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The Hardline Police Experiment Sweeping Dubbo

Study it closely. Other police chiefs are. It could catch on.

What you need to know
  • The Dubbo police district recorded 233 arrests in May – more than 40 percent higher than any other police district in NSW
  • Police say they are doing the highest number of searches on record.
  • A local Wiradjuri elder says young Aboriginal people are being “harassed on a daily basis"

Dubbo. Just after midnight. On a rain-washed footpath, four coppers grapple with a skinny bloke who had tried to break into a pub.

The scrap is brief but intense.

“Sometimes it takes five of us to control a small woman,” says Constable Alex McLean. People on ice, he says, don’t feel pain.

Dubbo, the biggest town in north-western NSW, is notorious for crime. In many categories, it more than doubles the state averages.

In May, the Dubbo police district recorded 233 arrests -- more than 40 percent higher than any other police district in NSW. Image: Hugh Riminton

For the past six months, under a new top cop, police have been fighting back with policies that are startlingly direct.

They stop and search people on the slightest suspicion. They make arrests. They argue against bail.

And they make no apologies.

Superintendent Peter McKenna. Image: Hugh Riminton

“There are times our cells are overflowing,” says Superintendent Peter McKenna, who took over the district just last December.

As the Saturday night shift begins, Detective Sergeant Rick Morley growls out instructions like a half-time footy coach who is five points behind.

“Don’t be frightened to get out and turn the people over,” he urges them.

“Remember your powers.”

“Turn them over,” repeats McKenna.

“Catch the crooks and look after the good people.”

The officers need little encouragement. They trawl the streets looking for anything that strikes them as suspicious. Are people walking the wintry streets at night in dark clothing? Do they walk faster as the police approach?

Apollo Estate Community Centre offers free legal advice. Image: Hugh Riminton

Lack of eye contact, a criminal history, an unconvincing explanation for where they are going are deemed enough reason for a vehicle or body search.

And they find stuff. A young man with a wispy beard gives up a tube containing ecstasy tablets and a small bag of ice. He is put in the van. Another youth is found with a bit of cannabis. He is formally cautioned.

A lean, almost toothless man of 35 is found with an ice-pipe, tools for breaking into houses and -- in a special compartment in his back pack -- a convincing replica pistol.

“If I saw that raised at me, I’d have no hesitation (to shoot),” says Morley, handling the mock weapon. The man had been released from jail just two days before.

Macquarie Street, Dubbo. Image: Hugh Riminton

Already in the police cells is an 11 year old boy with jug-ears and intense, unreadable eyes. He was already on bail on a string of charges. Police found him carrying a knife.

The numbers tell the story. In May, the Dubbo police district recorded 233 arrests -- more than 40 percent higher than any other police district in NSW.

And the latest official crime statistics show an astonishing reduction.

Breaking and entering -- down 39.3 percent.

Stealing from motor vehicles -- down 35.1 percent.

Shoplifting -- down by more than a quarter.

Conversely, cannabis discoveries are up more than 50 percent.

“We’re doing the highest number of searches on record,” says Superintendent McKenna. In Wellington, a notoriously tough town just south of Dubbo, “we’re seeing the best crime rates in 30 years.”

Labor State candidate Steve Lawrence, a local barrister, says the crime stats are simply returning to the long-term averages after an ice-fuelled spike in recent years. But he supports the new policing policy.

However, not everyone is happy. Ngali Shaw is a 17 year old aspiring dancer who recently won a modelling contract with an agency in Sydney.

Articulate and clear-eyed, he says he has never taken drugs or been in trouble with the law. But he and his mates are increasingly being stopped and searched and he says it is scary.

The "Bronx". Image: Hugh Riminton

“If they do anything to me, people won’t believe anything (I say),” he says. “Two cops and one aboriginal kid. It’s not going to end good for me.”

A local Wiradjuri elder says young Aboriginal people are being “harassed on a daily basis. They’re not pulling up other groups of young people.”

Another local youth worker, who asked not to be identified because he’s not allowed to speak to the media, disagrees. “The cops are not the problem,” he says.

“There’s almost a rite of passage. You’re not a man unless you’ve (been to prison). We’ve got to break that.”

Superintendent McKenna acknowledges concerns over high indigenous imprisonment in Australia but says under his command “incarceration is proportionate to criminality.”

“I don’t think race comes into it,” says NSW Police minister and local MP Troy Grant.

“They are arrested because of their activity and their criminal acts.”

It’s the Dubbo Experiment. Study it closely. Other police chiefs are. It could catch on.

For more on this report tune in to The Project 6.30pm tonight.