ADDRESSING farm crime is a continued focus for Victoria Police, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
The farm crime coordination unit was set up in September 2019. Based in Geelong, the unit is headed by Inspector Karl Curran who works alongside advisor and analyst Victoria Heaney.
The pair coordinate the 68 dedicated farm crime liaison officers who work across the state - each with different skills in investigating livestock theft and farm-related crimes.
While each farm crime liaison officer has other duties, such as working in an investigative unit in a major regional city or in a rural police station, most have a rural farming background.
The role of these officers is to investigate livestock theft, the theft of tools, fuel, equipment and produce, such as hay, and to monitor and analyse agricultural activism.
While Agricultural Liaison officer roles were introduced to the organisation in 2011 in an effort to address the prevalence of agricultural crimes, last year they were brought under the umbrella of the coordination unit, which monitors the crime trends and patterns relating to farm crime across the state.
"We try to provide contemporary advice as best as we possibly can to the regions and the liaison officers so they know about what's happening in other areas," Inspector Curran, who worked in Ballarat for several years, said.
WHO COMMITS FARM CRIMES?
Generally offenders have experience on farms, know how to use equipment and how to round-up the animals.
Most of the offenders who commit farm-related crimes are opportunists who target rural properties that are distant from townships, where there is no farm house and where there are side roads that give them easy access to animals.
These unique circumstances can provide an opportunity for would-be thieves to steal either expensive tools and equipment left unattended, even if it's locked up in a shed, or costly livestock..
While some offenders steal animals to add to their own flocks, some see animals such as a flock of sheep in a paddock and decide to kill them to consume themselves, while others butcher them to sell for profit.
Other offenders steal to order. This involves advertising sheep on websites such as Facebook Marketplace or Gumtree and when somebody expresses interest, they travel to rural areas and steal the amount to fulfil the order.
IS IT A BIG ISSUE HERE?
Across the region, comprising the local government areas of Pyrenees, Golden Plains, Hepburn and Moorabool shires, there has been a decrease in the number of farm-related incidents in the past five years.
However, there has been a slight increase in the City of Ballarat.
Inspector Curran, who has been a member of Victoria Police for more than 30 years, said this could be attributed to a number of reasons, but in this region there have been specific operations conducted to educate community members about crime prevention and target hardening measures, as well as work to identify offenders.
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The biggest problem in this region is stock theft - mostly sheep, but also sometimes cows - though this has decreased somewhat recently.
Another concern, which is not limited to this region, is thefts of expensive tools and equipment - specifically tractors.
And while it is not widespread, the theft of ammunition and firearms from farms is another deeply concerning trend for police.
"We know the impact firearms can have and that's why we are working with our farm crime liaison officers and also our district firearm officers to do regular checks on how firearms are stored," Inspector Curran said.
When firearms are stolen, sometimes they are used to commit other crimes such as burglaries.
Thefts from farms not only mean the victim suffers a huge financial loss and must find a way to replace what has been taken, but also impedes their ability to work and earn a living.
But while the numbers of reported farm crime incidents are relatively low compared to other crimes, police believe the incidents are massively underreported - potentially up to 30 per cent, though it is difficult to determine.
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Research indicates that people are much more likely to report a farm-related crime if they have had a previous positive experience with a police officer.
Inspector Curran said the fact most of the liaison officers have a rural background meant there was a level of expertise and understanding brought to the investigation of the offences, which, in turn, instilled confidence in community members.
Even if a uniform member responds to take the initial report, Inspector Curran said the community could be reassured that even if the farm crime liaison officer doesn't take over the investigation, they would be there to help the investigating member and to liaise with the victim in relation to any farm-crime related incident.
"It's important for people to feel confidence in the people they are speaking to. Having that background and knowledge and being able to speak the lingo is probably the most important thing that gives people confidence," he said.
"And they certainly get that when they speak to a farm crime liaison officer."
MEET THE REGION'S LIAISON OFFICERS
Ballarat has three farm crime liaison officers - Detective Sergeant Paul Allen, Detective Senior Constable Steven Murphy and Acting Detective Sergeant Andrew Barnes.
There is also a liaison officer in Moorabool. Together, they serve the region.
While Sergeant Allen's day-to-day role is to supervise the detectives in the crime investigation unit, he also monitors any crime trends that could be classified as farm crime.
While many of the offences, such as burglary or theft of a motor car, will be investigated by the relevant officers tasked with that portfolio, the liaison officers engage with farming communities and keep "an ear to the ground" for any issues.
His ultimate goal is to increase reporting, so police have a better understanding of farm crimes and where they are occurring.
"Our roles as liaison officers are to try and engage with the community and to have an ear to the ground in regards to what's happening," Detective Sergeant Allen said.
IMPORTANCE OF ENGAGEMENT
Almost a year on since it was set-up and the calendar of field days, markets and saleyard auctions the unit and the officers planned to attend this year to engage with communities and industry leaders has been disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions.
While they can't attend major events and interact with large audiences, they have continued to engage internally and the farm crime liaison officers themselves are still embedded in their communities.
Going forward, the farm crime liaison officers say they will continue to engage with communities and share their fliers and handouts, to give confidence to people in rural and remote areas that if they are a victim of crime, they can report to them.
Police encourage community members to report any suspicious behaviour and to report even the smallest thefts, especially amid the lambing season when the number of offences is known to rise.
There are many reasons people don't report farm crime, and specifically livestock theft - they may initially believe some of their animals strayed to a neighbouring property, or there was an animal attack which killed a handful of animals.
Sometimes they don't notice animals are missing until weeks or even months afterwards, such as at shearing or drenching time.
Other reasons could be that they might think police are too busy or that they might not be able to solve the crime so there is no point in reporting, but even if there is a delay Inspector Curran said reporting was vital so police could determine if it was part of a crime spree, or if offenders were specifically targeting an area.
"A little piece of information from somebody in the community could be a final piece of the puzzle that we need [to solve a crime].
A little piece of information from somebody in the community could be a final piece of the puzzle that we needInspector Karl Curran
"Don't think that it's too small or happened too long ago - report it so that we can get a picture of what's happening in that community, so that we can then increase our patrols in those particular areas, and then if there's a real concerning trend, we'll conduct operations, as we do across the state."
Some of Inspector Curran's top farm crime prevention tips are to construct storage facilities in sight of the main residence and to install sensor lights and CCTV around buildings.
Always ensure firearms are securely stored, with ammunition, bolts and magazines kept separately.
Tools should be stored so thieves cannot use them to force open other storage areas, while a detailed inventory of machinery and equipment - including make, serial numbers and identifying features with photographs - can also be created.
Never leave keys in vehicles or machinery and check tools and equipment regularly to ensure it has not been tampered with.
Identifying stock with microchips and ear tags at an early age is important, while farmers can check stock numbers regularly and consider photographing or videoing stock regularly to assist with identification.
Ensure fencing is secure and that external gates have locks, while loading ramps and stockyards are secured to prevent unauthorised use.
If you see any suspicious activity, report it immediately to police or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential crime report at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au
Non-urgent reports can also be made to the Police Assistance Line on 131 444.
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