A police spokeswoman told NZPA this afternoon police were following positive lines of inquiry into the man’s identity, but there had not yet been an arrest.
At the same time Black Power gang members are looking for the man whom they say deserves “a good clouting”.
The assault happened in Whakatane’s Cutler Crescent reserve last Thursday afternoon when a man approached the child while his father’s back was turned, poked him in the chest and shouted at him to remove the shirt.
The man, who was wearing blue bandannas around his wrists and neck, then physically removed the shirt from the boy before his father could intervene, Eastern Bay of Plenty acting area commander Inspector Greg Sparrow said.
Whakatane is known as the territory of the Black Power gang, which is associated with blue-coloured clothing. Black Power’s main rival gang, the Mongrel Mob, is associated with red-coloured clothing.
Yesterday a Black Power member who lives in the street said the gang was not happy about the assault and if they found the man concerned would be given a “good clouting”.
It was initially thought the man was a Black Power member, but police yesterday said he might not be a formal member of an adult gang, but rather a member of a “wannabe” youth group.
“This was a terrible incident and no doubt it was frightening for the boy and his family and we are doing everything we can to locate this person and ensure he is held accountable,” Mr Sparrow said.
“Regardless of whether the offender has formal gang connections or not, we do not believe that we have an escalating problem in our community.”
Mr Sparrow said police were very aware of the intimidating nature of groups of youths or gang patches in public places, particularly in town centres and central business districts.
“We will be working closely alongside our local partners such as the Whakatane District Council, community groups, social agencies and iwi to ensure that, together, we are all doing everything we can in this regard.”
Police said the man, believed to be in his mid 20s to early 30s, was described as Maori, clean shaven with black short hair and about 170cm tall. His blue T-shirt had “Whakatane” in white lettering on the front.