Crime's new frontiers: the eclipse of ethnic crime

CRIME?? 
Middle Eastern organised crime squad of the NSW Police Force raid a house in Wakeley in Western Sydney to look for suspected firearms.
Photo Nick Moir
3?? feb 2017
CRIME?? Middle Eastern organised crime squad of the NSW Police Force raid a house in Wakeley in Western Sydney to look for suspected firearms. Photo Nick Moir 3?? feb 2017

It's one of the most storied squads of the New South Wales Police Force, but Sydney GP Jamal Rifi won't be sorry to see it go.

The Lebanese community leader says Sydney's legendary Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad (or MEOCS) should "never have been established in the first place - or at least not been given such a terrible title".

"Criminals are criminals and you fight the crime itself, you don't fight the ethnic background of the crime."

Eleven years since it was first set up, MEOCS is about to slip into a new skin. It will be folded into a new, expanded and renamed squad as part of a sweeping restructure of the state's Crime Command, echoing the fate of the Asian crime squad, which was dissolved in 2014.

Rifi will not be alone in celebrating MEOCS' imminent eclipse. While supportive of the policing aims that lay behind it, he and other ethnic community leaders have long argued that it was counterproductive as a branding exercise. It alienated significant sections of a community which police needed to get onside, they say. And the name gave rise to a perverse form of peacocking among its targets.

"To be honest, I reckon it didn't help the police at all, I reckon it helped the criminals," Rifi says. "It was a badge of honour for them, they used to tattoo MEOC on themselves and, if the government had called it something like 'Unicorns', none of them would have been running around getting tattoos of unicorns."

Dave Hudson, Deputy Commissioner for Investigations and Counter Terrorism and a one-time head of the State Crime Command, acknowledges those concerns but insists there was a strong rationale for the squad's branding over that time and its stand-alone existence.

"With Middle Eastern community leaders, I've always said we were not targeting their communities, we're targeting Middle Eastern criminals," Hudson told Fairfax Media.

"We needed people who had awareness of that environment, who had the specialist expertise, who knew how it worked."

The silent crimes

But the world of crime is changing, and the State Crime Command is about to change with it. The tightly closed crime networks based on family and ethnic background that arose with successive migrant waves - Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Middle Eastern - have long since morphed beyond those old silos, and now tap into the borderless world opened up by the internet.

Cyber and financial crime are on the rise. So are other so-called "silent crimes", as Hudson terms them, borrowing a phrase from his British counterparts.

"These are the ones that happen behind closed doors," he says. "Sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, cyber crime, financial crimes, those crimes which aren't as highly visible and the victims, for whatever reason, sometimes don't want to go to the courts.

"They have been the silent crimes historically and they are probably the crimes on the increase in the current environment.

"The really overt-type offences that used to be bread-and-butter stuff for detectives - really high focus robberies, break-and-enters, stolen vehicles - those really visible crimes have reduced over the last 10 years."

MEOCS' loss of a separate identity is the most visible of the State Crime Command reforms, but the restructuring is much wider than that.

Eleven squads will crunch down to eight. There will be three mergers of six of the old squads, while the Property Squad will be effectively abolished and its tasks divided among other units. Cyber Crime will become a squad of its own.

This, says Hudson, will give cyber and financial crime the focus and technical expertise this burgeoning shadow world requires.

The new, larger squad combining MEOCS and Gangs has a working title of "Criminal Groups" although Hudson jokes someone will come up with a "sexier name" because "that's what detectives do".

"Historically we used to have [separate] Asian, Middle Eastern and Gangs squads because they very much dealt with people in their own environments.

"Outlaw motorcycle gangs would deal only with other motorcycle gangs, Asian criminals with other Asian criminals, the Middle Eastern criminals the same. Now, it's purely profit driven. They will deal with anyone. There are significant crossovers at the moment with Middle Eastern organised crime and gang squad investigations, so it makes sense to merge their investigative components."

He says Middle Eastern crime bosses have been increasingly drawn to bikie gangs because the culture, hierarchy and enforcement regimes of those gangs make them harder for law enforcement to infiltrate.

Homicide will stay the same: "if we can't get that stuff right we might as well give up."

The Drugs and Firearms squads will merge because "there are very few drug jobs where we don't get guns, and very few gun jobs which don't involve drugs".

And the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes squads will be folded together because "sometimes the difference in crime is the age of the victim, not the behaviour of the offender and we have had a lot of crossovers".

It is a depressing fact that the largest squad will remain the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes squad with about 270 detectives.

"It's horrific," says Hudson. "For a lot of years, we tried to get some focus on that and we couldn't, not with journalists or with government. It was a scream that needed a mouth to come out of. The royal commission provided that, and it means finally we're getting some traction [ on that issue]."

