The great wall of Cabramatta
On Tuesday night, four shots were fired into the front of a Wetherill Park home. Inside a woman and her two children were sleeping. This incident was the ninth shooting to take place in Sydney in eight days. NSW Police have not laid any charges and have voiced their frustration, blaming the “wall of silence” in the community.
On Saturday, 25 May 2002, a man shot and wounded seven people including a child attending a wedding at a restaurant in Cabramatta. There were 140 witnesses in the New World Restaurant but no one was able, or willing, to give a clear description of the gun man.
It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As a Fairfield Councillor between 1999-2008, I remember the spate of gun violence that occurred at the height of Cabramatta’s drug and crime problems. The situation today may not be identical to Cabramatta, but there are certainly similarities, and definitely lessons learnt then that might help now.
To me, this wall of silence is built on both sides. Neither side is blameless.
Migrants, particularly refugees, often fear and distrust the corrupt and ruthless authorities from the places they have fled. If you get into a car accident in Vietnam, people sort it out between themselves. They avoid involving the police who can make matters worse, impose harsh fines, or need to be paid off.
That distrust is carried to Australia. A journalist friend of mine who covered one of the recent Sydney shootings said that some in the community “feel the cops can’t protect them and that [they think] they’re not there to protect them”.
This fear is compounded by ignorance of the local law and judicial system. If you’re going to give evidence against someone wielding a gun, you’d want to make sure you and your family will be protected. But how can you be sure if you don’t speak English and know nothing about the judicial system you’re relying on?
The NSW Police can’t hold their head up high when it comes to breaking down cultural barriers either. They can send the top brass and ethnic liaison officers to cultural festivals like Lunar New Year, Diwali and Eid celebrations, but there should be more engagement with the community after that.
And often the police don’t reflect the multicultural communities they protect. But it’s not the attitude of police representatives that make a difference on the street. It’s what happens when an officer interviews the victims and witnesses.
Back in 2002, the owner of the New World Restaurant asked me to come as a local government councillor to be there and help if needed during his interview with the police investigating the shooting. He claimed the police were treating him like a criminal.
When I arrived at the restaurant the atmosphere was tense and I felt the investigating officers were openly hostile to my presence. I put that down to them not wanting an outsider to interfere, insecurity that a politician might challenge them, and fear of what I might say to the media later.
The situation in Cabramatta only improved when local community leaders agitated for change. When we successfully lobbied for the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into policing in Cabramatta, this provided the motivation for both sides to work more collaboratively.
The police were held accountable, and the community, having successfully gotten the attention of the state government, had to come forward and speak up. Local community leaders accepted their responsibility, understanding at last the vital role they have to play.
Refugees who have settled in Australia need to understand their rights and responsibilities in their new home. Ignorance and fear can only be overcome by understanding how things work. Community leaders need to encourage this, and the police need to make an effort to better understand the communities they’re protecting.
These crimes will be more effectively investigated if the community and police have more trust and understanding in each other. Until this happens, the media and the community will blame the police, and the police will continue to shift responsibility back on to the community.
The wall of silence can only be broken down from both sides.
Thang Ngo (Twitter: @ThangNgo) features in the SBS series Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta concluding this Sunday 22 January at 8.30pm on SBS ONE (a Vietnamese subtitled version will be simulcast on SBS TWO).
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