– Their flat-brimmed caps, basketball singlets and flashy shoes are better suited to the Bronx than Dandenong plaza, but the two Samoan teenagers have swagger, nonetheless.
When Anthony Sofe, a prominent local Samoan, approached with police, the boys were respectful, but when Sergeant Joey Herrech hands them a flyer about Operation Pylet, a program designed to improve the relationship between police and young people, the boys scrunch it up and throw it on the ground.
The boys stare at Sergeant Herrech and raise their chin defiantly. A not so subtle way of asking what he was going to do about it. Sergeant Herrech believes Operation Pylet will do plenty.
Around Dandenong, young men stalk parks in gangs and rob anyone who walks through. About 300 others brawled so viciously at a 21st birthday party last year that police had to use capsicum spray to bring things under control.
Regardless of the youth police deal with, the disregard for the uniform is universal. Sergeant Herrech hopes Operation Pylet will improve perceptions of police and help solve crimes and provide intelligence about trouble before it starts.
A typical Friday night will start with a short briefing in the Dandenong Police Station involving Sergeant Herrech, his partner Leading Senior Constable James Waterson and the volunteers rostered on the shift.
This night, there will be a visit to a drop-in centre in Noble Park where at-risk youth are given dinner and the chance to play board games or basketball to keep them from drinking.
Police and the volunteers will also walk through Dandenong Plaza, which has an astonishingly high rate of shoplifting and a history of raucous brawls.
And there are parties to check on, some registered with police, others on the radar because intelligence suggests there could be problems.
The other volunteers are Temese Leilua, who is also Samoan, and Willy Busari, a Sudanese man who came to Dandenong in 1998.
At the drop-in centre, Mr Sofe meets a relative. He is homeless at 18, after leaving because of the violence of his brothers. And despite the centre’s strict policy of no alcohol or drugs, he is high. He sways and takes little interest in the spirited game of dominoes that community workers, Sergeant Herrech and other youths are playing.
Sergeant Herrech offers to drive the teenager to the home of a pleasant but quite drunk Sudanese friend, who is holding his own in the dominoes game.
Sergeant Herrech is mindful of the fact other police will be patrolling the area in the next few hours, and the pair are likely to be locked up.
While the conflict between Pylet and the methods employed by his colleagues may seem counterproductive, Sergeant Herrech insists they both have the same responsibility: keeping the public safe.
Despite this, it is difficult to persuade two young men their Friday night is over at 7pm. With the help of Mr Sofe and Mr Busari, the men are coaxed into providing an address to drop them home to. As soon as they get out of the unmarked minivan, they jump into a car driven by one of the Sudanese man’s friends.
Perhaps they will be headed to one of several parties slated for the area. Sergeant Herrech said one house had hosted a party the two previous Fridays, where a cover charge was paid and the alcohol inside was included.
Staggeringly, the mother of the teenage host had given her approval.
The host is a member of a notorious local Pacific Islander street gang.
Mr Leilua, who came to Dandenong from New Zealand in 1990 and is by far the most senior of the volunteers, said this kind of behaviour was typical of some youth in his community. He believes Pylet can save others, by putting them in contact with community leaders and programs, and by encouraging police not to focus entirely on punitive measures.
Mr Sofe said when his attitude was coupled with an imposing physique, real damage was caused. “They are boys in a man’s body,” he said. “And they’re willing to go to the edge to see if they’ll get away with things.
This Friday, the naughty kids, aside from those at Dandenong Plaza, are nowhere to be found.
The parties are either yet to heat up, as it’s still before 10pm, or have moved elsewhere. There is certainly a public fear of violence: one caller tells police she has seen about 50 Sudanese men heading towards a party heaving with Pacific Islanders.
Sergeant Herrech and Leading Senior Constable Waterson arrive at the party and tell us to stay in the van. It turns out it is a birthday party, with security, hosted by a Greek family.
Sergeant Herrech decides to walk through a strip of shops in Noble Park that are home to almost entirely Sudanese businesses. Pylet will be as much about making the community feel safer as helping youth, and telling people about the program may help police recruit more volunteers.
When he tells one elderly Sudanese man, collecting a feed of fish and chips with his grandson, that he will be patrolling the street every Friday as part of Pylet, the man beams – Niño Bucci


About Jumpin' Jack Cash
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