How do police and criminals get along?

By its nature, law enforcement involves police and criminals having to relate to one another. How has the dynamic changed over time?

The world is not always black and white and that is certainly the case when it comes to police and criminals. We see it as a battle between good and evil but, behind the scenes, there is often dialogue between the two sides. In the old days, underworld informers were called snitches, fizzes or gigs. Now they are called human sources.

The best detectives are always the ones who can talk to people and make them feel at ease – that includes victims, witnesses and suspects. The bad detective relies on intimidation and doesn’t relate to the different strands in society.

By its nature, law enforcement involves police and criminals having to relate to one another. But what forms can these relationships take? And how have they changed over time?

How did it work in the past?

Let’s talk about crime before drugs changed the landscape. Crooks’ and coppers’ careers often mirrored each other. They grew up in similar suburbs and moved up the ranks together: one side committing and the other investigating petty crime, then moving to more serious offences. It was not unusual for a serious career criminal to say he would speak only to a senior ranked officer he had known for more than 20 years.

Christopher “Badness” Binse is one of Australia’s most notorious armed robbers and escapees. In the early 1990s, armed robbery squad detective Ken Ashworth began investigating him over a series of bank raids and Binse’s response was to post teasing messages in a newspaper public notice section. When he was finally caught, he expected to be bashed in the police interview room. Ashworth told him that wasn’t going to happen and that he would be charged purely on the evidence. A visibly shocked Binse was even more surprised when he was offered a beer after the formal interview.

For decades Binse kept in contact with Ashworth, when he was in prison and when he was on the run. About 25 years after they first met, Binse contacted the now senior policeman and said he wanted to confess to a series of unsolved armed robberies: “I’m a leopard whose spots are fading.”

In Barwon Prison, young detectives were somewhat surprised when the career criminal related an anecdote about “when Ashy and I were working together”. Ashworth interjected: “No Chris, we didn’t work together. I wore the white hat and you had the black hat.” The devil is in the detail.

Binse confessed to seven armed robberies between 1988 and 1991, escaping with a total of $390,000. He later pleaded guilty, and a judge assessed his prospects of rehabilitation as “reasonable”.

Senior Detective Dave Duggan with the drill stand and other safe-breaking equipment left behind by the Magnetic Drill Gang after a robbery in 1978. Credit:Bruce Devine

What makes a ‘good crook’?

Police would refer to some offenders as “good crooks”. This meant they were professional, remained calm and didn’t use unnecessary violence while committing crimes. Graham Kinniburgh was considered a good crook. He was the leader of the Magnetic Drill Gang that set off alarms in the days before their raids, so that if they were tripped during the robbery, security would assume it was a false alarm. They would use electromagnets with a diamond-tipped drill to access lock tumblers. Then, using a doctor’s cystoscope, they could look into a safe to manipulate the combination.

Kinniburgh’s team grabbed $1.7 million from a Murwillumbah bank, a huge jewellery haul from a Lonsdale Street office, valuables from safety deposit boxes in Melbourne and gold bullion in Queensland. One of the key investigators, Detective Inspector Bernie Rankin, reflects: “Kinniburgh was one of the smartest crims I ever dealt with. He kept his own counsel and had a tight circle of friends.” But he did have enemies. He was shot dead outside his home in Kew in 2003.

One detective, who looked more like a middle-aged dad than a crimebuster, was reputed to have the best criminal contacts on the east coast. I asked him why and he said there was no secret – just treat people decently.

Once, when checking a house for stolen property, he asked the occupant, a career crim, what was behind a closed door. The man said it was his young son, asleep in his cot. “I asked him ‘Should I go in there?’ and he said there was nothing that would interest me.” He took him at his word, which was a calculated risk. Years later, the crook rang the policeman to tip him off about a pending armed robbery, to square the ledger. During a raid, one police officer more interested in humiliation than resolution said to a frightened young boy, “Do you know your daddy is nothing but a crook?” He made no friends among his colleagues and an enemy for life.

Consider a typical homicide squad interview. The suspect may have committed the worst possible crime, but the detectives remain non-judgemental, quietly asking questions and refusing to allow their faces to betray any sense of horror or disgust. This is because they don’t want the offender to go back into their shell. The aim is not to win the argument in the interview room but to win it at the Supreme Court trial.

Away from the headlines, police who have good relationships with criminals are able to broker deals, negotiate surrenders and stop underworld wars.

Bandidos bikies on the Calder Highway in 2018.

In 1997 the Bandidos National Run, an annual road trip for the bikie club, was to take them through Wangaratta on Year 12 muck-up day. Local police were horrified at the thought of hundreds of bikies and an equal number of drunken teenagers crossing paths. Instead of marshalling hundreds of police, an experienced detective reached out to the Bandidos’ national president at the time, Michael “Chaos” Kulakowski, who gave assurances there would be no trouble. There was none. Two days later, they were involved in a huge brawl and a shooting in Geelong. Chaos was later murdered in Sydney.

Anti-bikie police don’t just work on confrontations. As well as sometimes negotiating rules for bikie runs, the police broker peace deals between warring parties. There are no headlines in the murders they have stopped.

Who had the upper hand?

In every major Australian city there were bars, pubs or clubs that were treated as neutral ground. In Melbourne in the early 1980s it was the Galaxy Nightclub where detectives would mingle with serious gangsters.

Once a well-connected detective told a notorious gunman he knew there was a contract out on the life of another gangster. The cop said if the gangster was shot “I’ll be coming after you”.

