This is a guest post from a mate of mine who I’ll refer to as the “Keep River Kite.”

For those of you that don’t know the Keep River straddles the Northern Territory/West Australian border. I reckon the name fits …

Between Wednesday 20 February and Sunday 24 February of this year police at Katherine in the Northern Territory conducted an operation dubbed “Operation Thumper”.

The aim of the Thumper, according to Superintendent Michael White, was to “quell anti-social behaviour in our town”.
Remarking on the fact that 38 people were arrested during this operation White said “Of the 38 arrested, seven were for aggravated assault, eight were for breaches of domestic violence orders and a further eight were for drink driving offences”.
White continued “Police were kept busy as they tipped out more than 510 litres of alcohol and issued 74 infringement notices.

Police also breath tested 414 people and issued 13 summary infringement notices and 14 traffic infringement notices. 125 people were taken into protective custody (time in police drunk tank).
White declared “this operation has been a resounding success, seeing numerous people put behind bars for number of different offences”. Unsurprisingly he continued “Police will continue to conduct these types of operations”.

My guess is that the anti-social behaviour in Katherine has continued unabated post-Thumper, just like it has over the past decades in the wake of identical operations. The difference with this one may only be the brutal honesty in the name affixed to this particular exercise in hopelessness.

The fact that Thumper was conducted and declared a success after the dismal track record of this type of exercise begs the question why? The police and the community know such efforts that result in the imprisonment of the already over imprisoned do nothing to reduce the type of behaviour that seemingly appals the good people of Katherine.

The answer appears to me to be that such operations have become an end in themselves.

The hard work of prevention, understanding, resource reallocation, communication is just that – too hard.

The people put offside by the actions of itinerants now simply demand a good thump every so often as a trade off. “I will feel better about seeing you, your rubbish and your filth if I know the police get out there on a regular basis and make life very uncomfortable for you, even if only over a few days”.

The war is conceded. Nothing much will change. The minor battles are now what count.

Operation Thumper and its like in Katherine and other towns of the Top End do not stand unsupported. Thumping is now big business.

These operations lead to gaol and plenty of it. Again the community puts its money where its heart truly lies. The half-billion dollar new NT prison slowly emerges to receive the thumped.

My tip? Given the burgeoning NT prison population and the mere 1000 bed capacity of the new prison, it will be full on its first day.

This means the current gaol, Berrimah will be kept open and the Alice Springs Prison will be expanded (as per its original design). The NT is on the verge of taking its already world-beating levels of incarceration to new heights.

The cost of gaoling record numbers of Territorians will not stand in the way. The lust for punishment has, and will see further, money taken away from health, education and child protection services to achieve the desired end. Imminent mandatory sentencing laws in the NT are going to demand hundreds more prison places.

In the Kimberley a new prison has been built at Derby and the “work camp” prison at Wyndham has been upgraded and expanded. $43 million is being spent on a new courthouse in Kununurra. This new courthouse will replace a $5 million “temporary” courthouse that is doing the job in fine style.

Kununurra, wracked by juvenile crime in tandem with a serious lack of community amenities and an under resourced child protection system, will have its temple to white legal power over anything else.

Lamentations for this state of affairs are dissolving.

Defence lawyers and members of the judiciary, traditionally bulwarks against stupidity, are softening their stance.

Recent utterances from the once venerable Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory now focus on alcohol reduction schemes of dubious value.

The defence lawyers and judiciary are increasingly taking shelter with the politicians. The cover the pollies took a while back is this “tough love” approach – forget the numbers in gaol, think of the gaols as schools and TAFEs and rejoice in the explosion in the numbers of the uneducated now exposed to compulsory schooling.

In late 2012 the Chief Justice of Western Australia described the new Derby Prison, designed as it is for Aboriginal inmates, as “fantastic” and a “good institution”. He said that “I think it will provide prisoners with the opportunity for some behavioural change; ordinary prisons don’t provide prisoners with much opportunity for self-determination.

Maybe it will, but unfortunately, in the midst of varying degrees of this punitive approach over the past nearly 20 years in the Top End, the crime rate, particularly violent crime, has spiralled upwards.

In my view it will continue to do so if the response of the powers that be is to thump the undereducated, young and disadvantaged in the community.

Lessons have not been learnt.

The next year or two, featuring the ramping up of mandatory sentencing in both WA and NT and the increased policing of the vulnerable in an environment of reduced legal aid, will write the issue of crime prevention large.

It appears we will have to get to the appalling state reached in places like California where correction service budgets exceeded education budgets before the Operation Thumpers are left in the imaginations of the more cynical police planners.


This is a guest post by a long-term insider in the criminal justice system in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. I’ve been asked not to use their name for professional reasons.