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Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Tracy Bowden
Blacktown in Sydney’s West was a gathering place for young people wanting trouble but a community program is turning that around.
CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: Thursday night used to spell trouble in Blacktown west of Sydney. It’s a melting pot of dozens of nationalities, including a large refugee population.
And it’s young – half of the locals are aged under 30.
When a new police commander arrived he faced serious challenges and disturbing crime trends. Now with some community support and a dose of common sense, Blacktown’s becoming a safer place to live.
Tracy Bowden reports.
(Shots of groups of adolescents hanging around)
TRACY BOWDEN, REPORTER: Blacktown is 34km west of Sydney.
The city has a compact, crowded central business district. This is the hub for shopping, public transport, entertainment and in the past, for crime.
SUPERINTENDANT MARK WRIGHT, BLACKTOWN LOCAL AREA COMMANDER: It’s a very small geographic area and that’s why it was described, if you look at crime on a hotspot map, it’s like my predecessor would refer to it as Chernobyl because it was just almost a 1km radius – and that encapsulates the CBD.
TRACY BOWDEN: When Mark Wright took over as the local area commander in 2008, one of the first things he discovered was that Thursday night was fight night.
(CCTV footage of adolescent kids fighting)
MARK WRIGHT: It wasn’t uncommon here to have up to 2000 kids in and around the precinct here. A lot of these people were actually coming here for the purpose of fighting.
So there may have been a dispute at school or there may have been a dispute with boyfriends, girlfriends, some relationship issue. And they would come to Blacktown on a Thursday night in particular to solve their differences.
It wasn’t out of control but the potential was there because when you get large numbers it always has the potential to increase. It has the potential to get out of control.
SUVANNAH CHAND: There’s a whole bunch of people, hundreds of them would turn up just to see them fight.
TRACY BOWDEN: Nineteen year-old Suvannah Chand was unemployed and bored and in the thick of it.
SUVANNAH CHAND: Black eyes, busted nose, broken jaw, ribs… um, just bruises everywhere, stuff like that.
TRACY BOWDEN: The local shopping centre became a focal point for vandalism and theft. Some shoppers chose to stay away.
HARRY BEVITT, BUSINESS OWNER: On Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons I think it was a dangerous place to be.
Harry Bevitt runs a juice and coffee shop in the centre.
HARRY BEVITT: We were all scared. We had gangs jumping the counter in the night time and stealing whatever that wasn’t bolted down – drinks, machinery, knives.
(A group of Sudanese girls greet each other)
TRACY BOWDEN: One of the most visible groups in the Blacktown community are the Sudanese. John Garang came to Australia 7 years ago and says cultural differences were behind much of the unrest here.
JOHN GARANG, BLACKTOWN RESIDENT: There were lot of problems because youth from different communities and in particular African youths with the Pacific Islanders community – and also the mainstream youth because when we first entered the country, people thought, you know, “These people, where did they come from?
Superintendant Wright walking Tracy Bowden through the shopping area)
MARK WRIGHT: So they all congregated here to start with…
TRACY BOWDEN: The program Mark Wright developed to tackle the problems in the area is called Comm4unity. Its motto, “Connecting our minds for unity.”
MARK WRIGHT: Some of the brawls would occur around here.
(Operation Mingle meeting)
TRACY BOWDEN: Step one was to meet with all the non-Government groups working in the region and plan a coordinated approach.
MARK WRIGHT: The mission of our operation, Operation Mingle, tonight is to provide a high visibility cordinated approach utilising community leaders with the police and alongside the police.
TRACY BOWDEN: Another initiative was to step up the police presence on the streets, but with community involvement.
(A group of police officers walking with community members including John Garang)
Tonight officers are being joined on the beat by representatives of different cultural groups, among them John Garang.
JOHN GARANG (to a Sudanese boy): Are you going to play soccer? Where are you going?
(Boy shakes policeman’s hand)
JOHN GARANG: We have to teach the mainstream community the positive side of our history, that we are peaceful people and we need to co-exist peacefully without any problems in the Australian community because we are enjoying our freedom and there are no worries.
(Local football game with police and Sudanese community members)
MARK WRIGHT: The whole thing is about building community. It’s about that social cohesion. And the symbols are extremely important. The more they see us together, the more they see cops running around a paddock laughing, having a bit of fun, that’s really important and it really sends a strong image and a strong signal.
(Young people at a dance competition)
TRACY BOWDEN: Mark Wright also discovered that many of the young people in the area were fanatical about dance but their ghetto blasters and impromptu performances in the shopping centre weren’t welcomed so he organised classes and more formal shows.
SUVANNAH CHAND: I just like dancing, you know? And they gave us a chance to dance with Comm4unity and Switch.
TRACY BOWDEN: For Suvannah Chand, the dance group Switch has provided a life-changing output.
SUVANNAH CHAND: There’s lot of things they do for us you know, just to keep us out of trouble.
TRACY BOWDEN: Where do you think you’d be if Switch and Com for Unity hadn’t come along.
SUVANNAH CHAND: At the pub (laughs)… To be honest, at the pub.
TRACY BOWDEN: Comm4unity introduced a number of programs for young people, including employment workshops and a range of sporting activities.
Gradually, things started to change. Fight night is now a thing of the past and with the help of the Comm4unity program, Suvannah Chand is just one of the locals who’s found a job.
SUVANNAH CHAND: A lot has changed. Yeah, it’s helped a lot, I think, especially with the fighting and that. There’s really no more fighting around these areas anymore.
TRACY BOWDEN: And why is that?
SUVANNAH CHAND: Because people have something to do nowadays, you know. There’s a lot out there. You’ve just got to find it. It’s not going to come to you.
HARRY BEVII: The gangs have gone. I don’t know where they’ve gone but there’s no trouble anymore in the centre or even outside in the streets. You can walk the middle of the night on a Thursday and you’re not going to have any problems.
MARK WRIGHT: Crime within the CBD is falling.
Is it dramatically falling? No. But street-level robberies, assaults, steal from persons have all decreased and continue to fall.
MC: Before we get started I’d like to welcome to the stage the founder of Switch, the man himself, Superintendent Mark Wright.
TRACY BOWDEN: Mark Wright has become something of a local identity around Blacktown and his program is now being looked at by police and community groups in other areas facing similar challenges.
MARK WRIGHT (to the audience): ..as usual, we really appreciate the presence of the mayor…
Will it ever be over?
Probably not. But if we can make the area more friendly, if it we can make it more welcoming, people will return, people will spend the money. It helps the local environment, the local economy. It’s a win-win.
(Kids break dancing at Switch competition)
CHRIS UHLMANN: Tracy Bowden with that report.
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