Dennis Bruce Allen, dying of a rare heart disease, is wheeled into court by homicide squad detectives after being charged with the murder of Wayne Stanhope in August 1984. Stanhope's body was never found. Allen died less than five weeks later in hospital. Credit:Fairfax Media

The trouble with these informal meetings is that they were uncontrolled and sometimes the crooks would have the upper hand. By any definition, Melbourne drug dealer Dennis Bruce Allen was a psychopath, but he remained free to deal drugs and kill with apparent impunity. Allen made between $70,000 and $100,000 a week from drugs way back in the 1980s and was on bail for 60 different offences with sureties of $225,000, then the price of five inner-suburban homes.

To stay on the street, he would inform on other crooks – a win-win for Allen; he was free to deal drugs and had police arrest his competition. He tipped off police about the murder of bikie Anton Kenny, even helpfully pointing out the spot in the Yarra River where the dismembered body had been dumped in a concrete-filled drum. What he omitted was that he shot Kenny and, with the help of his half-brother Victor Peirce and a chainsaw, shoved him in the barrel and rolled him into the river.

In Sydney, hard-nosed detectives would often drink with some of the most notorious crooks, particularly Arthur Stanley “Neddy” Smith. Sure, Neddy would occasionally provide titbits of information to make the relationship look semi-legitimate. The reality was they were corrupt partners and Neddy was given the green light to commit crime, sharing the profits with bent detectives. It was a sweet deal until Neddy proved to be an impulsive idiot. The green light turned red when he beat a tow-truck driver to death in a road rage attack.

In Queensland, in the late 1970s and ’80s a corrupt deal was called The Joke, involving regular payments to police all the way to the commissioner Terry Lewis. In Melbourne, prolific drug dealer Tony Mokbel secretly met with police in a Melbourne park to try to broker a deal with the anti-gangland Purana taskforce.

“I don’t want to see … anyone else getting f—in’ killed,” he told police in April 2004. Mokbel claimed he could guarantee an end to the underworld war and would organise several key figures, including Carl Williams and a prodigious drug cook, to plead guilty to drug offences. This, he said, would be conditional on an agreement that his people received minimum jail terms. His brother, Kabalan, he added, was off the table, because he expected those charges to be dropped.

In Tony’s vision of the world, the murders would stop and the Mokbels could go back to selling drugs, while Purana chased other crooks, just like the good old days. “Con [his lawyer Con Heliotis] and Paul [then director of public prosecutions Paul Coghlan] will be able to work out the details,” super-confident Tony told police.

Arthur Stanley “Neddy” Smith with former detective and convicted murderer Roger Rogerson.

As you would imagine, the police declined the offer. Mokbel was usually polite to the detectives investigating him, realising everyone was just doing their jobs. Now, in prison, his attitude has soured considerably.

While police try to befriend crooks to infiltrate their networks, some crims use the same tactics to cultivate cops. It can be a slip of the tongue during a conversation or something more sinister. Secret police operations in every state have been sabotaged by corrupt leaks.

In Victoria, a drug squad document known as the Blue File, which showed underworld figure Terence Hodson was a police informer, ended up in the wrong hands. As a result, Hodson and his wife, Christine, were murdered in their Kew home in May 2004.

When, in June 2008, the alleged killer, prolific hitman Rod Collins, was arrested for a 1987 double murder, police found a loaded handgun, a balaclava, burglary kit and surveillance equipment in his Northcote home. They also found a 58-page confidential police report on a major drug dealer. Collins claimed he found it at a bus stop.

How has the relationship changed over time?

Bikie groups have a track record of recruiting double agents. Young police have been seduced to the dark side, meeting bikies at gyms (and given muscle-building hormones), tattoo parlours and strip clubs. One, later sacked for leaking, had applied to join an anti-bikie taskforce.

The growth of drug trafficking shattered the old model where crooks and cops progressed through their respective ranks. Would-be gangsters could become millionaires in months if they found a reliable flow of product.

Carl Williams, previously gainfully employed as a supermarket shelf stacker, had an insignificant criminal record. By the age of 29, he was making up to $100,000 per month from producing a variety of amphetamine products and was charged over drugs with a value of $20 million. By the age of 30, he was employing multiple hitmen and was ordering the murder of his enemies.

One of his team was Andrew “Benji” Veniamin, a pumped-up car thief who became a ruthless hitman. Benji, who was shot dead in Carlton in 2004, was responsible for at least five murders.

Huge money means bribe offers and a need to rotate police through corruption-prone areas, which makes it more difficult for police to establish underworld contacts. The cycle of scandals involving inappropriate and unexplained relationships between crooks and cops has led to rules tightening. Meetings must be documented, supervisors notified, criminals listed as informers and, on occasions, conversations recorded. If a crook wishes to tell tales, specialist “human source” officers step in, creating a “sterile corridor” between the cop and the crim.

The use of rogue Melbourne barrister Nicola Gobbo as a police informer was a disaster, resulting in a royal commission and placing multiple convictions under doubt due to possible miscarriages of justice.

The modern era, with CCTV and everyone in public carrying a camera, has led to a drop in face-to-face clandestine meetings. In the new world, the void created by not cultivating underworld sources has been filled electronically. Police use phone records, telephone intercepts, CCTV vision and social media footprints as intelligence sources.

Now the “good” crooks have vaulted police in technology. Using the dark web and apps designed to thwart monitoring, they are able to communicate in secret. This means detectives around Australia need to be retrained in the old ways. Getting out there and talking to the crooks will be more effective than staring at a computer screen.

This explainer was first published in What’s It Like To Be Chased By a Cassowary?

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