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Vigilantes emerge in time of fear

January 2007 Australia:
.SHAPED by fear and intolerance, compromised police resources and a growing requirement that citizens be self-sufficient, the social climate of 21st-century Australia is a breeding ground for vigilante behaviour. That's the word from criminologists, social researchers, psychologists and veteran police sources in pondering recent high-profile instances of people taking the law into their own hands. But it takes someone like Jim Pickering to put it most simply: "When jobs aren't getting done the way society expects them to be done then people are going to hop in and do it for themselves. I can see it won't stop, it will keep going. Like there'll be more of it for sure."

Mr Pickering isn't a crime expert. He's one of the citizens of Meringur, in the Mallee, who watched a convicted pedophile's house burn to the ground. There was drinking, dancing and cheering. The man had raped a 10-year-old girl, received five years in jail and could be out in 2½. The young victim of the sex attack was reportedly fireside, smiling. "If he'd got the maximum sentence I don't know if it would have happened," Mr Pickering says. "And if we had a police station in town it probably wouldn't have happened because it wouldn't have been so easy to get away with. But half the problem was the house stood across the road from where the victim lives. She was going to wake up every morning and see it there. She's the one who needed looking after."

Although Mr Pickering "wouldn't advise anyone to go out and take matters into their hands … I suppose you have to look at the fact that this bloke isn't coming back here. I can see why people might see it as an encouraging example." A similar message comes from Trish and Joe, long-time residents of Grevillia Drive, Mill Park. They are not happy a car was torched and six others vandalised two weeks ago in response to their street being terrorised by hoons doing burn-outs and street racing. "It's not what you want to see," says Trish of the vigilante attack on the cars. "But the burn-outs and that have been going on for like 10 years. We've tried a petition and asking the council to put in speed humps but no one's doing anything about it. The hoons have started up again and it's only a matter of time before someone takes matters into their own hands again."

Police union boss Paul Mullet says vigilantism "is an emerging issue for our members, who are totally frustrated". "A lot of it's linked to street gangs that we're starting to witness. These youth gangs aren't involved in organised crime per se but mainly anti-social behaviour," he says. "Local communities have had enough and are starting to take the law into their own hands. They'll approach youngsters and tell them to stop spraying graffiti, stop drunken behaviour or they'll try to break up fights in the street. "At the moment it's an ad hoc response but it could become a trend and we need to stop it in its tracks. Without police taking a proactive approach through community patrols and preventing this behaviour, it means ordinary citizens are stepping in to fill the void."

Deakin University criminology lecturer Ian Warren believes the incidence of vigilante behaviour will continue to grow, such that it becomes a focus of criminology research. He says there is scant research into vigilantism in Australia but academics are noticing that "we're slowly backtracking into a self-help model, and there are a whole range of reasons for that". "The whole idea of community policing has shifted away from dealing with local concerns … where police resources are deployed more strategically or tied up in complex investigations that will lead to successful court cases," Mr Warren says. "(But) people are more security conscious, which has led to the rise of private security firms, which in turn has become a formal mechanism that's allowing this self-help culture to develop.

"People are fed up with anti-social behaviour and certain types of crime and they are quick to identify and respond to the presence of someone they don't want in their neighbourhood or to certain behaviours they're not happy with." Fiona Haines, Associate Professor of criminology at the University of Melbourne, says it's important not to "over-interpret these recent (vigilante) events, which could simply be the result of frustration". But she says Australia is undergoing a cultural shift where punitive responses are increasingly used in dealing with social problems "and vigilante activity is just one aspect of this general law and order response". Professor Haines also says Australians are increasingly being "asked to accept more uncertainty in their lives and to be more self-reliant". Some of the pressures include work contracts, the need for private health insurance and a reliable retirement fund. "The message is, the overnment isn't going to step in and support you," she says.

Social analyst David Chalke says we are generally feeling safer "because government seems to be doing a good job by boosting police resources. Statistically, crime is down. But neighbourhood issues don't generally bubble up into the national stats. When there are too many instances of the police failing to send out a divvy van to deal with a recurring problem in the neighbourhood, people are pretty quick to get antsy. When the system isn't working we see the need to take action." Psychologist Andrew Fuller says anxiety has taken over from depression as the leading complaint among his clients — particularly among young people — and believes it may lead to a rise in youth gang culture. This in turn leads, as Paul Mullet says, to a rise in vigilantism among the mainstream community. "When people feel threatened, they become more primitive."

Do-it-yourself justice: a chronology

January 2007¦Residents of the Adelaide Hills stop traffic and interview drivers in the search for an arsonist who has started up to 16 fires. Police urge restraint but a local mayor publicly supports the citizens' response.

¦A car is torched and six others are vandalised in suburban Mill Park. For 10 years the residents of Grevillia Drive have asked police and the local council to stop dangerous hooning, burn-outs and street racing on their doorstep. The hooning goes on and residents have told The Sunday Age that another vigilante response is likely in the next year.

¦Police send out extra patrols in the Riverina town of Griffith after text messages circulate that allegedly call for revenge attacks over the bashing death of 17-year-old Andrew Farrugia.

¦Following a spate of sex attacks on Brisbane bike lanes there are calls for a violent response from the community on a blog on The Courier-Mail's website. One blogger warns: "Some people I know are forming a group that is going to set up a sting for these scumbags. Then maybe the police will have to do something when a few of these blokes end up almost dead."

November 2006
A Broadmeadows man is threatened, his windows smashed, gates locked and letterbox vandalised following rumours that he is a pedophile. In fact, it's a case of mistaken identity.

October 2006
Up to 40 people gather in the Mallee town of Meringur to drink and cheer as a convicted pedophile's house is burnt to the ground.

March 2004
The home of Zdravko Micevic, the bouncer charged and later acquitted of the manslaughter of cricketer David Hookes, is set on fire.

August 2002
Angry divorced fathers band together as the Blackshirts to picket the houses of "adulterers" and call for their deaths.

July 2001
A group called Frontline Australia places a newspaper ad calling for people with military experience to tackle people-smuggling. It boasts: "Patrols will be undertaken in international waters without the constraints of political correctness." ..more.. : by John Elder

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