Just Another Hot, Bloody Night In The City

The Sunday Age

Sunday December 23, 2007

Peter Munro

Booze, bravado, bashings, brawls. Melbourne's night streets are a battle zone. Peter Munro rides with the paramedics caught in the thick of it.

BROKEN pieces of a baseball bat lie scattered on the road. A young man bleeds heavily from the head. He needs two new teeth and more than a dozen stitches after the bat was cracked into his skull, swung in the heat of a brawl involving as many as 15 men racing along Lonsdale Street, between parked cars and into moving traffic.

Crowds of people watch from a nightclub queue, not wanting to lose their place in line, as the police ask a young man why he brought a baseball bat into the city on a Friday night. Another man is handcuffed and taken away, past his screaming sister who is out celebrating her birthday. The police take her too after she refuses to move on. She can't have turned more than 19 today.

It is another hot, violent night in the city, its streets brimming with brawls, blood and broken glass. By day these footpaths are full of Christmas shoppers - and carollers singing about goodwill to all men - but at night the streets are busy with a different rush, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, and anger. As Christmas Day nears and New Year's Eve moves closer, so does the prospect of more violence.

On Friday and Saturday nights, people are stabbed, glassed and left bleeding on the pavement. At its worst, there are shootings or young men swinging samurai swords. And it is getting worse, with assaults in the CBD up more than 17% in the past year.

Last week, police described the Queen Street precinct as a "war zone" and announced plans to ban unruly patrons from the city, as well as from Chapel Street and St Kilda's Fitzroy Street. Licensed venues caught flouting liquor laws could be shut down for 24 hours. Three popular nightclubs around Queen Street have decided to take the pre-emptive measure of voluntarily introducing a 2am lockout on New Year's Eve in a bid to curb expected violence. In Sydney's CBD, where violence is also raging, some pubs have started serving drinks in plastic cups.

But Melbourne's streets are still far from being safe. The Sunday Age spent a Friday night with Metropolitan Ambulance Service field manager Alan Eade to survey the damage. In 12 years working in and around the CBD, he has seen violence burst beyond the notorious stretches along Queen and King streets and into all quarters of the city. When he started working these streets, people would fight with fists and feet; now many do more damage with knives or broken bottles.

"People will tell you when they go out they expect someone to get hurt. It is almost an expectation that someone will sustain an injury," he says. "What people do to each other is unbelievable, to pound and pound and pound and smack people's heads into the ground."

At 2am, with the temperature still close to 30 degrees, we arrive at our first serious assault of the night. One man has jumped from his car outside a 7-Eleven in Bourke Street and smashed a stranger in the head with a bottle, then slashed another deep along his right forearm with the broken pieces of glass. Two young men are bandaged in an ambulance while police take their statements. The man with the deep slice in his arm has the easy grin and dilated pupils of an ecstasy user.

Mr Eade says he is surprised it has taken so long to see blood on the streets this night. This is the bloodiest time of the year in the CBD, as the rise in people celebrating summer holidays gives paramedics their own Christmas rush between midnight and 6am on Fridays and Saturdays. Almost all the assaults they see are related to drug or alcohol use.

He drives with his doors locked in case one of the hundreds of people waiting for a taxi try to hop in. The trains and trams long stopped running and the night buses are infrequent, leaving hundreds of people out on the streets.

There is a boot-sized dent in Mr Eade's back passenger door from where someone kicked it in last month. On the roof is a deep scratch from the time another person threw a road sign at the car while Mr Eade was waiting at a set of traffic lights.

"When I joined we were the good guys. You could walk into a room of 50 people having a blue and say stop and they would. Being a paramedic was like some sort of force-field," he says. "Not any more. People will actively target ambos."

We drive down the tram tracks at high speed towards a dark street in Fairfield, where a partly disabled man has punched his girlfriend in the cheek and is tearing up their home. His wheelchair sits abandoned on the front lawn.

Violence - against wives and girlfriends, ambulance officers, health workers, police, convenience store workers and young men - is an increasing worry. Paul Dillon, of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, says excessive drinking is at the core of most assaults, often fired up by the use of illicit drugs such as amphetamines.

The number of licensed venues in greater Melbourne increased by 450 last year, and in the first nine months of this year the number of licences had already outstripped the 2006 total of 10,848. In the CBD, where there are 1482 licensed premises, there has been an explosion in late-night venues and 24-hour bottle shops.

Acting Superintendent, Melbourne division, Chris Duthie, says there are already too many licensed venues in the CBD, and that late-night opening hours should also be cut back. He says violence has shifted from inside clubs and bars and onto the streets. The ban on smoking indoors has also brought more people outdoors, contributing to the increase in assaults.

Police have responded with a Safe Streets campaign, putting more police on the beat in and around the city, complete with "party packs" of capsicum spray. Next year there are plans for police recruits to stay on in the CBD beyond their standard traffic direction duties to join the Safe Streets patrols.

Mr Duthie says the initiatives have already led to a fall in numbers of serious assaults, while minor assaults are still on the rise. "I think we're finally taking control of the streets again," he says. But if things are better now, how hellish must they have been?

At 2.20am, Mr Eade gets the call over the radio that someone has been stabbed in Bourke Street, but he is busy treating the young man beaten with a baseball bat outside the Amber nightclub in Lonsdale Street.

Working with Mr Eade tonight is Michael Benjamin, who has been a paramedic in the city for 13 years. He was first on the scene of the infamous Salt nightclub deaths in South Yarra in July 2002, when a 19-year-old man was hacked to death and two men drowned in the Yarra River after being pursued into the water by sword-wielding clubbers.

But he says he saw worse only this year, when in front of him one man stomped the head of another into the footpath, over and over. "The violence is getting worse," he says. "You see more knives, more bottles. The gangs are getting worse. You don't know where it's going to end up."

© 2007 The Sunday Age

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