Two months after the West Australian government promised a swift and multi-layered response to escalating juvenile crime in the Kimberley, significant questions remain over what is being put on the table.
Announced in February after a string of highly publicised attacks on police officers by juvenile offenders, Operation Regional Shield saw 24 additional police officers deployed to the Kimberley in a bid to target the key offenders.
The initial response appeared to make an impact: 63 arrests were made, more than 100 charges laid and crime tailed off in Broome and Derby.
But last week, news of the operation’s expansion to Port Hedland and other Pilbara communities was quickly followed by a spate of similar crimes across Kimberley towns.
In Kununurra, a couple staying at a local caravan park reported an attempted armed robbery by a juvenile wielding a stick and trying to steal their four-wheel drive.
In Derby, police aborted the pursuit of a stolen four-wheel drive being driven dangerously throughout town.
“It would not be a stretch to say the whole town is living in fear — and it’s like a battle zone,” Derby resident Peter told Assistant Police Commissioner Col Blanch on ABC Perth last week.
“Your police are doing a tremendous job — I feel for them,” he said.
Local Aboriginal leaders have put forward suggestions including calls for greater involvement in the local operation of the justice system, individuals using their own experience to deter other children from risky behaviour, and making use of established programs like community sport and night patrols.
Families of the children committing the crimes have called for on-country sentencing, rather than sending children to WA’s controversial Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre.
Is too much being left up to police?
After launching the response in February, Police Minister Paul Papalia said: “This isn’t just a policing problem, and it can’t be just a policing solution”.
Mr Papalia reiterated those comments in the Pilbara last week, emphasising that the situation would receive a multi-agency, whole-of-government response, rather than being left up to law enforcement.
The most alarming statistic to emerge from the first two months of Operation Regional Shield concerns the number of at-risk children, some as young as eight or nine, who are coming into contact with police: 578 across the Kimberley as of mid March.
Not every child picked up by police is necessarily committing a crime; many, if not all, are forced onto the streets by disadvantage and violence at home.
With a key goal of WA’s juvenile justice strategy being keeping children as far from the justice system as possible, investigating and supporting these children and their families remains the responsibility of the Department of Communities.
“WA Police attempt to identify a responsible adult for any ‘street-present’ [coming into contact with police] children and young people, or contact Communities’ Crisis Care Unit if one cannot be located,” Communities Kimberley regional director Fiona Fischer said.
Ms Fischer said the response was being managed within the department’s existing staffing levels, alongside newly appointed staff attached to early-intervention programs.
Asked what after-hours response the department was providing within the Kimberley, Ms Fischer said the Crisis Care Unit provided a 24/7 response for advice, support and case management of at-risk children.
“The state government is working on a suite of measures to address juvenile crime in the Kimberley, with more details to be announced soon,” she said.
So what strategies is the government backing?
Responding to Kimberley residents’ queries on ABC Perth, Assistant Police Commissioner Col Blanch put it plainly that the current situation — the regular rotation of hundreds of young offenders between the Kimberley and Banksia Hill — needed to change.
“I know a lot of the community says, ‘Lock them up for a long time’, but that’s not working for us,” he said.
But the government has been much less clear on what those strategies are.
In the week Operation Regional Shield was launched, Mr Papalia flagged a fresh government-grants program to support local solutions and pitches to improve community security.
Several Kimberley organisations enthusiastically put ideas forward, only to receive radio silence from the government, and an eventual denial from Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan that such grants were ever promised.
It fell to the Premier to clarify the government’s pitch a week later.
“We’re going to look at alternative sentencing options for the Kimberley and provide opportunities for sentencing on country, rather than the removal of children to Banksia Hill,” Mark McGowan said.
A five-year wait for locals seeking solutions
The one thing the Premier didn’t clarify was a timeframe for the government’s response, but all signs point to some sort of announcement in the May 12 state budget.
That will mark more than five years since the Kimberley Juvenile Justice Strategy was first put forward as a 2017 election commitment.
Every politician, agency head and community leader from Kununurra to Perth involved in addressing this issue understands there are no overnight fixes for these problems.
But goodwill and faith in the system from residents is a finite thing, and a lack of action can encourage perceptions the government — 2,000km away in Perth — is somewhat disconnected and dismissive of their immediate concerns.
“You’ve almost got a lawless society beginning to emerge,” Shadow Police Minister Peter Collier said last week.
What does WA’s recent history tell us?
The State Opposition’s previous term in government provides the most recent example of just how bad things can get if the community’s confidence in the system disappears.
Midway through the 2010s, the WA Goldfields were going through similar ructions to parts of the Kimberley and Pilbara now.
Increasing break-ins and car thefts sparked feelings that people weren’t safe in their own homes and businesses, and that the justice system wasn’t particularly interested in addressing their concerns.
Chatter on social media turned increasingly violent, as talk in workplaces turned to how “somebody should do something” in the absence of concrete action from the authorities.
The powder keg erupted in 2016 with devastating consequences: the death of a 14-year-old boy, a protest-turned-riot in the town’s main street, and the ultimate jailing of a local man for dangerous driving causing death.
All received extensive coverage, but what slipped under the radar was that it was only after things turned violent that the then-Barnett government began its crisis response in the Goldfields.
For Kimberley residents, all eyes will now be on next month’s budget to see how the McGowan government chooses to respond.
Sam Tomlin is the Chief of Staff at ABC Kimberley. He was previously Chief of Staff and News Reporter at ABC Goldfields Esperance, covering the Kalgoorlie riot and its aftermath.