Story transcripts

Brute Force

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reporter: Michael Usher

Producer: Paul Steindl

You can see why they're called the Riot Squad. They're damn tough and they don't muck about.

They patrol some of Australia's most dangerous streets, determined to stamp out violence fuelled by booze and drugs.

In some ways, this is the last resort, a radical response to increasing street crime.

And, after spending a few weekends with the men and women of the squad, we can tell you it sure is full-on, aggressive policing.

What's more, they're quite open about it, there's nothing touchy-feely about these cops. No wonder they've raised a few eyebrows.

Critics who claim they cause more trouble than they're worth.

Full transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: This is what our streets have become - urban mayhem on a scale we've never seen, fuelled by drunks, drugs and gangs. And this how police are fighting back - a crack unit called the Public Order Riot Squad. Step out of line and they get up close and personal. Tonight, the squads raided a nightclub. They're searching for guns and drugs and the trouble has spilled out onto the pavement.

OFFICER: There's also been two violent brawls down the road about 100 metres, we've got two teams down there sorting that out.

MICHAEL USHER: You have to ask yourself what is going on, it's crazy. This is what these cops have to deal with all the time, and it's just a regular Saturday night. These officers are the force's stormtroopers, hand-picked, highly trained and they don't come much tougher than Senior Constable Sonia Turner - one of only two women among the 80 or so blokes in this specialist unit.

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: Yeah, there's always something happening on every corner so you gotta be careful. There's always fights or drug deals going on around here you just gotta make sure you keep your eyes open.

MICHAEL USHER: In most States it's the beat police who deal with these problems but in NSW, Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione has had enough. He believes only the brute force of the riot squad can clean up the streets.

POLICE COMMISSIONER ANDREW SCIPIONE: It's not just this city, it's right across Australia. It's right across the world but certainly, there are large numbers of people that are going out there that have consumed way too much alcohol. We need to be very decisive, we need to be very firm and we need to move swiftly and that's what the Public Order Riot Squad does. You've seen it yourself. You've been out there, you know what they do. They save lives.

MICHAEL USHER: But this head-on approach is not without controversy.

DR MICHAEL KENNEDY: We need a riot squad to deal with riots, we don't need a riot squad to cause riots. We don't need a riot squad to justify their existence by causing more problems than it's solving.

MICHAEL USHER: These are hardened cops used to taking plenty of flak. But when the shift ends they like to get as far away from the aggression and the critics as they can. Sgt Robert MacDonald 'Macca' can't wait to get onto the water.

SERGEANT ROBERT MACDONALD: Good escape route, come up here and away we go. And I invite people up here and like Glenn. Glenn's only a beginner to the sport and old Sonia girl, Sonia comes from the beach so she's never seen fresh water pretty much.

MICHAEL USHER: 26-year-old Sonia was the first woman to join the squad on active duty.

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: I like working with the boys, getting out there and being on the front line where all the action's happening. I like to be in amongst it all.

MICHAEL USHER: A ski and a steak - it's a good break before another night on the front line.

SERGEANT GLEN PRICE: It's just like going to work with your best mates.

MICHAEL USHER: Sergeant Glen Price was on the beat with the London police before coming to Australia.

SERGEANT GLEN PRICE: We like to spend time with each other and that just quells everything else that we see.

SERGEANT ROBERT MACDONALD: Come here and give me a hug.

SERGEANT GLEN PRICE: No, no, we'll sort that out later on. But no, very, very tight unit and it's just, yeah, an absolute pleasure to work with these guys.

SERGEANT ROBERT MACDONALD: Are you going for a promotion or something?

MICHAEL USHER: As a woman did you have any worries about getting into the riot squad?

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: I wouldn't recommend it to other female police officers. It's just, um, you have to have a strong character and very strong minded. It's definitely a boys club in the riot squad but it's good, but yeah, it's tough. pause for hey mum Get out of the way.

MICHAEL USHER: Make no mistake, the city turns pretty ugly late at night. It's a volatile combination - the pubs and clubs are absolutely full to overflowing until the early hours of the morning. There's a lot of drink and a lot of drugs. That's why these guys, part of the riot squad, go from brawl to brawl all night long. And out here, there is no room for the faint-hearted.

OFFICER: You are under arrest for assault, do you understand that? You are going to be asked certain questions, you are not obliged to answer unless you wish to do so, do you understand that?

ARRESTED MAN: Yeah, mate.

MICHAEL USHER: It all happens pretty quickly, doesn't it?


MAN ON STREET: Don't even think about it. Let go of my (bleep) hand or I'll (bleep) flog you. You got a problem? Get on the footpath.

MICHAEL USHER: Exactly what we were talking about was exactly what you just had to deal with.

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: Exactly, yeah, drunken fools.

MICHAEL USHER: But there's no mucking around is there? You have to react pretty fast.

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: Yeah, you do, yeah, you gotta be firm as well otherwise they'll have it above you, yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: But dealing with weekend drunks and thugs was not the reason the Public Order and Riot Squad was formed. It was born out of the anarchy of the 2006 Cronulla race riots in Sydney. Those and the Macquarie Fields riot a year earlier, shocked police into realising they weren't prepared and needed a full-time squad. But major riots are few and far between. The bigger problem is the 24-hour access to alcohol throughout the city.

