Interesting to see that a policing success — the arrest of Fat Tony — is being transformed in Crikey to a debate on whether counting pinches is the best measure of police success (‘Overland over the top with Mokbel 7 June Item 5). It’s a debate there should be more of — the surprising truth is that the police have a substantial role in organising crime.
We’re familiar with the historic cases where police (usually with some form of political nod and a wink and sometimes a backhander as well) organised crime directly — Terry Lewis’s troops using the McDonalds franchising model for Queensland brothels and illegal casinos was a case in point, and further back there were the Askin years in NSW.
In Queensland, I remember writing about “the entirely appropriately named auto theft squad” and in NSW for a period the armed robbery squad seemed to be just that. Back then, the police still measured success in pinches, but they also cooked the books in various ways to cover up the fact that a crooked police force doesn’t have protecting the citizenry as its predominant goal.
Fortunately, crime franchising seems to be a declining model for the modern police service. But despite a little more emphasis on crime prevention, the police and the age-old game of cops and robbers is at the centre of our crime control efforts.
When I was catapulted from journalism to post-Fitzgerald reform initiatives, we started out following his instruction to look for the best ways of controlling crime. Our efforts on regulating prostitution were sort of followed and they have mostly seemed to work. But there was a host of other work going on, including research into controlling organised crime, drawing on inspiration from criminologists, criminals and overseas experiments instead of just taking the accepted wisdom of the cops.
The then National Crime Authority noticed what we were up to and a healthy if unlikely dialogue got going in what was basically a hostile law enforcement context.
Most of this work was never published, essentially because it was too threatening to all the careers tied up in playing cops and robbers and to the ability of politicians to continually trot out Laura Norder as a quick fix crime promise at election times.
One of our key findings was to mirror some equally marginalised US research that applies to any field of criminal endeavour: police consistently and disproportionately take out the least competent, least organised and least well connected criminals.
This has a big role in securing the market place and the premiums of crime for the more competent, more organised and best connected criminals. In other words, a crime control focus on cops and their pinches has the perverse effect of organising criminal marketplaces and boosting their profitability.
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The main research focus developed from the Fitzgerald formula was one of harm minimisation. When it was put on the backburner to be never revived, the research was saying that it could be done by using all sorts of ways to regulate some criminal markets and disrupt others, and as a society we could have a lot less crime and that crime could have much less of an impact and cost.
We even monitored an unofficial experiment. Residents of one of the most crime prone areas of the Gold Coast still probably wonder why all of a sudden there was virtually no-one breaking into their canal estate homes and why this happy state of affairs only lasted a couple of months.
I’m still convinced it can be done. We will always have and will always need the policing function to be carried out, but we do ourselves a disservice by enthroning it as the core of our crime control activity. And we need a few politicians with the fortitude not to flirt with Laura Norder, the courage to stare down the police unions and the sense to dial a criminologist instead.