Policing a two-way street with community

By Cobram Courier

He has been shot at, up so close and personal it burst an eardrum.

And he has had his own gun out, more than once, but never had to fire it on active duty.

A police officer for more than half his life, and the son of a police officer, it was inevitable Paul Huggett would choose to become part of the thin blue line.

After 25 years on the job, Inspector Huggett has ridden into Moama after being appointed officer in charge of the Murray River Police District western sectors.

It follows 2017’s formation of regional NSW police districts, when Deniliquin Local Area Command, which covered Moama and Mathoura, was merged with Albury to become the Murray River Police District.

In his patch Insp Huggett has nine stations, including Moama, Mathoura, Moulamein, Barham, Tocumwal, Finley, Jerilderie, Berrigan and Barooga.

And he also has strong opinions about what not only makes police more effective but what achieves the results everyone wants.

‘‘I’m an absolute firm believer that a police force is only as good as the community it serves,’’ he said.

The community, Insp Huggett is adamant, solves crime.

Unfortunately, that same community also tolerates too much of it.

In his new role, Insp Huggett said he was determined to reduce crime and the perception of crime. And do it with the community’s help.

When it comes to policing Moama and Mathoura, Insp Huggett said thefts continued to be the most prevalent crime.

But better managing it was perhaps the most obvious — and simple — solution.

‘‘The majority of thefts are opportunistic. They’re from unlocked cars, people are still leaving their wallets on the dashboard,’’ he said.

‘‘We need the community to take a bit more ownership of their security and lock their houses, car doors and roller doors.’’

It’s simple, but so effective.

That community has yet another role, indeed responsibility — to not only take steps to prevent crime, but also to report it.

‘‘If the community is not going to come forward with statements, if the community is not going to ring through and provide evidence to Crime Stoppers or the local police, or take steps to secure themselves and property, it lessens the effect of the police force,” Insp Huggett said.

The same goes for drug crime.

And although Insp Huggett doesn’t believe our drug problem is any worse than other towns, it remains a serious concern for police.

He has seen the devastating impact drugs, particularly ice, can have on a community.

‘‘I see how prevalent it is and how it affects the whole of community, from families to grandparents, to the neighbours, to the community who raises a child, not just the single family unit,’’ he said.

‘‘If someone is on ice, it has a whole-of-community effect, from health to employment to crime to belligerence, to the perception of crime.’’

Insp Huggett said ice was not just a police or health issue, but a community issue.

‘‘There’s drugs in every community and if the community condones that, it will continue to happen,’’ he said.

‘‘If the community doesn’t condone that and continues to report suspicious behaviour — for example, 10 cars went to Jo Blog’s house and stayed there for a minute — that allows us to build a brief and apply for a search warrant, which we often do.

‘‘But you can’t arrest your way out of an ice problem. You can’t arrest your way out of an unemployment problem, or out of anything.

‘‘It’s a whole-of-community approach. That’s why I continually come back to a police force being only as good as the community it serves.”

Insp Huggett should know what he’s talking about — he has been in the game now for 25 years.

He joined the NSW Police in 1993 at the age of 20.

‘‘It (joining the police) was always where I was headed,’’ he said.

He grew up in Sydney, which was where he was posted when he graduated from the academy.

‘‘It was great fun. It was a ball. It was a different era of policing, of course,’’ he said.

But he left there ‘‘fairly smartly’’, heading to Gilgandra before bouncing around the bush for the rest of his service.

In his new job that will seem like a pleasant Sunday drive.

With his scattered command it means travelling to all his stations every two weeks as a matter of routine, more often as needs demand.

‘‘It’s a fair area but it’s certainly achievable,’’ Insp Huggett said.

‘‘Distance is always going to be a big challenge ... but I’ve got good staff and good sergeants who are on top of their game.

‘‘It’s just about getting around to them and making sure they’re running efficiently and doing their job.

‘‘It’s about empowering them all, the sergeants and the officers-in-charge of your smaller stations, to police their towns as they see fit.’’

