeps in contact with people he met over that time.

“For years I had more gang numbers in my phone than I had friends. Every working minute, every leisure moment was with gangs.

“But as life gets busier and you move onto new projects it’s hard to keep that up. I still go to the odd party, still catch up with a few people in the scene from time to time.”

He says the insistence on field work is paramount for academics, and he would like to see people engage with the public more.

“I think what distinguishes me more than anything is the type of research I do now, I’m really interested in practical research. I want to see the results on the world around us. I don’t think enough academics do that.

“I don’t think enough academics speak to the public as much as they should too. If what you’re researching is important you should be informing the public of that. I think you’ve got an obligation to speak to the public because they will hear from people, it’s just they should be hearing from the most informed people possible.

“If you don’t hear from informed people, you hear from ill-informed people. In an age where misinformation is so rife, trusted voices become more important.”

The opportunity came to be a part of a documentary by Kemp. It was on the Mongrel Mob, and so Gilbert got the call-up. He and Kemp ended up becoming close friends.

“The director told me, look he’s famous in the United Kingdom, make sure he stays out of trouble. I said man, I’m not the guy. I’m not the guy to keep a man out of trouble.

“And sure enough, the first day we all went out for dinner. The crew went home and we hit the turps. We got home at about two in the morning, pissed to bits. And from that moment on we’ve been really good mates. We must ring each other every couple of months, he’s a good man.”

When filming a documentary in Papua New Guinea, a release form was needed for a piece of footage. Gilbert put his hand up to get the signature and ended up in a prison.

“The warden opened up this primitive jail. This dark, old, dirty jail and biffed me inside. I found this guy. He threatened to beat me up with sign language because he couldn’t speak English and I just thought this isn’t going well.

“The guy thought he was signing forms to he could get out of jail and be on the TV in the UK. When I was trying like hell to get out of there the warden opened the door, he darted out, and the others darted out after him.

“All of a sudden I’m in the middle of this prison break. One, I was fearing for my life, the other thing was I was like why is the camera not here filming this?

“The scene was surreal. The warden grabbed the guy as he was running past and grabbed his shorts, so there’s just this naked arse, people running around, what the hell is going on? The day I instigated a jail break in Papua New Guinea was sure something.”

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Gilbert's degree in his office Gerrit Doppenberg

Now he spends his time in the office doing field work where he can. In his current research, he’s travelling to prisons around the country to understand how gangs work in prison and the impacts they have. He also works as a volunteer firefighter in Sumner.

“It’s a good thing for the community, but they’re also my mates who I see and train with every week. From time to time you go out and do some amazing things. It’s great to be among it. Sometimes it’s awful, but if you can be helping people it’s a great thing to do.”

Gilbert, for all his stories of wild adventures and hobbies, doesn’t consider himself an adrenaline junkie.

“I don’t go chasing thrills I don’t think. I’m just a fairly normal bloke who just found himself in unusual situations.”

A normal man, who has done extraordinary things. Descending from the ivory tower to map those secret societies that others fear to pass, Gilbert carved out a special place in academia. A mild-mannered professor by day, but also a researcher whose thorough and dedicated work has changed the landscape of New Zealand’s criminal justice research.