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A smart way to deal with dumb gangs

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Bodies line up for a haircut. Hardly the most threatening sight.credit:Harry Freeman

There have always been gangs. When I was growing up in Preston, Crevelly Street was a no-go zone and playing football in the Olympic Village (players on the local team years ago thought a serious tag was a visit from a parole officer) required a fake name and running away at the last siren. (My gang was the First Preston Boy Scouts, which meant I could tie a mean half-hook, which wasn’t too good in a street fight. The closest we got to violence was an exciting game of British Bulldog.)

Before that there were Bodgies, and the police response was the Bodgie Squad, a group of cops who beat Bodgies at the first sign of trouble.

Recently, there have been several strategies that have included refusing to recognize the existence of gangs, trying to deal with individual crimes, and random attacks as a show of force. It helped generate headlines and little else.

It was quite easy to catch them. Few of the gangs tried to disguise their involvement – some committed violent crimes while still in school uniform.

Eventually it became clear that simply imprisoning criminals had little effect on crime rates.

Like the police in gang-dominated cities such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Glasgow, there was a need to develop strategies to reduce violence, working with local councils, youth workers and welfare agencies.

Today, there is a city-wide strategy called Operation Alliance that tries to slow down the merry-go-round to give trespassers a better chance of getting out.

So instead of waiting for the next stabbing or home invasion, the police identify the main criminals in their gang and put them under strict surveillance.

Acting Sergeant Olivia Dennison, from the Westgate Alliance Task Force, says offenders are screened every two weeks and their associations, bail compliance, school and work attendance are checked.

Enforcement is only part of the answer.

Enforcement is only part of the answer.

This is not the ugly police. In Wyndham, the Embedded Youth Outreach Project brings together police and youth workers to respond to incidents, intervene and help young people deal with any problems they face.

In Brimbank, police interact with younger siblings of gang members in an attempt to steer them away from criminal gangs before they are captured. “We need to get in early,” Dennison says. “Sometimes we see someone with no criminal record committing armed robberies. They are siblings who go from zero to 100.”

As part of the intervention, police are working with the families of gang members. “There are parents who work night shifts and may be working two different jobs who are doing their best. They are often at their wits end, says Dennison.

Sometimes the police can act in the wake of a tragedy, such as when a young man was killed in a gang knife attack earlier this year.

There were teenagers there that night, and some saw the killing and realized it was all too real. The police then swung into action, using the death as an example of what would happen to them, either as victims or as offenders. “Some on the periphery were very shocked. It was a real wake-up call.”

So what is a street gang? According to the police, this is a group of three to 50 people who have joined together to commit crimes. They are recruited from school, street, families and by nationality.

Crimes include armed robberies, home invasions, burglaries, carjackings and then burning them and attacking each other. “Violence between groups is the most common,” says Mobilo.

Although they are local gangs, their crimes move beyond the area, with one group stealing cars in one suburb and setting them on fire in another. Others travel across town to break into homes.

The violence in the city can be caused by suburban gangs renting AirBnBs for parties. And once they get there, they don’t stop until they are caught.

Three boys, aged 15, 16 and 17, have been arrested by South Metro Crime Squad detectives in just one week earlier this month following a series of aggravated burglaries and car thefts in Toorak, Brighton, Hawthorne and Hallam. They were charged with aggravated burglary of a motor vehicle, theft of a motor vehicle and committing a criminal offense while on bail.

Typically, participants are between the ages of 14 and 22 and, contrary to popular belief, most do not become career criminals. “They tend to grow out of it,” says Mobila.

What the police are trying to do is to make them grow out of it faster, by offering alternative pathways through employment and education opportunities or ongoing supervision, so that they pick themselves up once they offend.

Police will not publicly name the gangs because they believe they are enjoying notoriety. It’s one thing to know gang members. Stopping them from committing crimes is another.

For example, when the police received a call from mall security that some of their known criminals were stealing knives and hiding them in planters.

A check of CCTV cameras, followed by a physical search, revealed knives and machetes hidden throughout the center in planters and toilets to be seized by gangs in the event of a fight. Brimbank police shared intelligence which led to searches of shopping centers in other areas. “The same thing happened around Melbourne,” says Mobila.

When a gang member was threatened, police intercepted a car carrying several rivals armed with knives and machetes. The Youth Justice offender management team took the threats so seriously that they relocated the family and convinced the rivals that a truce would be in everyone’s best interest.

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In August, a new gang that had just formed in the Melton area began straining their collective strength to commit a crime and start a turf war.

Police tactics were old-school, with local officers backed by the Viper Task Force, the Offender Squad and the Gang Squad making a series of arrests until the threat was contained.

Every three months, the Alliance conducts blitz raids, bringing in anti-gang squads like the Viper to check train stations and gang hangouts for weapons, stolen property and curfew breakers.

Just a couple of weeks ago, police carried out a four-day blitz in Croydon, Endeavor Hills, Faulkner, Melton, Mill Park, Point Cook, Ringwood, Springvale and Werribee, which resulted in 66 gang-related arrests. They were charged with aggravated burglary, robbery, auto theft, assault and criminal damage.

But does this gang-fighting approach work?

Five years ago, there were eight to ten home invasions a month in the Melton area, with up to 10 offenders breaking into homes. Some victims felt so threatened that they sold and moved.

In the 12 months ending in August, police arrested 452 street gang members (73 percent of known members) 1,334 times and charged them with 3,201 crimes. Their average age was 18 years.

Police are monitoring 619 members of the group, a decrease of 128 since the Alliance was founded in September 2020. Over the past year, 221 people left the gang and stopped committing crimes, and 204 joined.

There are 45 members in custody for adults and juveniles. More than 25 percent of known gang members have not committed an offense in the past year.

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In 2020, there were 700 gang incidents in the wider Melton area. That number should be less than 100 this year.

There were 600 incidents in the Maribyrnong area in 2020; this year there should be about 200.

The wider number of young offenders fell by 8 per cent last year from 17,561 to 16,152 (the COVID-19 lockdown also had an impact).

Mobila says, “We have the most success when we move quickly before a small problem becomes a big one.”
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