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State stock squads cooperating to combat drug-fuelled rural crime

James Nason, 11/03/2016
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Detective Inspector Mick Dowie and AgForce Cattle’s Ian Harsant at the annual SARCIS conference in Toowoomba this week.

The growing ice problem in country Australia is contributing to a direct increase in rural crime as users of the drug turn to farm theft to fund their addictions.

Police stock squad investigators from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria meeting for an annual conference in Toowoomba this week said the growing drug epidemic is changing the face of rural crime across Australia.

It is not just occurring on an individual or an ad hoc level, but in a very organised way as well, with farms seen as an easy target for teams of travelling thieves scouting for equipment and machinery.

Rural crime investigators from Victoria recently apprehended a syndicate where a leader was running a team of ice-addicted teenagers specifically targeting rural burglaries in the State’s river country.

The group was “stealing to order”, with more than half a million dollars worth of equipment such as motorbikes, trailers and tractors recovered when their crime ring was cracked following an investigation by Victorian agricultural liaison police officers.

“There are so many communities where kids are using ice and all of a sudden they have to find a way to pay for it,” the head the Victorian Police Livestock & Farm Crime Specialist Group, Superintendant Craig Gillard, said.

“If just brings the crime to the rural area.”

The impact of ice is even more visible in small rural communities, the state coordinator of the Queensland Police State and Rural Crime Investigation Squad (SARCIS), Detective Inspector Mick Dowie, said.

“You can have a major populous with 2pc of the population using ice, and you see it every day anyway in the cities, but you put that in a little place like Charleville for example, the impact from a family perspective and social perspective is enormous.”

Trespassing is a major issue for rural law enforcement, because it is a catalyst for a lot of crime that follows. People hunting can case a property for fuel supplies, unattended equipment such as quad bike or pumps or unsecured firearms.

An increasingly common tactic is for offenders to drive up to a rural homestead and toot the horn to see if someone is at home. If someone is at home they will claim to be lost, if no-one is at home, they will help themselves to whatever they can.

‘Anything they can lift, they can make a dollar out of’

“Anything they can lift, they can make a dollar out of,” Det Insp Dowie said.

“Rural communities historically have a lot of trust in their neighbours, and they are not prepared for people driving 300km out from a provincial city and trawling all through their properties, stealing their diesel to get home and also taking anything they can pick up and take with them.

“That is pretty much it, a full tank of fuel out and a full tank fuel back is the radius from cities where people are starting to see the effects of rural crime.”

NSW Police New England local area commander, superintendent Fred Trench, said he recently attended a meeting of the NSW Farmers Association in Dubbo and noted that every single farmer present said they previously had illegal hunters or trespassers on their property.

Cooperating to fight crime across borders

Crime knows no borders, which means rural crime investigators from each state spend a lot of time working together to share information and intelligence.

The high level of cooperation between the different state forces was underlined in Toowoomba this week where representatives of the NSW and Victorian police forces attended the annual conference of the Queensland Stock and Rural Crime Investigation Squad.

Each State police force takes a different approach to resourcing and structuring rural crime units.

Queensland is the only state with a dedicated police stock and rural crime squad, and has about 35 full time SARCIS officers spread across the State, one being a dedicated intelligence analyst. SARCIS are professionally equipped to undertake all facets of stock investigations including the ability to muster large properties and process and seize exhibit cattle. They also utilize their equipment to provide regional police with an operational platform in rural areas for operations such as searches for missing persons, disaster management and drug production and firearms investigations.

New South Wales has 33 rural crime investigators attached to the local area Police commands in rural areas, who share rural crime duties with other police work.

Victoria has 48 agricultural liaison officers throughout the State, typically rural based police officers or detectives who, like their NSW counterparts, undertake rural crime investigation responsibilities as an add-on to other police duties.

Stock theft case illustrates state collaboration

One recent case illustrates how the different police forces work across state borders.

Cattle stolen from north-west Queensland were allegedly sold through a saleyard in the south of the state and dispersed to buyers in Southern Queensland and NSW.

National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) database searches identified the whereabouts of the suspect stock.

As a result, a request for assistance was forwarded from Queensland SARCIS investigators to their NSW Rural Crime Investigation Unit (RCI) counterparts to inspect cattle that had been purchased and relocated to that state.

The cattle in question were sold as cow and calf units and when inquiries were conducted it was revealed that the calves had allegedly been weaned and were on agistment at one property whilst the cows were in the ‘long paddock’ being driven on foot along a stock route.

Arrangements were made and as a result the cows were yarded, inspected and positively identified as belonging to the victim. An inspection of the weaned calves showed that they had all been branded with the suspect offender’s brand.

The evidence obtained further strengthened the case against the alleged offender.

Early reporting vital

The increase in cattle prices is adding to the challenge for rural crime investigators, with the officers from all states agreeing that higher cattle values are resulting in increased reports of cattle theft.

The key message of all three State rural crime officers to rural landholders?

If you suspect a crime has occurred, report it immediately.

Don’t wait for further proof to do so.

Ongoing research by University of New England associate professor Elaine Barclay found that many rural crimes are not reported to police because landholders feel they do not have enough evidence to prove the crime had been committed.

“People need to report crime no matter what,” Det Insp Dowie said.

“Elaine Barclay’s research shows that the main reason people don’t report crime is because they don’t have proof.

“It is up to us prove it. If they wait a year until they muster just to prove they are missing a couple of hundred head, then we are a year behind the eight ball.”

NSW police superintendent Fred Trench said early reporting is essential to allocating police resources.

“We organise all our operations and allocate our resourcing based on the intelligence we get.

“If they are not reporting it, we don’t know what is going on, we can’t allocate the resources to it.”

Surveillance cameras

Prevention measures such as marking all equipment and installing surveillance cameras was also encouraged.

Footage captured on surveillance cameras helped Victorian detectives to capture the crime ring of ice-addicted teenagers mentioned earlier in this article.

Det Insp Dowie said Queensland police have had success with the cameras as well.

“It is hard to gauge the deterrent factor, but from a prosecution perspective and getting evidence, they are brilliant.”

Rural crime reporting app

Technology is also playing a role in encouraging more rural residents to report rural crime, after the SARCIS launched a rural crime reporting app for smartphones contained within the QPS ‘Policelink’ App. .

The custom designed function enables users to instantly upload images and make a report immediately without waiting until they are back home or in the office.

The app also helps users to keep up to date with the SARCIS blog site http://mypolice.qld.gov.au/sarcis/ and to email the squad directly.

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