ACT News


In Gungahlin, the beat just gets bigger

It's late, nearly 1.30am, and the streets in the city's furthest northern reaches are all but abandoned.

Gungahlin Sergeant Andrew Mitchell and his team of four constables are preparing to wind down from a strangely uneventful night on patrol, punctuated by traffic stops, domestics, two random breath test stations, a petrol theft, and a missing woman.

''Gungahlin's a funny beast,'' Sergeant Mitchell reflected earlier that night.

''It's either quiet like this, or you get smashed … it's either all on, or all quiet.''

Suddenly, a black Nissan Navara screams past Sergeant Mitchell's patrol car.

The veteran cop wastes no time, lighting up William Slim Drive with blue and red, and turning to give chase.


Sergeant Mitchell guns the engine of the police station wagon, trying to get the Navara back into view.

Just when it looks like the car is lost, he rounds a bend to find the black Navara pulled over on the side of the road.

His constables are in the process of hauling the driver, who was allegedly twice the legal alcohol limit, into the back of the caged vehicle.

It's a brief flash of excitement for the team in what is an increasingly rare quiet night for Gungahlin police.

Their beat has become one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, a trend that brings distinct challenges for policing.

The population of Gungahlin almost doubled in the decade to 2011, growing from 24,400 to 49,700. It is projected to grow again to 72,900 by 2021.

The growth has transformed green fields into new suburbs and sprawling construction sites, which have in turn become the target of petty property criminals.

Thieves regularly steal workers' tools, copper, appliances and, in some cases, even hot water systems and earth-moving equipment.

Policing the construction sites now accounts for a significant chunk of the officers' workload. The investigations can be difficult.

Witnesses in the largely uninhabited suburbs are rare after dark, and builders often fail to secure tools , machinery and materials.

The scenes are hazardous for forensic investigators; they're messy and covered in prints from multiple sets of tradesmen's hands.

But expert intelligence officers are helping the Gungahlin police piece together strings of thefts and burglaries to form a more concrete pattern. The approach has proved invaluable in reducing construction site crime, and helped the officers make breakthroughs in December.

Those breakthroughs helped police arrest a 20-year-old suspected of stealing tools from more than 100 cars and trailers over a period of six months, and a 19-year-old who was alleged to have received stolen property. The importance of construction site crime is reinforced as Sergeant Mitchell's team sits down for a pre-shift briefing in the Gungahlin Joint Emergency Service Centre.

Sergeant Mitchell reminds his team - Senior Constable Kelly Clarke, Constable Steven Luxmore and recent recruits, probationary constables Nick Cox and Paul Robens - that the streets of half-finished homes are the top target for the fortnight.

He rattles off a list of cases and criminals the officers will need to keep on their radar, including a white supremacist who has just arrived in town promising to ''clean'' up the city, and a 15-year-old who was before the courts on animal cruelty charges.

With that, the team split up into three cars and hit the road, with little idea what they may face. Their zone stretches over an enormous area, from Bonner and Forde near the NSW border, to the busy nightspots of Dickson, where they frequently have to deal with drunks and alcohol-fuelled violence.

The demographics of Gungahlin pose challenges. The area is far more ethnically diverse than other parts of the ACT, and the officers regularly have difficulties bridging language barriers and cultural divides, often with groups that have had fractious relations with law enforcement in their home country.

Gungahlin's officer-in-charge, Sergeant Jeff Knight, has been at the station since February last year, and is keenly aware of the changing demographics.

Sergeant Knight said others in the force refer to Gungahlin as Mount Thomas, a reference to the fictional country police station in the long-running TV series Blue Heelers.

Young families are common, drawing the ''nappy valley'' tag.

He compares the Gungahlin station to the Erindale Police Station when the Tuggeranong area was developing in the 1970s and '80s.

''It's funny, every day I drive out here I drive past a new suburb,'' he says with laugh. ''I'd say there are more younger kids, so in five, six, seven years - as can be seen anywhere in history - the crime will start to rise, because those kids will turn into teenagers.''

And as the city's newest suburbs continue to take root, and Gungahlin's population continues to expand, it will be this team of officers who will hit the streets every night to keep them safe.


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