Explainer: Does Melbourne have a street gang problem?

Does Melbourne have a problem with youth crime gangs?

It depends on the definition of "crime gang".

Apex burst into the headlines on March 13, 2016, when the name of the loosely affiliated street gang from the south-east was used by youths who brawled violently in Federation Square overnight on the Saturday and Sunday during Moomba festival celebrations.

But despite the gang's instant notoriety, it was never organised.

Apex was described as a "non-entity" by senior police last April, and the issue appeared to have largely run out of steam by mid-year.

Rioters ran amok at Federation Square during Moomba in 2016.

Rioters ran amok at Federation Square during Moomba in 2016. Photo: Russ Mulry

But what about the gang violence now?

While the Apex symbol still gets used by graffiti taggers, often in jest, there is no evidence that the gang is connected to incidents in the past month which involved young men with African backgrounds.

A large group of youths allegedly bashed and robbed beachgoers in a wild brawl on the St Kilda foreshore in the early hours of Thursday, December 14.

Detectives are investigating links between at least four violent and destructive sprees at short-term rental properties - including a near-riot at a party in Werribee on December 19-20 - and an emerging western suburbs street gang, known as MTS, or Menace to Society.

There was also an alleged assault on a police officer on Boxing Day at Highpoint Shopping Centre in Maribyrnong by a young man of African origin, and later that week, reports of a group of youths bent on trashing and occupying a local park in Tarneit.

African youth leaders believe a small core of repeat offenders are responsible for the majority of crime blamed on their communities, and this was backed up by Victoria's police minister Lisa Neville, who said on Tuesday: "Victoria Police have known, recognised, that there are a small number but a core group ... of criminal thugs."

Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton and police minister Lisa Neville speak about crime and gangs.

Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton and police minister Lisa Neville speak about youth crime. Photo: Chris Hopkins

What is a street gang?

Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said on Tuesday that youths involved in recent offending were members of street gangs, but was careful to differentiate between them and groups involved in organised crime.

But he acknowledged that there have been instances of members later becoming involved in serious organised crime. So, what is a street gang? This is not as straightforward as it may seem; in fact, a Victoria Police detective superintendent dedicated a master's thesis to it.

Detective Superintendent Boyle interviewed 43 officers about street gangs and he found that the gangs did not have to have a name, or a structure, but often shared an ethnicity. They were also typically violent in groups of more than two.

"Confident in doing things together they would not normally do alone," one officer told Detective Superintendent Boyle.

Street gangs are also fluid, can set up and disband within a period of days, but were likely to have a defined territory.

Why is the ethnicity of those involved important?

Reports on youth crime have overwhelmingly focused on those of an African background, with a smattering also detailing the involvement of Pacific Islander youths.

Police and government have not shied away from referring to race in discussions about the topic, but have - for the most part - attempted to qualify their statements by ensuring they do not smear an entire community, and emphasising the importance of collaboration to solve the issue.

And in some cases, race is referred to when police are providing a description of an offender who they are trying to arrest.

The counter argument is that referring to race alienates those communities who police and governments are ostensibly trying to collaborate with, and that the background of white offenders is never analysed or questioned.

The vast majority of young offenders in Victoria are Australian-born.

The vast majority of young offenders in Victoria are Australian-born. Photo: Supplied

Are certain ethnicities over-represented in crime?

Since at least 2012, police have spoken of their concerns that people of certain ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in crime statistics.

Those who are Sudanese-born are between six and seven times more likely to offend than people who are Australian-born.

There are issues with this measurement, including having a relatively young population who are within the age bracket when people are most likely to be criminals, and the absence of long-term averages.

The rate of offending by those of Pacific Islander background is harder to quantify, but police believe they are also over-represented.

The vast majority of criminals in Victoria are Australian-born.

There are more offenders aged 25-34 in Victoria than those aged 15-24.

There are more offenders aged 25-34 in Victoria than those aged 15-24. Photo: Paul Jeffers

How significant an issue is youth crime?

There are more offenders aged 25 to 34 in Victoria than those aged 15 to 24, according to the latest Crime Statistics Agency figures.

There were 51,562 offender incidents involving those aged 15 to 24 last year, about 30 per cent of all incidents in the state.

Youth crime rates have been declining for the past decade (and an overall drop in crime was also recorded in September and December).

What are police saying about this?

In a press conference Tuesday, acting police commissioner Shane Patton acknowledged "there is an issue" with street gangs.

"They're behaving like street gangs, so let's call them that, that's what they are. We acknowledge that; we acknowledge there is an issue. It is important to stress that we don't want to elevate these young thugs, these young criminals, to any status or give them any type of credibility they shouldn't already have."

The aftermath of the wild party at an Airbnb property in Werribee last December.

The aftermath of the wild party at an Airbnb property in Werribee last December. Photo: Jason South

What are they doing about the problem?

Mr Patton said the gang crime squad would help suburban and regional detectives investigate youth crime offences.

Police were working with government to draft new laws that would make it harder for criminals to associate, he said.

Victorian police minister Lisa Neville said that reforms announced more than a year ago targeting youth offenders - including the provision of youth control orders, and so-called Fagin's Laws cracking down on those who direct youth offenders - could be used by police in coming months.

Premier Daniel Andrews has called more arrests of young offenders in Victoria.

Premier Daniel Andrews has called more arrests of young offenders in Victoria. Photo: Darrian Traynor

What has Daniel Andrews said about all this?

In a press conference on Friday, December 22, the Victorian Premier said: "Whilst I know it it is tempting to try and excuse some of this behaviour, it's not excuses we need, it's arrests that we need."

What has the Coalition said about this?

Quite a lot. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, who represents the seat of Flinders, said gang violence was "out of control".

Victorian shadow attorney general John Pesutto??? said "we are living through, at the moment, one of the worst periods of gang violence our state has perhaps ever seen."

Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took time out from a Sydney surf lifesaving announcement to say he was "very concerned about the growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria and in particular in Melbourne", making sure to blame the Victorian premier for the problem.

Have we heard this before?

The Coalition had significant success challenging the Labor Government ahead of the 2010 election on its law and order credentials, and is keen to replicate that success.

It managed to weave a narrative that gathered steam over the summer of 2009-10 - the exact same period in the election cycle as the state is in relative to the 2018 election - that Victoria was lawless, and then-Premier John Brumby did not have the answers.

The attack had several fronts, including a perceived explosion in alcohol-fuelled violence. Youth crime has been a consistent scourge of the Andrews Government, and it is natural the Coalition will try and exploit it.

This story Explainer: Does Melbourne have a street gang problem? first appeared on The Age.