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The end justifies the means: why Queensland is losing the bikie war

A change in investigative and policing strategy is needed if the Queensland government is to win the so-called ‘bikie wars’. AAP/Paul Miller

Three months into the campaign by the Queensland government against outlaw motorcycle gangs, some meaningful analysis of the effectiveness and justification for the unprecedented measures is possible.

On the statistics and anecdotes that have emerged, it appears likely there will be no smoking gun to indicate success at the end of this campaign. There will be no major evidence that bikie gangs are the epicentre of organised crime in Australia. Yes, they play a part, but not an overwhelming one.

Arrest figures

Last December, figures were released to show the effectiveness of the policing response, codenamed Operation Resolute. Impressive numbers of arrests and charges were given to the media:

Officers as part of Operation Resolute, created in response to offending behaviour of Criminal Motorcycle Gangs (CMGs), have arrested 384 people on 817 charges since October 6.

But of the 817 charges, only 28 – or 3.4% – can be considered “organised crime” type charges such as drug trafficking and extortion.

Even more interesting is the proportion of overall crime statistics these figures account for in that two-month period. In Queensland, 73,309 offences were reported in October and November 2013. Bikies accounted for only 1% of these offences.

Given the over-policing of bikies, one could also reasonably expect that these figures would be inflated to some degree. The figures rest on all the offenders being conveniently termed “participants of a criminal organisation”. The police will not supply figures for the actual arrests of members – nor the grey and fuzzy “associate arrests” – instead grouping them into a homogeneous category.

If we were to consider just members, I suspect the arrest and charge figures would be drastically reduced.

Illicit drugs

The offences laid against bikies account for just 0.8% of total drug supply offences in Queensland. For trafficking in dangerous drugs they account for 5% of offences. For production of dangerous drugs they accounted for only 1.3% of total offences.

Production by Queensland drug laboratories has been exploding for the last five years, yet we never heard that the bikies were the criminal masterminds behind it. Australian Crime Commission (ACC) data indicates that from 2010-11 to 2011-12, Queensland drug laboratory production increased 29%, and Queensland labs accounted for 81% of the national increase in this same period.

Police have indicated that some 193 amphetamine labs had been located in the last six months in Queensland. Unfortunately, the media were not told how many of these busts resulted in the arrest of any bikies.

How much of Australia’s illegal economy are bikies actually responsible for? AAP

Charge stats

Included in the December update on Operation Resolute was a short note that six offenders had been charged under the anti-bikie laws. These laws provide for mandatory 25-year prison sentences for bikie gang members for a wide range of charges.

Of the 384 arrested, only 1.5% of offenders were charged under the anti-bikie laws. This is despite the authorities saying that all 384 people arrested were participants in criminal gangs.

The explanation is simple. First, the vast majority of offences involved were of such a minor nature that they are not covered by the anti-bikie laws. Second, the people arrested were acting as individuals: they did not commit their offences as part of some criminal conspiracy for the benefit of the organisation.

It is easy to claim someone is a participant in arrest figures and media releases. It is not so easy to do this when subject to the scrutiny of the criminal courts, where actual evidence is required to be proven to requisite standards. In a number of instances, claims of bikie gang membership evaporated when the courts required proof.

Involvement in organised crime

Claims have also been made that bikies are responsible for over two-thirds of organised crime profits in Australia (around A$10 billion). We have not seen any credible evidence or methodology to support this.

Of concern is that such claims are being attributed to organisations such as the Australian Crime Commission. A search of the ACC website, however, finds no such data. In fact, its bikie profile series specifically states:

…it is difficult to gauge the percentage of organised crime attributed specifically to OMCG members. While they are prevalent in all states and territories, they are just one part of the organised crime picture in Australia.

In the first two months of Operation Resolute police have recovered only around $200,000 worth of drugs. Divide that figure by all of the “participants” arrested and they would have earned an average of $260 per month – hardly what high rollers are made of.

Impact on freedom of association

The legislation included the introduction of consorting or association laws, which prevented two or more bikie gang members from gathering in public.

The two most prominent cases where this law has been enforced are the arrests of five men having a quiet beer in a suburban pub and another five offenders buying icecreams during a family holiday on the Gold Coast.

This is hardly the backroom, nefarious criminal consorting that the laws were put in place to prevent. It simply is not in the spirit of the legislation, and has been a public relations disaster for the government.

Police resources in Queensland are scarce, so why is so much of it being spent to curb a small amount of crime? AAP/Dan Peled

The strategic direction of the campaign has begun to go badly off the rails. With tradesmen now in the sights of law enforcement over links with bikie gangs, the government has moved the war from fringe occupations – such as tattoo parlours – to mainstream society. This move has raised the ire of trade unions, and they do have the money to fund a legal challenge.

The government has taken the “war on bikies” too far and alerted a complacent wider community to the impact on basic civil liberties. The “us and them” (the bikies) dichotomy has changed to a more encompassing view of who can be affected by the laws.

The other obvious issue is that if you remove all lawful occupations for bikies there is little alternative but for them to undertake a life of crime. Rehabilitation does not feature in the current war. The public perception of the war has not been helped by police telling people who they can and cannot be friends with:

It cannot be socially acceptable to be a friend of a bikie, you have to learn that it is not on.

The purpose of the legislation is to target criminal activity, not police social interactions.

Resourcing problems

All of these arrests have involved substantial planning and policing resources. The public therefore have the right to ask if the police would be better employed actually targeting criminal enterprise rather than people enjoying beers and icecream.

Police have finite resources, and as discussed earlier, there are plenty of criminals to be caught other than the bikies. Only three months into the fight, police have diverted dedicated anti-bikie resources to deal with other public order issues.

On top of this, the G20 meeting in Brisbane is looming. That will certainly curtail the current resource diversion to the purported bikie menace.

Bikies undoubtedly commit crime. Unfortunately, in this current climate, if you attempt to explain why the current approach is wrong you are simply labelled a bikie supporter. For most commentators nothing is further from the truth.

The crime committed by bikie gangs would be better combated by using crime management techniques that target actual crime rather than the current set of association laws, which merely target the person and to a large extent miss the criminal activity. The results are not positive. A change in investigative and policing strategy is needed.

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