Friday, 22 July 2011

GUNS. Drugs. Bikies. Gangsters. Los Angeles or Miami? Melbourne or Sydney? Try the Gold Coast.

Three fatal shootings in seven weeks, including the slaying of police officer Damian Leeding as he burst in on an armed robbery in progress at a suburban tavern, has long-time locals wondering what has become of their once-idyllic seaside town.

The Gold Coast's latest tourism slogan is "Famous for Fun" but it could easily be "Famous for Guns", says veteran Southport criminal lawyer Bill Potts.

Potts, who has been practising on the Coast for more than three decades, says his hometown has become crime central.

"The place is awash with drugs and more and more people packing guns," he says.

"And as we've seen with tragic consequences in recent weeks, they're more than willing to use them."

I've lived here for almost as long as Potts and can remember the days when an armed robbery was such big news that it made the front page of the Gold Coast Bulletin.

Now, hold-ups are an almost daily occurrence (there have been almost 100 this year) and struggle to make a few paragraphs in the local paper.

You only have to spend an hour or two at Southport Magistrates Court to see the kind of low-lives who now call the Coast home.

Many are serial offenders who commit crimes to feed chronic drug habits, these days more likely to be speed or ice than the heroin epidemic that ripped through the local surfing population in the early 1970s.

The '70s was when I first holidayed here with my parents and, back then, it was a much more laid-back, innocent place.

That all changed in the mid-'80s when the international tourist boom took off. Almost overnight, the Gold Coast became the Glitter Strip.

These days on the Coast, you beep your horn or shake your fist at a fellow motorist who cuts you off at your peril because you just don't know if the bloke behind the wheel could be a steroid-pumped, ice-addicted psychopath with a gun in his glovebox. Road-ragers roam the M1 daily.

Surfers Paradise, with its drink and drug-fuelled fights and bashings, is a no-go zone for many locals.

Most of the major bikie gangs have heavily fortified clubhouses on the Coast.

In almost a decade as The Courier-Mail's Gold Coast bureau chief, I've reported on bikies cutting off a man's ears in the Currumbin Valley, shooting a man eight times on the Southport Spit, brawling with guns and knives at a five-star Ashmore hotel, and even threatening Gold Coast Hospital staff over a delayed haemorrhoid operation.

Under-manned and under-resourced local police appear to be fighting a losing battle.

How to stop the rot? More and better-equipped police and tougher penalties, perhaps.

But maybe there also needs to be a serious rethink about the strategies being used to tackle drug abuse the cause of most of the Coast's (and indeed the world's) crime.

The current strategies clearly aren't working.

The Gold Coast hasn't yet featured in the the smash-hit Underbelly TV franchise but it can't be far off. It's murdering the casting call.



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