The smart way to deal with stupid gangs

Bodgies snake for haircuts. Hardly the most threatening sight.

Bodgies snake for haircuts. Hardly the most threatening sight.Recognition:Harry Freiman

There have always been gangs. Growing up in Preston, Crevelli Street was a no-go zone, and playing football in the Olympic Village (the local team’s players all those years ago thought a tough day was a visit from the parole officer) required an assumed name and escape immediately to the last siren. (My gang were the First Preston Boy Scouts, which meant I could throw a mean half punch that wasn’t much use in a street fight. The closest we got to violence was an enthusiastic game of British Bulldog.)

Before that there was the Bodgies and the police responded with the Bodgie Squad, a group of police officers who would beat the Bodgies down at the first sign of trouble.

There have been several strategies in recent times, including refusing to acknowledge the existence of gangs, attempting to deal with individual crimes, and the occasional lightning bolt as a show of strength. This has helped produce headlines and little else.

Catching them was pretty easy. Few of the gangs attempted to cover up their involvement – some still committed violent crimes in school uniform.

Eventually, it became clear that locking up the perpetrators made little difference to the crime rate.

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

Today there is a citywide strategy called Operation Alliance that attempts to slow down the carousel to give the perpetrators a better chance of getting away.

So instead of waiting for the next stabbing or home invasion, the police identify their main gangsters and place them under close surveillance.

Detective Acting Sergeant Olivia Dennison – of the Westgate Alliance Taskforce – says the perpetrators are seen every two weeks and checked for connections, bail compliance, school and work attendance.

Enforcement is only part of the answer.

Enforcement is only part of the answer.

This is not criminal police work. In Wyndham, the Embedded Youth Outreach Project brings together police and youth workers to respond and intervene in incidents and to support young people to deal with any issues they face.

In Brimbank, the police intervene with gang members’ younger siblings, trying to get them away from the crime groups before they get involved. “We have to get in early,” says Dennison. “We sometimes see someone with no criminal record committing armed robbery. They are siblings going from zero to 100.”

As part of the intervention, police are working with families of gang members. “There are parents who work night shifts and can have two separate jobs doing their best. They’re often at their wit’s end,” says Dennison.

Sometimes police can act on tragedy, like earlier this year when a young man was killed in a gang knife attack.

There were teenagers there that night and some saw the murder and realized it was all too real. The police then moved in, using the death as an example of what would happen to them, either as victims or perpetrators. “Some on the periphery were quite shaken. That was a real wake-up call.”

So what is a street gang? According to the police, it is a group of three to 50 people who come together to commit crimes. They recruit from schools, streets, families, and race.

Crimes include armed robbery, home invasions, theft, stealing a car and subsequent burnout and assault. “Gang-on-gang violence is the most common,” says Mobilo.

While they are local gangs, their crimes move out of the borough, with one group stealing cars in one suburb and setting them on fire in another. Others travel across town to carry out home invasions.

Urban violence can be generated by suburban gangs who have rented AirBnBs for parties. And once they get going, they won’t stop until they’re arrested.

Investigators from the Southern Metro Crime Team arrested three boys aged 15, 16 and 17 earlier this month after a string of serious burglaries and car thefts in Toorak, Brighton, Hawthorn and Hallam in just one week. They were charged with aggravated burglary in motor vehicles, theft of motor vehicles and committing a criminal offense while on bail.

Typically, members are between the ages of 14 and 22, and contrary to popular belief, most do not go on to become career criminals. “They tend to outgrow it,” says Mobilo.

The police try to outgrow them faster by offering alternative avenues through employment opportunities and education or by constant surveillance so that they are arrested as soon as they commit crimes.

Police will not publicly refer to gang names, believing them to be indulging in celebrity. Knowing the gang members is one thing. Stopping them from committing crimes is another.

For example, when police received a call from mall security that some of their known perpetrators had stolen knives and hidden them in planters.

A CCTV review followed by a physical search found knives and machetes hidden in planters and toilets throughout the center, ready to be seized in the event of a gang fight. Brimbank Police shared the information, prompting searches of malls in other counties. “The same thing happened around Melbourne,” says Mobilo.

When a gang member was threatened, police intercepted a car containing several rivals armed with knives and machetes. Youth Justice’s Offender Management Team took the threats so seriously that they relocated the family and convinced the rivals that a truce was in everyone’s interest.

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

Police tactics were old-fashioned with local cops supported by the Viper Taskforce, Offender Management Teams and the Gang Crime Squad making a series of arrests until the threat dissipated.

The Alliance conducts blitz raids every three months, bringing in anti-gang units like Viper to patrol train stations and places where gangs congregate, looking for weapons and stolen property, and finding anyone violating bail curfews .

Just a few weeks ago, police conducted a four-day raid in Croydon, Endeavor Hills, Fawkner, Melton, Mill Park, Point Cook, Ringwood, Springvale and Werribee, arresting 66 people with gang connections. They were accused of, among other things, serious burglary, robbery, car theft, bodily harm and property damage.

But does this approach work when dealing with gangs?

Five years ago there were between eight and ten burglaries a month in the Melton area, with up to ten burglars breaking into homes. Some victims felt so threatened that they sold and moved away.

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

Police are monitoring 619 gang members, a drop of 128 since the Alliance was formed in September 2020. In the past year, 221 people have quit gangs and stopped committing crimes, while 204 have joined.

45 members are in adult or juvenile detention. More than 25 percent of known gang members were not found to have committed a crime in the past year.

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In 2020 there were 700 gang incidents in the wider Melton area. This year it should be less than 100.

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

The broader number of young offenders has fallen by 8 per cent over the past year from 17,561 to 16,152 (COVID-19 lockdowns have also had an impact).

Mobilo says: “We have the greatest success when we move in quickly, before a small problem becomes a big problem.”
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Joel McCord

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