Qld city held to ransom by youth gangs

WHEN police pulled a Taser on a girl, aged 11, who was allegedly wielding a knife in a Townsville primary school it begged the question: "What the hell is going on?"

Kids as young as eight stealing cars. There are carjackings, break-ins, property crime, assaults by mostly indigenous offenders, all of them ridiculously young.

Police footage of two groups of youths, one of the drivers aged just 13, captured them allegedly driving recklessly in two stolen cars at high speed, taunting police in pursuit.

It shocked many in the north Queensland city, population 190,000.

It made national headlines of a city held hostage by out-of-control youth crime.

On Monday, Townsville's business, police and political leaders sat down at a roundtable for talks about the "youth crime crisis".

That same day, the child allegedly stabbed a teacher, 56, in the back with a small paring knife, outside a classroom.

The 11-year-old girl is one of the youngest ever tasered by police in Australia.

She has since been charged with one count of wounding, possession of a knife in a public place or school, and threatening violence.

Ethical Standards Command will also investigate why police deployed the Taser.

Gangs of mostly indigenous youth and adults - part of a hardcore criminal element of about 100 families in Townsville - are largely blamed for the spate of youth crime, rising racial tensions and community unrest.

But dig behind the headlines and it'll reveal the inconvenient truth to be found in many hard-scrabble suburbs, similar to those in Townsville, across the nation.

It'll show a disturbing cycle of child sex abuse, domestic violence, booze, drugs, poverty, poor parenting and dysfunction.


Police on the beat in Townsville
Police on the beat in Townsville


Top cop Paul Taylor shakes his head. "What most people can't fathom is why kids, aged 8, 9, 10 and 11 are even out of bed at night?'' said Mr Taylor, the police Northern Region Assistant Commissioner.

"Let alone out stealing cars.''

It's often safer for children to be away all night from party-houses where adults are drinking heavily than to stay and try to sleep.

"It is difficult, I'm not making excuses for them, but some of these youth are from extremely difficult and complex backgrounds," Mr Taylor said.

"Most of us find it hard to rationalise a normal world where children are nurtured and loved, to this other world.

"We're working enthusiastically to make sure every kid gets to school every day. That's the best way to start.''

He said it was a constant battle, but warned against vigilantism.

"We know there is a core group who prey on the good people of Townsville whenever we take them into custody, we see a lull in property crime statistics," Mr Taylor said.


Townsville residents protest the city’s crime rate outside Member for Thuringowa Aaron Harper's office.
Townsville residents protest the city’s crime rate outside Member for Thuringowa Aaron Harper's office.


At the peak of the crime spree, more than 20 cars were stolen in a week, police figures show.

In that same time there were 74 reported break-ins across the Townsville Police District.

"There's no need for vigilante action,'' Mr Taylor said.

"Give us the information, and we'll act on it."

Dubbed Operation Romeo Seville, a police crackdown over the past seven days has charged 15 people with 108 offences.

"Police are confident all the key offenders responsible for that
high-risk criminal offending (last week) have now been arrested and taken into custody,'' Townsville District Acting Superintendent Damien Crosby said.

Juvenile offenders have been prominent, with children aged 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 17 all being arrested in the first week of operations.

"One prominent female offender aged 17 years has alone been charged with in excess of 30 property-related offences,'' Supt Crosby said.

Townsville Enterprise CEO Patricia O'Callaghan said the city's residents wanted to know they can feel safe.


Associate Professor Gracelyn Smallwood
Associate Professor Gracelyn Smallwood


"We understand there is no silver bullet," she said.

"(But) we demand that our community can feel safe and that serious crime will be met with the full force of the law."

Aboriginal activist and professor Gracelyn Smallwood said the solution was "not rocket science".

"None of us, black or white, want this trouble and mayhem. We don't condone this bloody rampage,'' she said.

"It's not just kids, it's adults too. But we've been having roundtable meetings for 50 years, coming up with the same solutions and it's all falling on deaf ears."

Many of the social welfare services were failing the community and dumping the burden on police.

"Most of the programs are not working. The majority of these kids are not from Townsville, they're fringe dwellers," she said.

"It's a lot of the mob coming into the city, away from alcohol management plans in the communities, and never going back home.

"They need to let our children go on country and heal and get back some dignity."

Townsville Bulletin editor Jenna Cairney, who convened this week's crisis talks, said the time had come to break the self-perpetuating cycle of crime, despair and hopelessness.

"What's going on here? And what the hell are we going to do about it?'' she said.

"People have had a gutful.

"We do have to acknowledge there is a great deal of fear and anger at how this city has been held hostage by a small minority.

"It is having a devastating impact."

She questioned programs where police were paid overtime to take kids on bail fishing or to a footy match, or putting young offenders in bail houses where they come and go as they please.

Ms Cairney said the biggest challenge was how to deal with young offenders when they were released from Townsville's Cleveland Youth Detention Centre.

"When they get let out, they've got nowhere to go other than broken homes," she said.

"That's when we get crime spikes, car thefts, break-ins.

"We understand the human face of complexity. But that's where we can start."