National is proposing a specialist police unit, similar to one in New South Wales. Laura Walters takes a look at the Strike Force Raptor Unit and whether it could work here
The National Party wants to set up a special police unit designed to disrupt, and ideally do away with, gangs.
The unit would be modelled after New South Wales’ Strike Force Raptor Unit, which was set up a decade ago, after a violent gang murder at a Sydney Airport.
The purpose of the unit is to disrupt activity of outlaw motorcycle gangs, by going after gang members and associates at every available opportunity.
But an Australian gang expert says a lot of resources go into the unit’s work, with little reward, especially when it came to the broader issue of organised crime and drug trafficking. Meanwhile, there were some concerns about the conduct of the elite squad.
On Tuesday, National Party police spokesperson Brett Hudson spoke about the rising number of gang members, and gang-related offending.
“A unit like Strike Force Raptor would interrupt gang activity.”
Since Australia’s motorcycle gangs landed in New Zealand eight years ago, thanks largely to Australia’s crackdown on gangs and its criminal deportation policies, the number of gang members has risen and the landscape has changed.
In October, police put the total number of patched gang members at 6735. The number of gang members has risen by about 1400 since this Government came into power.
While there are many complex factors that have led to the rise in the number of gang members, the proliferation of methamphetamine, and related crime, National has attributed it to this Government’s “soft on crime” approach.
Hudson said gangs peddled misery in communities through manufacturing and dealing drugs, and carrying out violence.
“A unit like Strike Force Raptor would interrupt gang activity,” he said, as the party launched its law and order discussion document.
What does the Strike Force Raptor unit do?
While the name seems somewhat juvenile the unit’s business could not be more serious.
New South Wales Police described the unit as a “proactive, high-impact operation targeting OMCGs [outlaw motorcycle gangs] and any associated criminal enterprises”.
Established in 2009, Strike Force Raptor targets “groups and individuals who engage in serious and organised crime, in particular those who have a propensity for violence”, the police website said.
“This is achieved with proactive investigations and intelligence based, high-impact policing operations.”
In real life, this disruptive gang strike force unit would proactively jump on any potentially illegal behaviour involving gang members or associates, regardless of the context or the magnitude of the alleged offending.
For example, if someone was punched outside a nightclub by a gang member, the unit would take over the case; if gang members didn’t pay their traffic fines, the unit would follow up to ensure their driver licences were taken away.
The specialist officers would also check gang clubhouses and use council rules to shut them down if there was unconsented work or breaches of building codes; if alcohol was being served at the gang pad, it would invoke legislation so the gangs need a liquor licence.
Officers can also check benefit payments and tax records for taxpayer assistance gang members aren’t entitled to.
In Australia, this unit is enabled by a range of laws focusing on gang members.
Consorting legislation, which stops people from associating with those with criminal offences, is in place in every state other than the Australian Capital Territory.
The first person to be charged under the law fought the charge in court, but lost because the decision found while the laws did impede freedom of political communication, they were an appropriate measure to prevent crime. This was then appealed to the High Court. While there have been thousands of warnings for people associating with criminals, there have been very few charges, and a large portion of those with warnings do not have a criminal history themselves.
New South Wales also has Firearms Prohibition Orders, which give police greater powers to stop people owning or accessing firearms and greater powers to seize weapons – something New Zealand is currently considering, with a discussion paper currently out for public consultation.
In addition, the introduction of the restricted premises law, means New South Wales police are able to enter a building declared a restricted premises without a warrant to search for drugs, alcohol and weapons, and seize anything that could be used to store, supply or consume alcohol.
Concerns regarding conduct
Australia’s 9 News described the Raptor unit as “elite” in a gushing exclusive piece on the work of the Raptors.
In the past 10 years, the unit’s work had resulted in more than 5000 arrests and had shut down more than 50 clubhouses, Nine reported.
However, there are concerns over some of the law changes, particularly those that aim to prevent gang crime but also restrict human rights.
There have also been issues with the conduct of the units.
Recently, unit member Senior Constable Andrew Murphy, known widely as ‘Raptor 13’, was placed on restricted duties for “serious misconduct” after he racially abused two Afghan women at a traffic stop.
“That’s the problem with these elite units, they become very loose and fast with what are appropriate protocols, at times.”
News.com.au reported that before he was sanctioned by the NSW law enforcement watchdog, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, he gained notoriety for a series of controversial incidents caught on camera. These included a clash with mourners at the funeral of a bikie boss, and others where he was seen pushing an elderly motorcycle rider and one when he was filmed holding a metal pole to a man’s head during a traffic stop.
Earlier in the year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a lawyer for a gang member alleged he had been stalked by members of the unit.
Greg Coombes said he was due to represent a client associated with the Gladiators bikie gang when members of Strike Force Raptor allegedly began to follow him from his home. They pulled him over and then followed him and his girlfriend.
Terry Goldsworthy, an associate professor of criminology at Australia’s Bond University, said there was a risk of misconduct with special law enforcement squads.
“That’s the problem with these elite units, they become very loose and fast with what are appropriate protocols, at times.
“Often when we have these units… they will go above what is acceptable protocol, so you need to be very careful when you create them.”
Do the strike force units work?
Goldsworthy said he had reservations about the amount of police resources and time that went into this type of policing for not a lot of reward.
While they were disrupting gang members regularly, he questioned whether they were actually stopping organised criminal activity, or just stopping a gang member for going to the pub. Goldsworthy noted the general crime rate continued to rise, despite these types of initiatives.
Bikie gangs in Australia committed less than 1 percent of all crime, he said, adding that this did not match up to the amount of focus and resources thrown at gangs.
“That’s not really what you’re there for; you’re there to target organised crime, not fix up the ego of a senior officer who was called ugly on Instagram.”
After a member of the Nomads had a dig at the appearance of the boss of the Strike Force Raptor unit on Instagram, the cops in the unit stepped up their “consequence-based policing” hitting the Nomads, until the senior member apologised.
“That’s not really what you’re there for; you’re there to target organised crime, not fix up the ego of a senior officer who was called ugly on Instagram,” Goldsworthy said, giving it as an example of resources used poorly.
A targeted, legislative response could help fight crime, but broad-brush laws, such as anti-consorting laws in Australia often did not target those who were committing crime, he said.
Like many other gang and organised crime experts, Goldsworthy said the focus on bikie gangs missed the wider issues surrounding organised crime.
Not every member of a bikie gang engaged in criminal activity, and members that did engage in serious criminal activity like drug trafficking often did not do so as part of a gang chapter but rather outside the group.
There needed to be a smarter focus on those who were committing crime, rather than focusing on patched gang members because they were visible, and it was an easy political win.
Goldsworthy referenced some European countries that were moving towards focusing on markets, rather than groups of people. For example, if wastewater testing showed high levels of cocaine, law enforcement resources would be put into disrupting the market, rather than going after a group of people assumed to be trafficking.
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