A recent blitz on Canberra’s licensed venues has been hailed a success by ACT Policing and Access Canberra. Two drink drivers were detected and two people arrested for breaching exclusion notices while liquor licensing inspectors identified 28 potential non-compliance breaches across six venues.
But behind the statistics are the officers on the ground, so I jumped into a police van to find out what it was like walking the beat during Operation Midnight.
9:30 pm (Saturday, 17 December)
Officers gather for a briefing from Officer in Charge of City Police Station, Detective Inspector Stephen Ladd.
“Obviously with returning crowds into nightlife precincts we’ve seen a return of alcohol-fuelled violence, licensee breaches and impaired driving,” he says.
“You’re all reminded to be polite, be professional but authoritative … I don’t want anyone hurt tonight.”
We’re told suspected members of the Comancheros gang and their associates are having a Christmas party tonight, so that’s another element to consider.
“The best night for us would be giving out exclusion/move on notices, a few ‘intoxications’ but no arrests, because it means we’ve prevented things from getting out of hand,” Det. Insp. Ladd says.
I’m teamed with Sergeant Luke Houlihan and Constable Eli Blatz.
We’re focusing on the CBD and Lonsdale Street in Braddon, and assisting Access Canberra licence inspectors.
We’re on the lookout for security guards waving us down for help, and keeping a general eye to see if anything is about to spark up.
Sgt Houlihan explains more people are now starting their nights in Braddon before heading into the city about 1 am.
I’m told most issues occur between 3 am and 5 am, so exclusions are a way to mitigate anti-social behaviour.
“Police do have the power to exclude people from town before having to deal with something more serious,” Sgt Houlihan says.
We receive a call for our first pick-up of the night, a positive roadside result from a driver at a targeted RBT at the entry/exit of the carpark across from Mooseheads.
We signal we’ll take the job just as intel comes across the radio that a possible drug deal has taken place near the carousel in City Walk.
But it’s not one we can take.
“You can only peel one potato, as we were told in college,” Const. Blatz says.
After dropping off the suspected drink driver – who told us to “get f***ed” because he wasn’t allowed his vape in the back of the van – we receive another call about the suspected drug dealer.
As the information comes through, Sgt Houlihan spots a man fitting the description on City Walk. So we pull over to have a chat.
Immediately the man admits to drug dealing, handing over two bags of cocaine and $600 in cash.
He’s arrested for a preliminary interview outside the van, with the drugs and cash seized as suspected proceeds of crime.
The man is given information about drug counselling, and told he’ll receive a call the next day about being summonsed to court to face the charges, and advised to speak with a lawyer if he wishes.
However he’s not arrested.
I ask why, and am told given the officers have no concerns the accused will destroy evidence (he already handed it over), had confessed, provided a permanent ACT address and no criminal history, they’re confident he will answer the summons.
Plus everything he had just said was captured on body-worn cameras.
“He was very worried but very honest from the get go,” Const. Blatz says.
We head back to the station to log the evidence.
12:30 am (Sunday, 18 December)
Evidence logged, we’re back doing laps. Our reception varies, some people give mock salutes, others stop for handshakes and a chat, wanting high fives and fist bumps.
It’s been a quiet night so far.
“It sometimes can feel like police are overlapping each other, then there will be a 20-person pile-on and it seems like no-one is nearby. It’s a very hard thing to resource,” Sgt Houlihan says.
“But it’s really frustrating when a fight breaks out in certain spots, you’ll have Ubers blocking places where we need to park to get out.”
We spot three women having a heated argument near Fusion and stop for a chat.
I ask why we don’t just leave them to their business.
“The idea is to stop it before it turns into something more,” Sgt Houlihan says.
“You have a 30-second conversation and make a judgment call when talking to them.”
So far we’ve been called to minor incidents, including talking down a man annoyed that other officers had arrested his friend for refusing to leave a venue.
“Typically we’re called for non-compliance, when they’re asked to leave by staff and they ask friends to help. But they’re drunk as well,” Const. Blatz says.
As we drive past Mooseheads we’re flagged down by security to help get rid of a group not allowed into the club.
“They’ll argue with bouncers for ages, but once we arrive and explain it’s an offence, they’ll move on,” Sgt Houlihan says.
“The reasonable ones will,” adds Const. Blatz.
As we’re on another cruise, we overhear someone yell “if you wanna hit on little girls…” so we stop to check.
A man’s been accused by another of approaching underage girls lingering out the front of one of the clubs.
A witness tells us both men took a swing at each other. They both get an exclusion and are told to leave within 10 minutes.
If they’re spotted again tonight, they’ll either receive a fine or a trip to the watch house.
It’s coming up to when I’m pulling the plug when we suddenly get a call to a smaller establishment.
Our car goes like the clappers as everyone immediately converges on the area.
The incident has fizzled out as dozens of officers arrive.
“That call was particularly scary because we knew this is where all the bikies were,” Const. Blatz says.
Crisis averted, I’m dropped back at City Police Station. The officers will continue until their shift ends at 7 am.
But overall the night has gone as successfully as Det. Insp. Ladd had hoped, with no major incidents.