More shootings on Sydney’s streets and yet more police powers – but to what end?

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<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The New South Wales premier stands outside a police station in Sydney’s west after a spate of shootings, saying he makes “no apologies” for announcing tougher measures to target organised crime.

The police minister is there too, chiming in with: “We’ve seen retaliatory attacks across criminal gangs for too long in Sydney.”

That was seven years ago, when Mike Baird and Stuart Ayres unveiled “the strongest attack on organised crime we’ve seen anywhere in the country”.

Related: Police crack down on escalating gang violence after Sydney home targeted in drive-by shooting

This week, new police powers were again announced in response to an outbreak of gun violence, with officers now able to raid the houses of people with a prior conviction for a serious drug offence without a warrant.

There was a new taskforce too, with a new name, and another police minister, Paul Toole, again using the occasion to issue a warning: “We are going … to be out there in the faces of these criminals each and every day.”

But the latest crackdown did little to shift attention from the body count: in the past 18 months, 13 men have been shot dead in a western Sydney turf war and there is no end to the bloodshed in sight.

Mistakes repeated

In their announcement shortly before the 2015 election, Baird and Ayres unveiled serious crime prevention orders, which could include conditions that essentially forced suspected criminals to stay in their own homes and prevented them from owning phones that received encrypted messages. At the time, the harsh orders were of little concern to Ghassan Amoun: he was in prison then.

In December 2020, however, NSW police did apply to slap an order on Amoun. He had a significant criminal history and was the brother of Bassam Hamzy, who founded the Brothers 4 Life gang.

Justice Peter Garling granted the order and issued a troubling portent for things to come, saying there were “rival families … sorting out their differences between themselves in a violent manner and without engaging with the police”.

“This is a course of conduct of rampant serious and violent criminality, involving members of the [Hamzy] family on one side and members of the Alameddine family on the other, occurring in public and intended … to inflict violent retaliation upon each other for perceived crimes and slights.

“Whilst the publicity about these events, the intense police investigations which are occurring, and, perhaps, the existence of these proceedings, has led to a pause in these retaliatory attacks, there is no reason to think that the disputes have been finished and settled for all time.”

On a sunny day this January, while he sat inside a car in South Wentworthville, Amoun was shot dead. He was 35.

A burnt-out car, possibly used as the getaway by Ghassan Amoun’s shooter, in south Wentworthville on the day he was found shot dead.
A burnt-out car, possibly used as the getaway by Ghassan Amoun’s shooter, in South Wentworthville on the day he was found dead. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Earlier this month, another man subject to a serious crime prevention order was also shot, in an attack that killed his colleague.

The fact that the increase in gun crime has been met with an increased show of force by police, rather than a reckoning about why previously introduced measures such as prevention orders may not be working, does not surprise lawyer Ahmed Dib.

“I’ve got kids, I don’t want them growing up on streets where … bullets are whistling by their ears,” says Dib, who lives in the city’s west and has represented a string of men accused of gun crime.

“The reality is, it’s been 20 years and [gun violence] has been increasing, if anything, not decreasing. For police to keep repeating the same mistakes … it’s insanity.”

Lawyer Abdullah Reslan, who represents similar clients to Dib, agrees that new police powers are not the answer.

“This approach provides a Band-Aid solution, which may be considered politically effective but is practically ineffective,” he says.

“The approach fails to take into account the source of the violence.

“The lack of targeted youth programs and failure by law enforcement to properly engage with the community has allowed repeated underworld power vacuums to be filled by younger and more reckless players.”

Recruited as teenagers

Public court documents show recent victims of gun violence had extensive criminal histories dating back to their teenage years.

Mahmoud Ahmad, 39, who was killed in April, first committed offences as a child, a court has heard, and recorded his first shooting-related offences in his early 20s.

A man who survived a shooting in May was convicted of assaulting police as a 15-year-old, court records show, before gradually escalating his offending over the next 16 years, in between stints in prison: firstly he used a dog to maul a man, then he beat another man over a drug deal, leaving him with brain damage, before shooting someone twice in a drive-by shooting.

These interactions with the justice system are seen as an opportunity. But an opportunity for what, exactly, depends on whom you speak to.

Those who think courts are not hard enough say these are inflection points, where crooks could be sent inside for longer rather than set free to cause more trouble.

Those who believe early intervention can prevent a life of crime believe these are missed chances for a child to get the help they need.

Paul Toole
NSW police minister Paul Toole has promised another crackdown on gun crime but to what end? Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Some criminal syndicates actively court teenagers, police sources say, offering them relatively small amounts of money such as a few hundred dollar to complete minor logistical tasks. These tasks can escalate quickly, so much so that some teenagers become comfortable handling firearms well before their 18th birthday.

Dib reckons education is the main factor that helps his clients break free. He says an inability of these offenders to study while on remand and the scarcity of drug rehabilitation beds makes this task harder.

Reslan says examples of young men having extensive criminal records stretching back to their teens suggested that imposing regular or extended custodial sentences did “not work to rehabilitate, rather, in many cases promoting or encouraging antisocial thoughts or ways of life.

“The justice system needs to focus more succinctly on rehabilitation, with the focal point being community engagement, especially among young offenders,” he says.

“Resources should be directed at … youth programs and education, mental health within the justice system and other community initiatives targeting youth from the street level up.”

No cause for concern

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the NSW police officer responsible for organised crime, assistant commissioner Stuart Smith, gave briefings to the state government in December that showed he believed organised crime was rampant in the state and laws had to be strengthened to fix it.

Dr Michael Kennedy, a former NSW police officer and senior lecturer at Western Sydney University, believes the current spate of shootings are no cause for concern, that the state is not unsafe and that much of the furore has been whipped up by the media.

Related: NSW police move on bikie gangs after spate of shootings

“There’s nothing new about any of this,” he says. “What’s the difference if Squizzy Taylor cuts your throat with a razor or someone shoots you dead? It’s getting rid of a rival in organised crime.”

A senior NSW detective who spoke to Guardian Australia on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak publicly, agrees that, in many cases, the issues had not changed in decades.

That could mean a new police approach, in combination with other measures, may make a difference, he says, but he agrees there was only so much police could do.

“It’s probably a broad failure societally that we’ve got to this point, but that’s for the social policy makers, not for me,” he says.

“There are some people who actually just do crime because they want to. But there are others who just need someone to tell them they’ve got another option.”

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