By CAITLIN CROWLEY | EXCLUSIVE
SIGNIFICANT underreporting of rural crime coupled with outdated data has left police and policymakers nationwide in the dark about the true scale, cost and psychological impact of a problem which has Darling Downs farmers sleeping “with one eye open”.
The Queensland Farmers’ Federation has raised serious concerns about the personal toll on-farm theft has taken on producers and rural communities, as farmers like Jonathan Mengel (main picture) beef-up security after costly break-ins.
Mengel said he was returning to a paddock to harvest corn when he realised his machinery, including an irrigation bore, had been targeted.
“We couldn’t get the tractors to start and we looked and someone had taken the batteries out of them – just chopped the cables, taken all of that,” Mengel said.
The crop farmer said he only discovered the damage at the irrigation bore a few days later, when he noticed things looking out of place.
“They’d been in there as well, they’d cut all the control panel out – every bit of wiring – taken everything they could that was obviously of some sort of value to them,” he said.
“That was a pain in the backside and took several months to get back together, everything that we needed to put it all back together.”
Mengel recently installed motion sensor cameras at various locations around his Darling Downs property, which send an alert to his mobile phone when activated.
“If someone or something comes on our place we know it, so I guess that gives us a bit of security,” he said.
“You don’t know what those people are capable of doing either. They’re here for a reason, and they’re not too worried about what they have to do, to get what they want to get, so it’s a bit of a concern.
“There definitely has been strange vehicles about the place and activity at night. If you’re out at night, you’re keeping a look out and you’re probably not sleeping as hard as you should because you have one eye open.”
The University of New England’s (UNE) Centre for Rural Criminology has embarked on a major research project to provide a snapshot of rural crime in Australia, by surveying as many farmers and landholders as possible about their experiences of crime and their opinions about policing and crime prevention efforts.
The centre’s co-director, Dr Kyle Mulrooney, said a similar survey of New South Wales farmers in 2020 found very high levels of victimisation, with 81 percent of farmers surveyed having experienced crime, and mixed views of the police which “veered towards the negative”.
“Generally we’ve got no picture across Australia – 20 years ago was the last time this issue was looked at,” Mulrooney said.
“Especially Queensland – that’s where we don’t have the latest knowledge and the latest information.
“It’s really important for the police, for policy makers, decision makers, police leaders to be able to combat this issue, that we understand it from a national level. So that’s really what this undertaking is about.
“There will be unique and interesting insights which are very state specific and in order to actually address them properly we kind of need to understand what those specificities are as well as just the complexity of the problem, the scope, the extent of the issues particular states are facing.”
Mulrooney said the study would also explore why rural crime often went unreported to the police, after the New South Wales survey found very low rates of reporting, including 60 percent of livestock thefts going unreported.
Mulrooney said a “cultural divide” between police and farmers contributed, as well as fear of reprisals and the fact farmers didn’t always have accurate records of stock and property, which made it difficult to report thefts.
Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Elliot from the Queensland Police Rural and Stock Crime Squad told the Caller that underreporting was a significant issue nationwide.
“I think a lot of people out in the rural setting like to put a face to the name before they provide information to police,” Elliot said.
“A lot of people will take the opportunity to speak to rural and stock crime squad members when they run into them at an event or down the main street, about something that happened six or eight weeks ago, or six or eight months ago, and they just haven’t had time to speak to us.
“So then we are behind the eight ball from the get go.”
Elliot said while “rumours and innuendo fly rife” on social media about criminal activity, police were often left without any official reports to launch an investigation.
“It’s very important – a little piece of information that may seem insignificant to one person may be the piece to the jigsaw puzzle that we need to solve some sort of crime,” he said.
Jonathan Mengel said a lack of access to local police officers was a deterrent for farmers, who felt like because police didn’t know the area, it wasn’t worth the effort to report crimes.
“I think there needs to be a mindset change in probably the court system, that side of it,” he said.
“I know the police are probably doing their job to the best of their ability but they don’t have the backup. They catch these blokes, they get a slap on the wrist then they’re back out again and they’re just straight back into doing what they were doing before.”
Dr Kyle Mulrooney said one of the interesting findings from the New South Wales study was that farmers who had knowledge of the state’s rural crime prevention team had more confidence in police generally, and were more likely to report crimes.
“They’re very experienced police that often come off the land themselves, so they have the extra layer of cultural knowledge,” he said.
“Most importantly, and this will help hopefully the other states, is that we see that when they (farmers) interact with this team, or even when they’re aware of this team, they’re actually more likely to report crime.”
Mulroney is also starting another research project focusing on farmer mental health and the impacts of crime.
“One thing that really came out of the survey was the sheer amount of worry – and worry tends to be overlooked in favour of crime but it can be just as – if not, more – harmful psychologically, when you have very high levels of worry, and we see very high levels of worry amongst farmers,” he said.
“You have worry of crime, drought, bushfires, floods – the stress of being a farmer – you name it – it’s not surprising that the mental health state is what it is.
“We need to address and prevent farm crime but we also really need to address fear of crime amongst farmers.”
Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) president Jo Sheppard (pictured) told the Caller the risk of crime was contributing to social isolation for some farmers.
“We are hearing from farmers who are avoiding leaving their farm as much as they can to reduce the risk of being targeted by offenders,” Sheppard said.
“This is resulting in an increase in social isolation for some, which is detrimental to overall wellbeing, contributing to increasing levels of concern for farmers and families who live in rural communities.”
The 2023 Australian Farm Crime Survey is available to complete now and its findings will be published next year.
“This is quite a large survey, and we find that farmers will sit down and take the time to respond in droves,” Dr Kyle Mulrooney said, “in large part because they don’t feel heard and this is an opportunity, I think they see this is an opportunity, to be heard.”