Looting is being reported in multiple locations across the South Coast as communities start to recover from the effects of the bushfire.
In response to looting, there are reports of local communities setting up neighbourhood watch groups to patrol houses and farms on quad bikes and in 4WDs, recording number plates and persons unknown to the community approaching properties and acting suspiciously.
This comes as NSW Police have charged three people on the South Coast over offences relating to housebreaking and unlawfully entering enclosed land.
Officers patrolling the Bangalee area on Sunday evening (5 January) stopped a 17-year-old male and allegedly found a screwdriver and bandana during a search, Police say.
The teen was arrested and taken to Nowra Police Station where he was charged with possessing housebreaking implements and possessing means of disguising his face with an intent to commit an indictable offence.
Police in North Nowra also arrested a 30-year-old man acting suspiciously on Monday. Police allegedly found a knife, a jemmy bar, torches, pliers, military badges and a debit card during a search.
The man was arrested and has been charged with possessing housebreaking implements, goods in custody, possessing a knife in a public place and outstanding warrants.
On the same day, officers from the Criminal Groups Squad’s Strike Force Raptor spoke to a 33-year-old man at Moruya after receiving information that he was driving around the area and acting suspiciously.
A man was charged with entering enclosed land without a lawful excuse relating to an alleged trespass at a property at Wamban. He was also charged with high-range drink driving after he undertook a roadside breath test and allegedly returned a result of 0.257, more than five times the legal limit.
State Emergency Operations Controller (SEOCON) Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said looting was disgusting behaviour and would not be tolerated by Police.
“Police will take action. We have uniformed and plain-clothed police, and specialist police, right up and down the coast night and day looking around these areas, looking at suspicious behaviour,” he said.
“The penalties are quite severe. Although there are no specific looting offences, offences like break, enter and steal, stealing from a motor vehicle or stealing from a person’s yard carries substantial fines and imprisonment.
“It really does go against the grain of the Australian people … We will take action.”
Aerial surveillance support is also being used to protect against would-be looters, NSW Police said.
NSW Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said looters will be punished by the full force of the law.
“When we hear of three people who have been charged by NSW Police for looting, the community and the government have a right to be outraged,” the Minister said.
“We do not live in Syria, we do not do this to each other.
“This is the South Coast of NSW, so anybody, regardless of their age or their mental state, who wants to take advantage of their fellow citizen’s disadvantage, should expect the full force of the law.
“I will be making sure that if the judges and the magistrates do not give an appropriate penalty to these offenders, I will be quite happy to write to the Attorney-General and ask for an appeal until the victims of these bushfires are satisfied.”
Residents are being urged to contact police if they see suspicious activity or witness a crime taking place, or to contact CrimeStoppers if they have any information that does not pertain to an emergency situation.
While Deputy Commissioner Worboys said there have not been any reports of vigilantism, residents should contact the police instead of taking the law into their own hands.
“I do not encourage any person to take the law into their own hands, and I am pleased that that has not happened yet,” he said.
“Anyone who sees a crime being committed – or in other emergencies – call Triple Zero (000) immediately.
“However, if it is not urgent, contact the Police Assistance Line on 131 444 or your local police station.
“If you are concerned or believe you have witnessed suspicious activity, then it is best to contact Crime Stoppers.”
Anyone who has information about suspected illegal activity is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or https://nsw.crimestoppers.com.au.
For all updated bushfire information, visit: www.rfs.nsw.gov.au.