Overall the number of detectives across the entire command will stay at about 1000 but the consolidation of squads will reduce the number of superintendents, freeing more front-line positions.

This, says Hudson, is in accord with the desire of new Police Commissioner Mick Fuller to see a less top-heavy force. It will most likely be another couple of months before the changes are fully bedded in.

Hudson is a straight talker, a winner from the reshuffle of the executive ranks, which happened after Fuller took over from previous long-time commissioner Andrew Scipione in April.

He says the changes he is overseeing have the support of the Police Association and that they have generated "very little angst that I am aware of coming out of the command itself".

He rejects the bleak picture painted by the NSW Crime Commission's most recent annual report, which warned that organised crime was on the increase and "at levels not previously seen in NSW".

"Our evidence is not supporting what they are saying," Hudson shoots back. "I think we've had a lot of success in the serious organised crime space in NSW with our partner agencies, and also stand-alone. I think the comments the Crime Commission made were probably a little unfair in relation to the work that has been done."

Some worry that the new "criminal organisations" squad might lose some of the drive and focus of the old MEOCS.

"I think with these mergers you have to be careful to ensure they do not blur the focus of the squads and make it so general that they lose the plot," says Clive Small, a former assistant commissioner, turned crime author.

"I think the merging of the squads is quite a rational thing; done properly it should reduce the bureaucracy, but you have to be absolutely sure you will get a better operational result."

Birth of MEOCS

It will be a long time before the mythos surrounding MEOCS fades. Its precursor, Task Force Gain, arose in October 2003 in response to an outbreak of shootings in south-west Sydney associated with drug distribution and car rebirthing networks run by criminals of Middle Eastern background.

In the two months before its establishment, four people had fallen victim to execution-style killings: outside Lakemba mosque, at a Greenacre home and in broad daylight at a Punchbowl service station.

"The nature of the violence was probably on a level that had rarely been seen before," says Assistant Commissioner Mal Lanyon, the head of State Crime Command who reports to Hudson.

By October 2004, Gain had produced 1069 arrests and 2384 charges, mostly linked to drugs and firearms offences. ???

In December 2005, came the Cronulla riots, and ugly scenes that were broadcast around the world. Following the riots then opposition leader, Peter Debnam, claimed there were "200 Middle Eastern thugs" in Sydney whom he would round up if he became premier. But in truth there was violence on both sides, the eruption of long-simmering tensions between young men of Caucasian and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

In April 2006, Task Force Gain was rebranded as MEOCS, led by Detective Superintendent Ken McKay who had spearheaded the investigation into the aftermath of Cronulla .

"What made MEOCS so successful was its ability to change the behaviour of the criminal elements it was targeting," Lanyon says, to "get in front" of crime before it occurred.

That effectiveness sprang from its unique structure: a mixture of high visibility (the squad had its own marked cars, for example) and a strongly proactive investigative focus that traversed the lowest level of criminal activity through to the top end.

An early success was its Strike Force Torpy, an operation that led to the recovery of a rocket launcher stolen from the army which had been the subject of a years-long hunt. The recovery was the result of a deal cut between police and double killer Adnan "Eddie" Darwiche, a member of a notorious Lebanese crime family.

Later came significant strikes against the Brothers for Life gang, founded by the notorious Bassam Hamzy, who is considered one of the state's most dangerous prisoners and is serving time at Goulburn's supermax jail for crimes including murder, conspiracy to murder, and drug supply.

And among recent successes was Strike Force Rinis, which brought down a sophisticated drug and gun distribution ring involving associations with overseas crime groups and local outlaw motorcycle gangs. It uncovered extensive money laundering and the use of a plane for illicit drug importations.

The Gangs Squad has also had success with its high profile Strike Force Raptor, set up in 2009 (by Hudson) to disrupt outlaw motorcycle gangs in every aspect of their business and criminal enterprises.

Raptor arose after a wild brawl between rival bikie gangs in broad daylight at the domestic terminal of Sydney Airport in March 2009, resulting in the death of Anthony Zervas, who was fatally beaten during the melee.

Then premier Nathan Rees doubled the numbers of the Gangs Squad virtually overnight and the subsequent murder investigation gave rise to Strike Force Raptor, which will carry on inside the newly merged Criminal Groups squad, Hudson says.

"Yeah, we don't want to hurt that brand, it's got a pretty good name."

As for the merging of Gangs and MEOCS and the demise of that famous name, he says: "If the community leaders are happy, if they've got some benefit out of us moving in that direction, that's a good thing."

This story Crime's new frontiers: the eclipse of ethnic crime first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.