Not all that Glitters by Shannon O’Brien

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“My heart was pounding. My adrenalin was pumping and my legs felt like jelly.” These were the words said by crime victim, Alice*. She was inside her local Gold Coast 7/11 service station when it was held up by a hooded man with a large knife. The man threatened the attendant and ending up running away with a sum of money and some cigarettes.

This is just one of the crime stories I have seen on the news or from stories I have heard that make their way down through the grapevine. It seems that we, on the Gold Coast, are all running scared. Armed robbery, assault, break-ins and shootings. It’s just another day in our sunny paradise.

Recently, I had family come visit here on the Gold Coast. One day while sitting by the pool, we heard on the radio that an armed robbery had just occurred a few suburbs away. Seemingly un-rattled, my family said: “Oh the Gold Coast, always so much crime up here”, “It’s the crime capital of Australia!” “It’s never like this at home.” They were from Melbourne. Melbourne! The underbelly capital of Australia! When I heard these comments I felt insulted. This is my home. This is where I live. This is where I love to live! It’s like a beast roared up inside my chest wanting to defend this glittery patch of land. I’m not Gold Coast born and bred; I have only been here for the pitiful time of 3 years, yet these comments cemented me to the Gold Coast in a way, which I had never felt before. Now, I was its proud resident and defender.

“We’ve never had any problems. We feel really safe here”, I said back a little bitterly. But, mid sentence doubt fleeted across my face and my voice dissolved like ashes in a breeze. Is there really a crime epidemic on the Gold Coast? Am I not paying attention to what is really happening? Is the Gold Coast a sunny place for shady people?

I decided to uncover for myself what was really happening on the Gold Coast. I wanted to discover when the perception of the Gold Coast as a “crime capital” happen and how? Why are we renown across Australia as a high crime area? And are we really? To discover the full extent of this theory I decided to go back to the beginning.

The Gold Coast is one of the fastest growing cities in Australia. It’s already larger than other state capitals and is the largest non-metro city.  Other than crime, the Gold Coast is famous for sun, surf and seen mostly as a resort town, which creates the Gold Coast’s transient population. The heart of the Gold Coast is known as the Glitter Strip. We have long stretches of beaches, golden meter maids, surf goers and a skyline of skyscrapers for which the city is recognized. Others see the Gold Coast as a “cultural wasteland” which is yet to be grown up into a “real” city. But we need to think of the bigger picture.

Leading up to the city that the Gold Coast is now it hasn’t had the most sparkling reputation. There used to be nothing fancy or flash about the Gold Coast, it was just a seaside resort for Brisbane residents to escape to on the weekends. But after the 1950’s the Gold Coast began to change its image of a seaside resort. The Brisbane Courier Mail started reporting new developments on the Gold Coast. It described the Coast as a ‘tawdry, vulgar, clip joint, millionaire’s mile, garish, brassy and Americanised’. In part, these reports were fed by the Gold Coast’s operating hours of shops and businesses and the wild parties held by surfing legends at local hotels. The Coast had become “a chaos of the worst type of commercialisation … [and] … a wild jungle of indecorum”. At this time the Gold Coast was going through a dramatic physical change also. The little beach shacks were torn down to be replaced by motels and high-rise hotels. Over the next few years the Gold Coast kept it’s seedy reputation and started developing into the city we know today.

After some initial research I discovered myself that this “crime epidemic” is seemed to be false. To get further clarity and precise information I decided to find the three top Gold Coast crime experts. I met and spoke with Superintendent Paul Ziebarth District Officer Gold Coast Police District, Professor Paul Mazerolle, Pro Vice Chancellor, Arts Education and Law, Griffith University and Associate Professor Janet Ransley, Head of School, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University.  Before meeting these three experts I had the pleasure of hearing a seminar run by Griffith University about Crime on the Gold Coast where these three were speaking.

