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Blame race riots on police force neglect

The headlines in Sydney′s main newspapers in the wake of Sunday′s riots had similar themes: "Our disgrace", "Day of shame" and so on. And indeed, to any even-minded citizen, Sunday was certainly not one of the Harbour City′s better days. Let′s not mince words: the behaviour of the rioters at Cronulla beach, as political, police and community leaders have insisted, was disgusting and disgraceful.

But the events that unfolded in the Sutherland Shire reminded me of the lyrics from the song Gravity by British band Embrace a few years ago: "It′s been a long time coming ... and I can′t stop now."

That song encapsulated the mood and the agenda of everyone who gathered at the beachside suburb. This was to be a day of protest unlike anything we have witnessed in Sydney before.

I ventured down to Cronulla and watched the scenes unfold from about 11am. I watched as groups of young men walked to the beach carrying cartons of beer and drinking freely as small groups of police walked around. They obviously had no instructions from senior police to curtail and deter the always volatile mixture of alcohol and public gatherings.

That was the first big error and probably the most telling. The second mistake was the inability of senior police in command to read the crowd and to anticipate its mood. Sure, I saw any number of earnest-looking police commanders earlier in the day, all armed with the obligatory mobile phone and clipboard. Later I saw them safely ensconced in the command post located above the surf club.

It reminded me of the old British army model, of the generals gathered on horseback on hills many kilometres from the battle, watching the front-line troops fight but removed from the emotional and physical atmosphere that often gave the telltale signs that disaster lurked nearby.

As with the Redfern and Macquarie Fields riots in February last year and February this year respectively, police at Cronulla quickly lost the initiative and the battle. From the start, the police were hopelessly outnumbered. Indeed, police numbers were more likely dictated by the bean-counting bureaucrats under Police Minister Carl "Sparkles" Scully.

Although not widely known, the police ministry wields awesome power throughout the NSW police. So much so that most of the big decisions are made by so-called experts within the ministry and usually based on cost.

If Sunday′s debacle can be linked back to the police ministry in any way, then there should be hell to pay. Despite the attempts of the experts, past and present, policing and law and order can′t be run on a budget. After all, public safety is not a franchise; it is a common-law right.

The final mistake was the failure to predict the inevitable retaliation of hot-headed youths of Middle Eastern descent to the events at Cronulla. Subsequently, police failed to contain the violence unleashed along southern and eastern Sydney on Sunday night. Again, despite the rhetoric, senior police have learned little from previous debacles involving public disorder. Indeed, there is a case for believing that they probably never will.

The only police-recorded incident of an assault on Cronulla beach this year, according to area police commander Bob Redfern, was the previous weekend′s attack on the surf lifesavers. Just one. Call it naivety or just benign neglect, but his statement last week merely brought back memories of the Cabramatta debacle of 1999-2000 when senior police told the NSW parliament that gang warfare in Sydney wasn′t a problem. Clearly, a single recorded assault (the thuggish attack on the lifesavers) did not compel thousands of local youths to descend on Cronulla beaches in protest and behave the way they did.

If the police and the state Government are to learn anything from Sunday′s riots, it is this: people largely do not believe what comes out of the mouths of senior police and government ministers.

Of course, the usual claque of agenda-driven ethnic community leaders were quick to condemn the Cronulla incidents as un-Australian and racist. Never mind the multitude of racist attacks on young Australian men and women during the past decade, which have now manifested into full-blown racial retaliation.

In an article on this page nearly two years ago ("Don′t turn a blind eye to terror in our midst," January 12, 2004), I argued that the increasing frequency of racially motivated attacks on young Australian men and women - including murders, gang rapes and serious assaults by young men of Lebanese Muslim descent - would rise dramatically throughout Australia. These problems remain widespread and have been documented in the ensuing two years.

Yet the NSW Labor Government and police have failed to address the issues in any way apart from the instigation of something called Strike Force Gain, set up to investigate a spate of shootings involving young men of Middle Eastern descent in southwest Sydney last year. This strike force has been largely wound down due to budgetary restraints.

The crime problems evident in southwest and southeast Sydney resemble a medical condition like skin cancer: they are relatively painless and easy to cure in the early stages, but if left untreated they require painful and radical surgery to cure.

Sunday′s events are the start of what could become a long, drawn-out war of racial and social division that may be harder to cure than any of us can imagine. If we addressed the problem a decade ago when it first appeared, we may never have seen what we witnessed on Sunday.

Alas, such acts of violence will roll on intermittently for a great deal of time and in a manner few of us could have imagined in our lifetime.

For a future glimpse of Sydney, look back at recent events in Paris. No amount of mealy-mouthed rhetoric from the Government or tough talk from inexperienced police commanders is going to make the slightest bit of difference.

This is a reality, not a prediction.

Tim Priest, a former Sydney police detective, is author of To Protect and To Serve (New Holland, 2003).

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