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Shoot first and ask questions later

Not any more. Now Melbourne doctors, particularly out in the wild west, are dealing with gunshot wounds every week and while our problem is nothing compared to the insanity of the US gun culture, it is a trend that has and will cost innocent lives.

Police say Melbourne crime is culturally and geographically split. Street drug dealers and wannabe gangsters around Frankston and Dandenong carry guns almost as a fashion accessory (think Hugo Boss cufflinks) while crooks in the north and west of the city see them as tools of the trade.

Police at the fatal shooting outside a boxing venue in Kensington on March 2.

Police at the fatal shooting outside a boxing venue in Kensington on March 2.Credit:Joe Armao

We are talking about hundreds of men of Middle Eastern descent who are broken into loose gangs based on extended family heritage or geographical links – both here and overseas.

The best guess is there are between 300 and 400 active members of these gangs. Their criminal activities include drug trafficking, standover work, stolen car rings, burglary teams, social welfare fraud, fake accident insurance claims, interfering with witnesses, torture, abductions and crimes of fashion.

This is not an exercise in bashing people of Middle Eastern origin but of exposing crooks with links to that part of the world and asking the question, are we doing enough to combat the problem?

In the past couple of weeks we have had five people shot dead in the streets, with all but one linked to Middle Eastern crime groups. Veteran police say the threshold for fatal force has dropped. Where once an underworld feud could take years to turn deadly, many crooks today are prepared to pull the trigger over the trivial. Drug debtors are now routinely shot in the leg even before they are given the chance to hock the golf clubs.

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According to acting Assistant Commissioner (crime) Mick Frewen, there are a disturbing number of crooks “with a growing inclination to use guns as a first resort rather than as a last one. Their first action is to use a firearm.’’

He said that in the past four years there had been a jump in the number of illegal guns, including high powered semi- and fully automatic weapons: ‘‘We are finding criminals with military-grade weapons with growing frequency.’’

According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), there are about 250,000 long arm and 10,000 hand guns in the illicit market and around 2.9 million legal guns.

ACIC found that: ‘‘The illicit firearms market is driven in part by outlaw motorcycle gangs, Middle Eastern organised crime groups, and other groups engaged in trafficking illicit commodities such as drugs.’’

In Victoria the armed crime taskforce, stolen vehicle detectives and drug squad investigators work on cases involving these groups, but around eight detectives in two teams work exclusively on Middle Eastern gangs. We have a handful of detectives working on the illegal firearms industry, while in NSW they have Operation Talon – a statewide crackdown on illegal guns – and Raptor, a ground-up attack on Middle Eastern gangs.

Gun crackdown: Can we learn from policing in NSW?

Gun crackdown: Can we learn from policing in NSW?Credit:Geoff Jones

The game changer was supposed to be the Firearm Prohibition Orders that became law in May 2018. Under the law any suspected criminal who was subject to an order could be jailed for 10 years, but more importantly it allows police to search those targeted, or anyone in their company, without a court order.

It also gives police the power to enter and search premises a target has entered, making crooks’ homes and outlaw bikie clubhouses fair game.

So where are the headlines of police smashing armed crime syndicates? Where is the conga line of crooks heading into custody? There are none. Police promised the government it would issue 2500 orders in the first year, with every known outlaw bikie and every identifiable Middle Eastern crime figure to be hit. So far they have issued around 150.

Police are about to revamp the crime department and provide fresh resources to homicide and gang crime investigators, but it may be a little like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Not that any of this comes as a surprise. When Melbourne’s underworld war began nearly 20 years ago, the Victoria Police response was slow, poor and piecemeal. It wasn’t until 2004 that the Purana Taskforce was formed. Equally, the initial response to bikie violence was for senior police to close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears and cry “la, la, la” before finally forming the Echo Taskforce.

Certainly police can’t say they weren’t warned, for back in 2008 local detective Paul Lunt saw Middle Eastern crooks in the Broadmeadows area as a real menace and wanted a co-ordinated response. When his initial calls for more resources were ignored, he sent a blistering email to the bosses.

“None of you have obviously learned lessons from … Purana,” he wrote. “The only difference here is that no one has died. And that is only good luck not good management. But you’re all more worried about your petty squabbles over staff ownership and whether you get criticised in the media.” Bang.

Good crooks know it is best to fly under the radar. But these present-day crooks are too stupid to understand this basic rule, often posing on social media, carrying guns gangster-style.

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Our up-and-coming crime reporter Tammy (‘‘I Solve Murders’’) Mills reports that having made contact with these types, rather than responding with a circumspect “no comment”, they lobby for the story to end up on page one. When the story is reprinted on Facebook, it is the crooks who share and press “like”. In the name of Ned Kelly, is this normal?

So how do we deal with crooks who don’t seem to fear being shot, arrested or exposed in the media? Well, here are a few ideas.

1) Revamp the Crime Department. For too long volume crime has taken priority over serious crime. The fact that some of these knuckleheads are shooting people outside crowded venues such as the Kensington boxing means it is inevitable that innocent people will die. After all, these are the sort of fools who think due diligence is a horse racing in a maiden at Sale.

(It was such an American-style crime that an accidental witness was recorded wanting to call 911.)

Think of the tragedy of Mohamad Adra, who in October 2015 was shot dead while sleeping with his wife and four-year-old son in a Thomastown home in a mistaken identity drive-by attack. Perhaps our outrage would be greater if he had an Anglo name, but his wife’s tears taste the same as yours or mine.

We need a serious firearms unit, a Middle Eastern crime taskforce to mirror Echo (after all, their work will overlap) and to retool homicide so its work practices don’t reflect the 1980s and start using the Firearms Prohibition Orders as intended.

2) Get serious on welfare. Police say no matter how much money these crooks make, they still put their hands out for social services. The federal government announced in the last budget a crackdown on bail jumpers and wanted types, declaring their payments would be cut, or halved if they had children, unless they hand themselves in.

At present a staggering 50,000 arrest warrants are issued per year in magistrates’ courts when the accused fails to front. It wastes thousands of police hours as they have to report every three months over what action they have taken to catch the runners. The crackdown was supposed to begin at the start of this month but it hasn’t because the states haven’t got on board.

3) Get serious on the law. Regular readers of this column (yes, there are several) will know we are not all for locking everyone up, but if you shoot someone you should go to jail. The law over attempted murder is a joke.

Consider this: If you shoot someone in the guts and they die, it is murder, because it is reasonable to believe that when you took aim and pulled the trigger that was the likely consequence. But if you shoot them in the guts and they pull through, then police must prove you intended to murder.

In 2015, Constable Ben Ashmole was shot in the head by two career criminals. A combination of good luck and quick reflexes (Ashmole ducked at the right moment) saved his life – even so, he was hit by 14 pellets in the head.

Initially charged with attempted murder, the pair were allowed to plead to recklessly causing injury and were sentenced to a minimum of four years.

If this is justice, I’m a banana.

John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.

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