How an ex-cop learnt the ways of street gangs

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Brett Stevens was wearing shorts as he sat on his couch watching the tennis on TV when his wife ripped into him, accusing him of losing his humanity.

Sitting on his lap was his police-issue pistol. In the gutter outside was a dead bandit.

The teenage gunman and his partner had tried to rob a Bondi hotel porter dropping off the takings in a bank safe, but the security guard fired back, hitting the 18-year-old in the heart.

Stevens says the wounded bandit yelled “I’ve been hit” and collapsed. The off-duty policeman grabbed his own gun, strapped on body armour and ran outside to the teenager, who died where he fell.

Brett Stevens, working the streets in Kings Cross, holds up some heroin dumped by a dealer.

Brett Stevens, working the streets in Kings Cross, holds up some heroin dumped by a dealer.

“There were women crying, and I was thinking ‘what are they upset about?’. That’s how bad I had become.”

It is only now, years later, that the former Sydney cop sees how the sharp end of policing blunted his compassion, leaving him with little sympathy for those on the wrong side of the law.

“If a gang member was shot dead, I saw that as a positive,” he says.

Having left the police, Stevens has become a self-taught expert on street gangs and discovered that cops and crooks share characteristics.

He joined the force in 1982 and spent years working in the cauldron that was Kings Cross, dealing with gangs, drug dealers and victims before moving to the Tactical Response Group, the team called in to deal with dangerous offenders.

“It wasn’t a great leap from Kings Cross to the TRG because they were both areas of high-adrenaline activity.”

Stevens with US street gang members.

Stevens with US street gang members.

Within two years of his joining the TRG it was disbanded, after a suspect was accidentally shot in the face during a raid. “It played to the view that the TRG was full of thugs,” he says.

“We were dealing with violent offenders who did what they wanted until they were stopped. Someone had to say no to them.”

Disbanding the TRG left a void. Within months a 33-year-old man stabbed a teenage girl to death in the Strathfield Plaza then pulled out a semi-automatic rifle to kill six people and wound eight, before attempting to abduct a woman and then taking his own life when he heard police sirens.

It was that sort of nightmare scenario, Stevens argues, that the TRG was assigned to patrol as a first response unit.

Sometimes, he says, that void was filled by gangs. In Cronulla there was a period of street bashings and stabbings. “Then the Rebels [bikie gang] rolled in and guess what? The violence stopped and the fear disappeared.”

It was a commercial decision, he says. They ran the nightclubs and the drugs and in return, they pulled the street gangs into line. “Certain gangs can be given the green light if they can stop the violence,” he says.

Stevens says in Tijuana - one of the most dangerous cities in the world - the tourist area is relatively safe, for the cartels understand that shooting foreign visitors is bad for business.

As a cop turned author, Stevens has travelled the world embedding himself both with police and gangs, publishing his experiences in the book The Rise of Street Gangs.

With his US-born wife Pam he would travel to America on leave and take the opportunity to patrol as an observer with local police in Los Angeles, Texas and New York.

After 13 years in policing he resigned. “My wife wanted to go home, and I thought it was her turn. The death outside our house left her deeply traumatised.”

He took to freelance writing, reporting in Thailand, Australia, the US and South America.

He saw how in the Philippines police went out and shot drug dealers, resulting in crime dropping by 78 per cent but turning the streets into a war zone.

Mexican police ignored drug trafficking because taking on the cartels could prove fatal without achieving anything. As if to remind everyone where the real power lay, the drugs syndicates shot dead seven local police, just to show they could.

Boys who have been gangsters since the age of 12 with Stevens.

Boys who have been gangsters since the age of 12 with Stevens.

“In Mexico police said to me that America started the war on drugs, but it is the Americans who buy the drugs. They just don’t want to get in the way. There are plenty of other ways they can do good, dealing with violent crimes,” he says.

Why should local police, paid a pittance, try and stop a tsunami with a bucket?

These days Stevens feels ashamed that in Kings Cross he didn’t show compassion for drug addicts - “they were someone’s son or daughter” - and questions the consequences of drug law enforcement.

“According to the UN, 266 million people take drugs and about one in 10 become addicted.

“If taking drugs was an Olympic event, Australia would be in the finals in every single category. You can order coke in Sydney and have it delivered quicker than you can get McDonald’s.

“When the cartels need someone to move the drugs they have the bikie gangs to distribute, but the bikies aren’t standing on street corners, so they use lower-tier gangs.”

He lived and worked on a Native American reservation in California and saw how gangs gave unemployed teenagers an identity. “I thought [gang members] were lazy slobs, but they were disciplined. They prepared their clothing as if it was a dress uniform. The clothing was impeccable.”

He found the gangs bonded when they had been in dangerous conflicts in the way police did, shared the same type of black humour and valued loyalty and courage above everything: “I had more in common with them than [with] normal people.”

It is not just poverty that creates the opportunity for gang recruitment but relative poverty. Stevens explains: “Poverty is when you don’t have enough to eat, and relative poverty is when the guy next store has a better car than you. Statistics show that societies that are considered poor but have a balanced wealth distribution almost have no crime, and if you go to places where everyone is wealthy, there is also close to no crime.

“If you go to a place with poor people, moderately well-off people and rich people, and the distribution is steep, then the rate of aggressive behaviour among young men starts to skyrocket.

“The more aggressive young men who are unlikely to climb to a dominant position while playing by society’s rules turn to aggression to make their mark on the world.”

Gang teens still in school take public transport to suburbs to bash kids from the private schools they will never attend or steal luxury cars they could never afford or rob houses where they couldn’t get a job as a pool cleaner.

For a period Stevens worked as a supervisor in a juvenile justice complex in a remote Californian forest where the Los Angeles hoods were more likely to be killed or injured by a knife or gun than in a car crash.

One of the inmates, “Rascal”, had been involved in 20 shootings. Another, J-Rue, told Stevens “that the high school dance he’d been allowed to attend was the best night of his life”. They were outlaws who craved acceptance.

“Being gangsters ... empowers them and gives them a family. It is a way to status and money. They say, ‘I want the car, the bling and the hot women’.”

It is not just on the street that gangs are given status but in popular culture. Take the Destiny’s Child song “Soldier”:

If yah status ain’t hood

I ain’t checkin’ for him

Betta be street if he lookin’ at me

I need a soldier

That ain’t scared to stand up for me

Known to carry big things if yah know what I mean.

I think we do.

The young gang members model themselves on the Hollywood image, holding their guns with the inefficient horizontal grip. It may be inaccurate but it looks cool.

Stevens says the hoods are looking for validation using the only currency they have - physical strength and courage. But most of their efforts are not about gaining wealth but beating rivals.

“They would rather get $50 a day as a gangster than $100 working at McDonald’s because they have the status.”

But there is a way out. He says many reach a point where they conclude “I don’t want to keep doing this”.

That’s when the authorities need to have options in place that include education and employment providing the status they desperately desire.

Just like the young gang members, Brett Stevens came to a point where he thought violence on the street was just part of life.

Now he knows there are better ways. We just have to find them.

The Rise of Street Gangs by Brett Stevens is available from New Holland Publishers.