Bikies have become the poster boys of crime in Queensland. In the past week we’ve seen the announcement of a spartan, bikies-only jail likened to Guantanamo Bay, tough new laws rushed through a marathon session of state parliament overnight, and a constant stream of news about “the war on bikies”.
It was all sparked by last month’s brawl between Finks and Bandidos outlaw motorcycle gang members at a Gold Coast restaurant. But what really sparked public outrage was that after the brawl, bikies laid seige to a major police station in Southport.
From 1994 to 2010, I worked as a detective on the Gold Coast, in charge of the Criminal Investigation Branch at Burleigh Heads. So I was as shocked as anyone to see the TV images of the police station under siege - not just that the bikies would be so brazen, but also that the local police appeared unable to respond.
However, the Queensland government’s rapid response with new far-reaching and unprecedented laws does not match the scale of the crime threat posed by bikies on the Gold Coast, and risks undermining some basic principles of the criminal justice system.
How many bikie gangs are there?
Data recently obtained from Queensland Police indicates that there are 14 outlaw motorcycle gangs officially recognised as operating in Queensland. Membership includes full members, probationary, prospect and nominee members. There are approximately 920 members of outlaw motorcycle gangs in Queensland, with the 14 clubs having 50 chapters and 835 full members.
Membership of the gangs is spread throughout the major towns and cities of Queensland, with the larger proportion of members located in the south eastern corner of the state. The South Eastern Police Region, which includes the Gold Coast and Logan areas, has the greatest concentration of members, with seven clubs based in the Gold Coast Policing District (which stretches from Coomera to the New South Wales border at Tweed Heads).
The Gold Coast has three of the high-risk clubs: namely the Finks, the Bandidos and the Rebels. Of interest is that despite Queensland Police only nominating 14 clubs as existing in Queensland, the recently introduced Criminal Law (Criminal Gangs Disruption) Amendment Bill listed some 26 gangs that are to be prescribed as “criminal organisations”.
This prompts the question: if Queensland Police is not recognising 12 of the gangs as even being present in Queensland, why is the government legislating them as criminal organisations?
How much of a criminal threat are bikies?
Turning to crime, we can see that outlaw motorcycle gangs play a relatively minimal role.
Statistics provided by experts such as Arthur Veno suggest that outlaw motorcycle gangs are responsible for about 0.6% of overall crime. Examination of police data for the Gold Coast and surrounding areas over a 12 month period showed that outlaw motorcycle gangs committed about 0.9% of overall crime. This reduced to 0.4% of overall crime if associates were removed and only members were included.
These statistics clearly show that these gang members are not committing significant amounts of crime. They are, however, committing crime in public, and that is why the wider public’s imagination is captured.
In its annual intelligence assessment of organised crime released earlier this year, the Australian Crime Commission noted the movement of outlaw motorcycle gangs to more visible crime.
Importantly, though, this violence is usually intra-club. Recent data obtained from Queensland Police also showed that the three most common offences committed by the outlaw motorcycle gangs were breach of bail, unlicensed or disqualified driving, and low-level possession of dangerous drugs.
This is all hardly the stuff of organised crime king-pins.
Hidden crime trends in Queensland
It is not just the bikies doing more crime. It is probably salient to look at the wider picture of crime in Queensland.
In the past two years, Queensland has seen an 8% increase in the rate of total offences reported statewide. The Gold Coast, for instance, has seen a 36% increase in robberies and a 24% increase in weapons offences over the last 12 months.
The Queensland Police’s Annual Statistical Review provides the public with a detailed snapshot of crime across the state. The review allows for an informed assessment to be made of the performance of the Queensland Police Service.
In the 2012 review, the Gold Coast was first in the state for the amount of “other offences”, which includes offences such as public order and drug offences, second for offences against property and fourth for offences against the person.
This year, however, the Queensland Police Service has refused to publish the Annual Statistical Review. This has made analysis of current crime trends difficult - if not impossible - to the average citizen.
So, while the war on bikies is commanding all the headlines right now, there are other, more concerning trends developing.
The Queensland government’s new anti-bikie legislation has not gone through due process or been given the consideration it needs as to its fairness and impact on the wider community.
It is also concerning that the free and robust flow of information to the Queensland community from the state government on issues such as crime is being stifled.
There’s no question we should be getting tougher on bikies, as I’ve argued in the past. And no one - whether you’re a politician, a police officer or someone holidaying on the Gold Coast - wants to see bikies brawling on our streets.
However, we need to make sure that in responding to a visible but relatively small criminal threat, we don’t undermine the criminal justice system in the process.