But if they need advice, they are going to be asking the right man.

During his career Insp Huggett has been a weapons trainer and worked in tactical teams.

It has seen him in the thick of some pretty high-risk situations.

‘‘Apart from that shooting, I’ve been in plenty of wrestles and scuffles,’’ he said.

However, when asked if that was the worst part of his job, Insp Huggett did not hesitate.

‘‘No, no it’s not,’’ he said, his voice lowering.

‘‘Seeing people when they’re down. Delivering that death message to a family after a car crash — you just have to do it. I’ve done it over and over. You just have to go into autopilot and deliver the news as compassionately and supportively as you can.’’

But the worst cases were the ones involving children or animals.

The most recent was last year’s tragedy in Moama, with a mother accused of murdering her five-year-old son by drowning him in the Murray River, and the attempted murder of his nine-year-old brother.

It is something Insp Huggett and his colleagues will never forget.

‘‘That had a significant impact on everyone,’’ he said.

He was also part of the investigation into the Wagga Wagga murder-suicide in April 2012, when a father killed his son before killing himself.

And then there’s having to deal with road trauma as first responders to car crashes involving children.

It is something this father-of-three has seen far too often.

‘‘When you’re a parent yourself, it hits home, especially when you’ve got a young, dead child who’s wearing the same pyjamas as one of your children,’’ he said.

Dealing with such intense trauma can break even the toughest of first responders.

And Insp Huggett knows that — the skyrocketing statistics of post-traumatic stress disorder among emergency services workers don’t lie.

A police officer’s death in Wagga Wagga just weeks ago is being investigated.

‘‘You can only turn to the welfare and support services that are available,’’ Insp Huggett said.

‘‘I’ve used it and I’m open with my staff that I’ve used it and found it beneficial. We are becoming a society that’s more in touch with our emotions and feelings and are you okay and reaching out.

‘‘I think it is being used and it’s an essential tool.

‘‘Fitness, black humour and having down time are very important, too.’’

And while there are some terrible parts to the job, the rewards are enriching and uplifting.

‘‘I like the sense of community and getting out into the community,’’ Insp Huggett said.

‘‘It’s about being part of the solution to a community problem.

‘‘It’s a whole-of-community issue.’’

It’s the community relationships that he particularly wants to build on as part of his new role.

‘‘I’m trying to reach out to as many community groups as possible, from the Girl Guides to the Soroptimists, Rotary, schools, any community group that I can touch base with and build on the already positive relationships we’ve got,’’ Insp Huggett said.

‘‘It’s also about changing that community perception that the police aren’t the Big Brother of society. We need evidence to be able to prove offences beyond a reasonable doubt.

‘‘At community meetings, people continually say things like ‘last Thursday Billy was revving his engine at 2am and police did nothing’. And I say ‘well, did you ring police?’ And they say ‘I didn’t know I could’.

‘‘Police get paid to drive up and down your street as equally as they get paid to drive up and down that street.

‘‘We need all crime reported, from a stolen tap fitting to major crime, because it’s all intelligence-based tasking, so we need to know what’s happening, when it’s happening and why it’s happening to roster and task our police effectively.’’

Although he wouldn’t comment on police numbers locally, Insp Huggett said the region was sufficiently resourced.

‘‘We’d all like to see more police everywhere within the community,’’ he said.

‘‘But I’ve got every faith in the police to do their job.’’

It was now up to the community to do the same, he said.

‘‘People need to take more ownership of their own safety and security, be more situationally aware, lock their car and not leave their valuables in plain sight,’’ he said.

‘‘If they see something, report it to police, even if it’s anonymously via Crime Stoppers. Enough reports allows us to build a brief on Joe Blow to apply for the search warrant to get in the house or to arrest them or to put it on Facebook as a wanted person.

‘‘We might not be able to get them to court in every instance, but we can disrupt their activities.

‘‘The community solves crime, the community tolerates crime.’’

●To get in touch with Insp Huggett, email him at