Professor Janet Ransley is a well spoken well dressed academic. She made it clear. The Gold Coast like everywhere else has decreasing crime rates. The trend is downwards. The Gold Coast’s experiences of victimisation are lower than other places in Queensland. Although, there is one exception: armed robbery. But! This problem has been consistent for the last few years; we aren’t in a grip of an armed robbery crime wave. Janet says armed robbery is a “consistent continuing problem, but by no means the crime wave that media perceptions might have us believe”.

There are challenges in how to measure crime.  Police statistics are the most reliable source of crime that the police, criminologists and the public can gather information from. Professor Paul Mazerolle who is an intelligent softly spoken American, has studied recent police statistics and discovered the Gold Coast is not a region of land that is escalating out of control in terms of crime.  There is no crime epidemic on the Gold Coast. The rates of reported offences per 100,000 of population in terms of assault and violence are stable. The Gold Coast is much better than places like Townsville in respect to assault behaviour, the Gold Coast also has a better than state average in assault. There has been a slight increase in armed robbery but no epidemic he says.

Paul Mazerolle had compared the Gold Coast’s population (around half a million people) to similar cities in the USA. He compared us to Fresno, California, Milwaukie Wisconsin and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In most areas these cities are significantly higher in crime. In Milwaukie, crime rates across the board are considerably higher.

Superintendent Paul Ziebarth District Officer Gold Coast Police District is a big fan of dispelling myths about Gold Coast crime. He spoke in his police regalia adorned with all the shiny pins and badges that policemen wear. He likes to think of this seminar as perceptions building for Gold Coasters. In his eyes the community has a serious perception issue in regards to crime of the Gold Coast. He considers the media often focus on issues that have community interest and if the community interest peaks on an issue the media hone in on that and create an artificial hype about the problem. He says, “as well as [the media] reporting the facts” the issues are like “a rolling stone, it gathers its own momentum. I know if we have an offender who is reported in the media partaking in an armed robbery there is a spike in armed robberies. Monkey See. Monkey do.”

However Ziebarth says “the community rely on the media [and] by and large they do a great job in helping us but the long and short of it is I cant be critical of the media, their role is to report crime. There is a relationship between public perception and what the media report. But as well as having a responsibility to report facts they have a responsibility not to inflame the public unnecessarily”.

The facts are here. Crime isn’t an epidemic on the Gold Coast. I don’t want to bore you with figures but these ones are the ones that you do want to know. Ziebarth gave me access to statistics that have been released by the Queensland Police just recently. Crime overall in the last 10 years on the Gold Coast has decreased significantly, it has dropped around 20 per cent. Although last year there was a spike in armed robberies, they are now are at their lowest level in 15 years. There has been a 19 per cent drop in armed robberies in the last 5 years and there are drops in unarmed robbery and a fall in property crime, unlawful entries and car theft. These are the lowest reported facts in the last 15 years.

Ziebarth also believes that there is a perception that Surfers Paradise had been out of control. But from his statistics and his police work he says, “we’ve seen in Surfers a reduction in assaults since December 2010, a decrease in assaults against police, and a reduction in disorder.”

So let’s break in down into stats that you will really understand and can remember. So when you hear someone say “Gold Coast crime capital!” you can pipe in and say “Well actually….” You will have an informed and well-educated answer. The rate of offences, per 100,000 people, against a Gold Coaster dropped by nearly one third from 2001 to 2011. And in that time the rate of offences against property fell by 44 per cent.

Overall, crime rates had fallen by 32 per cent on the Gold Coast in the last 10 years. We are now one third less likely to be the victim of crime than we were in 2001. Armed robbery and property crime will always be a serious concern to community, so it will always be newsworthy. The media can’t take all the blame, we have to educate ourselves and commit ourselves to providing a better and safer Coast.  We have to provide knowledge and insight to those who views stem straight from the media with no outside thought or review. Now, without a doubt I can be a loud and proud Gold Coaster, with new knowledge and insight into our unique and inspiring patch of land.

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