TRADITIONALLY most police don't like working on bikies and for good reason. The gang leaders are usually cunning, ruthless and a little whiffy in the armpit department. The Special Operations Group, on the other hand, always enjoy a good bikie raid as it gives them a chance to use their extremely impressive armoury of boys' toys. Bikies love to fortify their clubhouses with large gates, reinforced doors and state-of-art electronic security. Police have even seen some of them wearing infra-red night goggles while patrolling their compounds. Advertisement: Story continues below Bikies usually need such security to protect themselves from other gangs, but this creates problems when police wish to make unannounced visits. Enter the SOG (both figuratively and literally) with the answer. Once it was as easy as attaching a heavy chain to the gates and gunning the four-wheel-drive. Then they needed an industrial-strength bobcat. Now they think laterally to gain access. Such as when one gang barricaded the doors, the boys-in-black used a small amount of plastic explosives to blow a big new entrance in the side brick wall. And they didn't even charge for the ad-hoc renovation. Once an outlaw motorcycle gang leader spotted a former SOG member in a rare off-duty moment at an inner-suburban pub. The bikie suggested the policeman was not so tough now that he worked in the divisions and no longer had access to his black bag of tricks. He then suggested they continue discussions outside. The result was the bikie woke to find his jacket displaying the club colours had been replaced by a plain hospital gown. And the next man he saw wearing a mask was not a gang brother with a knife coming to his rescue but an orthopaedic surgeon with a hacksaw planning to reset several shattered bones. So what's the big deal with bikies? (And before every ''bad dude'' with a pair of leather pants and a 100cc step-through scooter splutters on his multi-grain cereal, we are talking about outlaw motorcycle gangs.) In Victoria, there are only 700 or so patched members in 24 gangs split into 56 chapters. On pure numbers they would lose a war with Rotary - particularly if the Rotarians were armed with that blue cheese they serve at monthly meetings. The Hells Angels was the first of the major groups to gain a foothold in Australia when a small chapter with 11 members was formed in Melbourne in the early 1970s. By 1977, according to a secret police report, they ''came under attention of the police for possession of amphetamine''. Soon foundation member Peter John Hill travelled to California, where he visited a prison to see a senior Angel who told him how to make speed. For three years, police say, the Melbourne chapter became the biggest amphetamine producers in Australia. From that point, a litany of key bikies have been identified as connected to organised crime and linked to murders, witness intimidation, blackmail, drug manufacture, industrial standover work and firearms trafficking. Then something strange happened. Police, for whatever reason, stopped monitoring the gangs. In recent years bikies have had a disproportionate influence in the underworld and have been able to flout the law with apparent immunity. On club runs they appear to have little regard for road rules and, more disturbingly, the police have done stuff-all to stop them. When your corespondent attended a major bikie funeral a few years back, there was not a policeman to be seen. When the service ended, 400 bikies roared off in procession, with few wearing helmets, giving the impression they were untouchable (and unwashable). Bikie crimes are rarely reported because either the victims are (a) rival gang members who won't talk to police, or (b) members of the public too frightened to make statements. So, without a dedicated outlaw motorcycle gang squad, no one really knew what they were doing. It was an old police trick. If you don't look you don't find the problem, and if you don't find the problem you don't have to respond with expensive investigations. That was until six months ago, when the Echo bikie taskforce was formed. Now the landscape has changed markedly. Police now openly admit that bikies are a potential menace that require active and aggressive investigation. Detective Superintendent Doug Fryer points out that this does not mean harassment, nor does it mean police think most members of bikie groups are up to their hairy armpits in organised crime. (Actually that's not quite right. Many bikies have gone all metrosexual and wax up, so these days they have designer stubble to match their designer drugs.) ''They need to know they will be treated the same as any other group and they must comply with the law,'' Fryer says. Recently the Black Uhlans gang told police they would not be wearing helmets during a major ride following a Geelong funeral. Police gently but firmly pointed out this would be a breach of the traffic code. To back the point, 200 police were assigned for the ride. The bikies wore helmets. ''We now have the numbers to make sure laws will be enforced,'' Fryer says. And these are not empty words. Echo has conducted 50 raids and seized stun guns, rifles, handguns, ballistic vests, stolen bikes, drugs and counter-surveillance gear. And the SOG was able to blast through a triple brick side wall at one club house, which they enjoyed immensely. According to the Echo Taskforce chief, Acting Inspector Chris Murray, the first step is to react quickly to crime ''spot fires'' while developing an intelligence base to target those involved in organised crime. ''We need to actively monitor what is going on so we can investigate serious crime and defuse potential gang wars when there is a build-up in inter-gang rivalry,'' he says. It also, he says, requires a change of attitude within policing to stress that bikies should be treated like anyone else. ''This is not us versus them. So far our approach has been accepted without animosity.'' Not that Echo and the Hells Angels are likely to have a friendly game of croquet any time soon. ''If any of our members are intimidated or threatened there will be consequences,'' he says, adding quickly, ''Within the law.'' This is a welcome change. Not so long ago a detective who worked on a bikies investigation learned a gang member drove his Harley-Davidson to visit the detective's neighbour at his semi-rural property. He asked for the policeman by his first name, to be told he lived next door. No threat was left but the message was clear: ''We know where you live.'' The new approach is already filtering from Echo to rank-and-file police. Just a few weeks ago a group of Comancheros decided they could ride up an emergency lane without consequences. They were pulled over - by a lone uniformed policeman, who was soon backed by Echo investigators. ''We are training all our members, from recruits up, so they can have confidence in dealing with members of outlaw motorcycle gangs because we are here to support them,'' Fryer says. Asset forfeiture laws will also be used. Unemployed bikies with flash cars and investment properties will soon be asked some stern questions. And if illicit funds have been used to build gang clubhouses, they may be seized. The traditional defence of bikies is to launch a PR campaign to suggest they are rough diamonds who have been badly misjudged. While it is true some bikies collect soft toys for sick kids and are kind to small animals, that hardly outweighs removing a rival's big toe with bolt cutters. After all, Judy Moran could make a mean macaroni cheese but that won't get you to heaven if you kill your brother-in-law. According to Assistant Commissioner Graham Ashton, ''Charity bike runs for example are used to create the impression in the community that they are misunderstood motorbike enthusiasts. At the rate Taskforce Echo is currently seizing guns and drugs from these gangs, they are anything but.'' The bikie groups want to present a united front to fight proposed anti-gang laws they claim are biased against them. International corporations know it is vitally important to pick the right ''face'' to promote your image. Nespresso Coffee has George Clooney; Louis Vuitton, Sean Connery; and TAG Heuer, Brad Pitt. The bikies are about to settle on a fellow called Mick MacPherson as their likely spokesman. This is certainly an interesting choice since he has been described as a Finks enforcer who has been questioned over a cocaine importation and, just recently, had the misfortune to be shot in the guts.