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Striking back

With gang tensions flaring in parts of New Zealand, calls have been made for a specialist police unit to be set up, similar to Strike Force Raptor in New South Wales. The recently retired head of that unit, Detective Superintendent Deborah Wallace, talks to Police News about the work of the squad and her career.

Where did the idea for Strike Force Raptor come from, including the name?

Strike Force Raptor (SFR) was formed in 2009 following a fight between the Hells Angels and Comancheros at Sydney Airport domestic terminal in the middle of the day. A Hells Angel member was bashed to death. Swift action was required, and Strike Force Raptor was formed. I don’t know who chose the name. As is often the case, someone puts a name forward and it catches on. Over years it has become a brand representing outstanding police work and innovative strategies focused on the disruption, disabling and prosecution of criminal gangs.

Tell us about the work?

There are about 100 staff involved in SFR and we always had a waiting list. The work involves investigation, short and longer term, tactical policing and highway patrol duties, so there is plenty of opportunity for a range of skills. The very nature of policing is dangerous, but certainly the tactical teams and highway patrols who are more often engaged in hostile situations are highly trained and experienced, which significantly reduces the risk.

What are the key requirements needed to lead such a squad?

Everyone brings their own style of leadership and management. For me, it was about listening to staff, making decisions when they needed to be made – even unpopular ones – but communicating the reasons for those decisions and, to be authentic; cops are very perceptive and can pick a fake a mile away!

Tell us about dismantling the Rebels OMG clubhouse?

The Rebels Outlaw Motorcycle Gang were starting to stick their head up around the Newcastle area, north of Sydney, and engaging in shootings and public acts of violence. Strike Force Raptor, using its highly successful “consequence-based policing model”, needed to let the Rebels know that, although it was unlikely the actual crimes would be solved due to fears by victims, their behaviour would not be tolerated. The Rebels clubhouse in the centre of Newcastle was raided and dismantled using powers under the Restricted Premises Act to get a search warrant. Over the next two weeks, three other OMG clubhouses were raided in the area sending a clear message that criminal behaviour and overt acts of violence would not be tolerated. As the team was about to search a clubhouse near Port Stevens just north of Newcastle there was a sign on the door, left for Raptor: “Don’t bother, we have already left.” They did not open a new clubhouse in the area.

You’ve seen bikies bring their colours to the police station and say, “I’ve had enough”. What’s that about?

We take the attitude that when someone says they have left a gang, we want to see the proof, as per their own OMG rules.
For example:

  • Tattoo references to the club must be removed, along with the 1 per cent bikie tattoo.
  • They usually have to pay $10,000 cash and surrender their bike and colours to the club.
  • Once the club is satisfied, they can leave on “good standing” and not receive further punishment from the club.

On occasion, to prove to us they were “out”, members would bring their colours to the police station. This would never be sanctioned by the club, but showed how desperate they were to disengage from the gang, whether in “good” or “bad” standing.

Earlier in your career, your boss gave you the ancient Chinese military treatise The Art of War to read. What were your thoughts about how that might be incorporated into policing?

A couple of things stand out because it was at a time when I was dealing with Vietnamese street gangs. Firstly, know your enemies’ strengths and weaknesses and then formulate your plan and, secondly, never show your true face in times of adversity; stay calm, remain resilient and be patient.

Are you aware of the increase in gang activity in New Zealand since gang members began being deported from Australia?

Gangs are not a new challenge for New Zealand police. I visited Auckland 15 years ago and was impressed then, as I am today, with the professionalism, passion and knowledge of my colleagues there, including innovative approaches to prevention and disruption. This partnership has been strengthened with New Zealand being a member of our National Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Managers Group and National Task Force Morpheus, which facilitates exchange of cross-border intelligence, legislation, ideas and information. Detective Superintendent Greg Williams is the sitting member. I’ve met many gang “experts” and been impressed by their depth of knowledge about the issues facing the New Zealand community.

Your job was about getting results. You had some big wins in terms of disrupting gang activity, but one of the Vietnamese gang members told you that a snake without a head will soon grow a new one. What is the key to breaking the cycle?

Prevention is better than cure. Once someone joins a gang, it is hard to turn them around. One of the things I was most proud of just before I left was an initiative from one of the Raptor sergeants and other tactical teams to develop and implement the Raptor Gang Prevention Programme. It was a tiered programme, ranging from kids falling through the cracks to those in juvenile detention, delivering information on the consequences of joining a gang. It is the only police programme operating in a juvenile detention centre.

Why did you join Police?

I really wanted to be a travel agent, but, coming from a working-class family, my dad encouraged me to get a secure government job (he was a locksmith for the government electricity company). Three days after leaving school, at 17, I had a job as a clerk/typist and Dad said, “It’s a government job and you can be there for life”. Just like winning the lottery! In 1982, I saw an ad for the NSW Police Force, recruiting women for frontline roles, which was a recent development. When I was accepted, my dad was beaming, not so much because it was the police force, but because it was a government job!

Do you think the fact you were a woman cop gave you an advantage in making connections with the Asian and Middle Eastern gangs in Cabramatta?

I am not sure, as many of the male cops had excellent connections as well. Being a female did give one advantage, though... the ability to think and act outside the square in some ways, and not be discouraged by what peers might think. Of course, my colleagues at Cabramatta had already done that to a large extent due to the style of policing needed to work in a community that was largely first-generation refugees.

Did you have to deal with sexist attitudes in the workplace, as well as out on the job?

If they existed, I didn’t notice, and maybe the attitudes weren’t openly displayed, but I didn’t feel that at all. Am I just the lucky one? I don’t like to think that, and I hope that sexist attitudes are the exception, not the rule. I had strong role models and support throughout my career and, as I was a senior female, it’s not surprising that these were men, outstanding men, who gave me opportunities and challenged me when, as is the case with other women, I questioned my worth.

Tell us about your personal style, which has been described as “colourful suits, heels and sparkly jewellery”? Has it developed over time, or always been there?

It was always there, and I remember getting advice from 2nd Class Sergeant Joan Steadman on my first shift at Blacktown Police Station. Joan was from the “old school” following the integration of men and women on the frontline. She took me aside and said, “Never compromise your integrity or your femininity. You are a policewoman, not a policeman. Be true to yourself.” We are dear friends still today and her words still resonate with me and have held me in good stead. It is not “my brand”, it is just me.

Now you’ve retired, how do you spend your time and what’s on the horizon?

I retired from the force, but not from life. I’ve finally taken the girl out of the western suburbs of Sydney and moved to the coast with my partner, Trent, who is a surfer and fisherman. I’m involved with the Homicide Victims Support Group and we are about to build – the first of its kind in the world – a trauma centre for children aged between three and 16 years who have suffered as a result of homicide.

 

To learn more about Deborah Wallace’s police career, listen to the Blue Sirens Police Tape series available through Apple Podcasts.

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