This lack of consensus among police highlights problems with Australia’s approach to combating bikie gangs in Australia. Arrest and punishment have been the tools of trade in this war. But, in reality, the war is neither won nor over.
The ACT and South Australian governments have mooted similar draconian laws. A Queensland government taskforce is reviewing its laws to report back in September. How can we judge success and what lessons can we take away from this type of law-enforcement campaign?
How do we judge success?
For the police, the numbers of arrests and charges are indicators of success. This is due to this being the part of the criminal justice process that police have most control over. Once a matter moves beyond this point, the police’s ability to influence the outcome is diminished.
In reality, though, a more forensic analysis is required. Previous analysis has shown that bikie gangs have limited involvement in organised crime and that they make a small contribution to general crime.
The bikie war’s success should be judged on the following indicators:
successful prosecution of bikie gang members for serious and organised crime offences, with these offences making up the majority of charges;
evidence that gang numbers are reducing and that recruitment is being interdicted;
an evidence base that proves association laws stop the criminal elements of bikie gangs meeting to facilitate criminal enterprise;
a marked positive impact on the organised crime markets that police claim the bikie gangs are dominant in; and
showing that the gang structures were being used for a common criminal purpose or enterprise.
No evidence has been provided to the public to prove that any of these have been achieved. Without doubt, bikie gangs are less visible in Queensland – but they have now gone underground. If that was a success indicator, then the campaign has achieved it.
Failing to make the case
Making the arrest is only part of the law-enforcement response. Successfully prosecuting the matter is the other.
Queensland’s bikie war has been marred by a number of high-profile failures when the matters were tested in court. Some matters, like Sally Kuether’s association arrest, did not even go to trial. No evidence was even offered.
Perhaps most damning was the collapse of many of the riot charges that were the catalyst for the bikie crackdown in the first place. Allegations have also been made that senior police interfered in the normal prosecution processes.
Data obtained under Right to Information shows that from April 2008 to April 2014, around 20% of charges against bikies in Queensland failed to result in a successful prosecution. The ethos of charging to inflate arrest figures with little regard for court outcomes may be one explanation for this high rate of failure.
The gangs are getting bigger
Part of the Queensland laws’ purpose is that they are meant to be a disincentive to bikie gang membership. Police claim to have decimated gangs. But despite the positive rhetoric, gang numbers would appear to have increased nationally.
Australian Crime Commission (ACC) data indicated that in 2012 there were 4483 bikie gang members across Australia. Current ACC data shows that there are now approximately 6000 members – a 34% increase in three years.
Rebels Motorcycle Club president Alex Vella, currently exiled in Malta after the Australian government revoked his visa, recently claimed to have recruited more than 90 members to the club since being in Malta.
Right to Information data I obtained in 2013 from the Queensland Police Service indicated that there were 920 bikie gang members in Queensland. As of July 2015, Operation Resolute – the operation targeting the bikie gangs – had arrested 2214 “gang participants”. So, either gang numbers had grown exponentially, or many of those arrested could not have been members. Either case is damning to the campaign’s claims of success.
Can we learn from the war on terror?
Unlike the war on terror, there has been a distinct lack of community engagement by authorities with at-risk groups in the bikie crackdown. This is despite recognising that youth are entering bikie gangs through feeder clubs.
In August 2014, as part of its response to the “war on terror”, the Australian government announced a Countering Violent Extremism Programme. It is focused on early intervention and counter-radicalisation programs – that is, crime-prevention strategies through education and community engagement. In Queensland, the only strategy put forward to deal with the bikie gangs’ possible recruiting avenues is the implementation of curfews.
Put simply, the Australian policing response to bikie gangs is one–dimensional. Enforcement is the primary focus. Little attention has been paid to analysing the motivations of those joining the bikie gangs when compared to the prevention of radicalisation in counter-terrorism strategies.
Little attempt has been made to engage the bikie gangs’ leadership, nor implement strategies to remove their criminal elements. Unlike Islamic State, whose purpose is terrorism, the bikie gangs’ criminal behaviour is a byproduct of some of the organisation’s members. It is not the sole purpose.
If the bikie gangs are serious about retaining their rights and freedoms, it would be entirely reasonable that they may well accept some regulation that removes criminal elements but allows them to remain lawful organisations. A refusal to undertake a process like this would undermine many of the arguments they have raised in their defence.
It is now up to governments and law enforcement to look beyond arrests and consider what strategies and engagement could be pursued to allow criminal-free bikie groups to exist. It is also time for the gangs to show that they truly want to be just a bunch of guys who ride bikes and don’t deserve the criminal tag they have.