OFFICER: Move off the road, thank you. Move off the road, thank you, listen to what we have to say it's for your own safety.

DR MICHAEL KENNEDY: Do we have the problems that New York has? Well, no. Do we have the problem that Paris has? Well, no. Do we have the problem Mexico City has? Certainly not.

MICHAEL USHER: Dr Michael Kennedy was a street-smart detective in the force for 20 years. Now he's a senior lecturer in policing at the University of Western Sydney. He's not a fan of these tactics.

DR MICHAEL KENNEDY: You can't have a principal operational strategy of these guys driving around and simply using these - get these get tough, zero tolerance strategies on every party and every incident that they go to when there's no justification for it.

OFFICER: Don't yell out at the cops and make smart remarks.

MAN ON STREET: No-one yelled out at the cops.

OFFICER: We drive past, you keep your mouth shut. You enjoy your night.

MAN ON STREET: But you're the ones that ruins our nights.

OFFICER: You ruined it for yourself, mate, see you, Mohammed.

DR MICHAEL KENNEDY: You can drive around all weekend, you can charge into as many parties as you like, you can arrest as many people as you like but have you stopped the major problem in Sydney which is underage drinking or binge drinking? And the answer is - "No, you haven't."

CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT STEVE CULLEN: I make no apologies for the manner in which we deploy and the manner in which we execute our duties.

MICHAEL USHER: The no-nonsense, strong-arm approach of the riot squad is very deliberate and under direct orders from squad boss Chief Superintendent Steve Cullen.

CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT STEVE CULLEN: The manner in which we attend a job, the manner in which we get out of our vehicles, the manner in which we engage people, it's all really about our presence. Now, if the people realise that the riot squad are there and they know what riot squads basically do and they want to stay there and engage us, then unfortunately we will accommodate them.

MICHAEL USHER: In full gear they look like gladiators ready for battle. Sonia, that's you in there somewhere?

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: It's me under here. (laughs)

MICHAEL USHER: Now these members of the riot squad pride themselves on being the fittest police in the force, because they have to be. When they are not out there on the beat copping all the violence and aggression they are back here at base, training. They've got all the gear, they certainly look intimidating, but they say their best weapon is their physical strength. For major riots they carry an extra 15kgs of weapons and super-strength shields for protection.


MICHAEL USHER: You barely flinched, though. You can hold onto that pretty steady - rock solid.

CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT STEVE CULLEN: Yeah, do you wanna have a go?

MICHAEL USHER: Oh! I'll give it a go.

CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT STEVE CULLEN: Hold onto it. Righto. Brace yourself - arms, legs.

MICHAEL USHER: Hang on, hang on, so just hold on tight here?

CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT STEVE CULLEN: Yeah, no, right, all you've gotta do is hold on tight, middle section please - only.

MICHAEL USHER: Oh gees, that's strong.


MICHAEL USHER: Up close, even training is intimidating. Sonia is only 160cm tall and 64kg, but she doesn't ask for any concessions and is given none.

MICHAEL USHER: You get a fair few knocks along the way though, don't you? It's not without injury.

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: Yeah, I've had plenty of injuries, Yeah. (Laughs)

MICHAEL USHER: What have you had?


SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: I busted my knee and I didn't wanna tell anyone that I hurt myself and I walked around for three weeks with a bung knee and I actually had to have a knee reconstruction.

MICHAEL USHER: You did that on day one?

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: Day one. They broke me on day one.

MICHAEL USHER: Training might be painful but it prepares them for the realities of the job. Injuries are a fact of life.

OFFICER: I'm out, done an ankle.

MICHAEL USHER: On my first night with the squad Senior Constable Brad Durrant smashed his ankle in the gutter while making an arrest. It staggered me that there's no level of respect for police even a show of force like the riot squad who are out there.

POLICE COMMISSIONER ANDREW SCIPIONE: I think that's right. I think that's probably more representative of the lack of respect that society has for itself which, again, is a very sad state of affairs.

MICHAEL USHER: And that means violence can flare anywhere crowds gather and alcohol flows. Tonight, it's a local footy match and the squad's on the lookout for trouble. It doesn't take long to come. It amazes me just how quickly it all happens, in a flash it can turn.

OFFICER: It's been quiet all night then all of a sudden an argument in the crowd has led to violence and as one person gets involved, more people who are fuelled by the alcohol get involved as well. Police start getting assaulted, go from turning on each other to turning on the police.

MICHAEL USHER: But right now, Sonia and her mates enjoy their time out. They know that in a few hours they'll be back in the city, back in the thick of all that drunken madness.

SENIOR CONSTABLE SONIA TURNER: You've really gotta stand your ground and show that you're assertive and don't let them get it over you basically, yeah. A lot of the young males out there don't wanna be told by a young female police officer what to do. So you've really gotta stand your ground and show 'em who's boss, really.

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