POSTED to the sleepy town of Kyabram, the last thing Senior Constable Shane Roberts expected was to have a gun pointed at his head.
But if there was one thing he’d learned in his six years on the job before the day he stared death in the face, it was to be ready for anything.
Whether it’s a horrific act of family violence, a tragic suicide or a life snuffed out in an instant by a collision, Snr Constable Roberts, like all his fellow officers at Kyabram station, has no idea what tomorrow will bring.
Yet he still willingly chooses to put on his uniform every day, risking his life, but with the knowledge his presence could make a major, often life-changing difference for those in his care.
When asked about the most confronting experience in his 10 years on the job, Snr Constable Roberts doesn’t hesitate to answer.
It was four years ago, a routine night shift in Kyabram, and he was doing the rounds with Leading Senior Constable Brenda Wallis.
They’d been called to a suspicious incident at an Allan St residence.
Hopping out of the truck, they were strapping their vests on when they saw something that made their blood run cold — a .223 rifle sliding out an open window, the barrel pointed straight at them.
The next few moments were a terrifying blur.
Years of training kicked in and both officers dove behind their truck as it was peppered with bullets, the vehicle acting as a shield from the shots that would have easily pierced their protective vests.
‘‘It was a high power gun. If you were a kilometre away you’d still be too close,’’ Snr Constable Roberts recalls.
‘‘That was the only time I’ve pulled out my firearm. But I didn’t shoot. Turns out the man behind the rifle wanted suicide by police and that was how he was going to do it. So he was pretty disappointed when we didn’t fire any shots.
‘‘Afterwards the depth of what had happened sunk in and all the ‘what-ifs’ started hitting me. I had a little boy and wife at home. And I wanted to go home safe.
‘‘I didn’t join the job for these kinds of situations, but at the end of the day it’s all part of it and you’ve got to deal with it when it happens.’’
Snr Constable Roberts’ career in the police force began almost 10 years ago. He was approaching 30 and searching for a career, when his brother, also a police officer, steered him towards the force.
It wasn’t long before the challenge, variety and community focus of the career pulled him in.
Originally from the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Snr Constable Roberts moved to Shepparton for his first posting, working there for four years before moving to Kyabram.
Where he quickly found himself back at the bottom of the food chain.
‘‘The majority of members here are very experienced, some have been upwards of 30 years in the job. So for a while I was the most junior member,’’ he said.
‘‘But I’ve loved working with such experienced officers. They tend to be really calm and the rapport they can build with people is amazing.’’
Snr Constable Roberts admits rural policing has its fair share of pros and cons.
On one hand, there’s added freedom and a broad range of policing experience. On the other hand, there’s long drives and limited resources.
‘‘Here in Ky there might be two police officers at a job, whereas in Melbourne you might get 15 or 20 police turning up to the same sort of operation,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s also not uncommon for us to do 300km in a shift, we cover such big distances. Sometimes we are the only ones available to respond to a job on the other side of Rushworth and it can literally take us an hour to get there just to do the one thing.
‘‘It’s the tyranny of distance. We’d like to be able to get there quicker but we only have a car. We do honestly care and we work with what we’ve got.’’
While police work can be rife with tension and danger, Snr Constable Roberts said it’s often the mundane tasks that make his stomach churn.
Such as the seemingly endless stacks of paperwork waiting at the station and the weariness brought on by shift work.
‘‘I didn’t know what tired was until I started doing shift work. Sometimes the public can struggle to understand why we have a lack of tolerance — that’s usually it. Just a lack of sleep — plus we’ve still got paperwork waiting at the office from the shift before,’’ Snr Constable Roberts said.
But he said these days were far from the worst parts of the job.
He’ll never forget the first fatal he attended.
‘‘It was in my first year. A young guy from Shepparton fell asleep behind the wheel and hit a tree,’’ he said.
‘‘It was just after footy finals and they’d won the grand final. ‘‘He was just a young kid, 19 or 20, he had his whole life ahead of him and then he was gone.’’
After almost a decade on the job and many more fatals, Snr Constable Roberts is all too aware of the fragility of life.
‘‘Each one of those little jobs sits there, but you try not to think about them. If you did I don’t think you’d get out and do this job. It doesn’t ever leave you,’’ he said.
‘‘I’ve had some counselling in my career and I think that’s really helped. They teach you a few strategies to help you put tough experiences aside so they’re not in your thoughts all the time.
‘‘And you need to have something outside of work, whether it’s sport or spending time with friends and family. All that is really healthy.’’
A husband and father of two, Snr Constable Roberts endeavours to keep regular time away with family at the top of his list.
But even that has its challenges.
‘‘We spend a lot of time in this hyper-vigilant state when we’re at work and are always looking around. So suddenly I’ll be on holidays and I’ll be driving and my wife’s going, ‘Why are you looking at everyone?’ I just do it out of habit. But it can sometimes take literally a couple of weeks to stop doing that. And then I come back to work and everyone says, ‘Why are you so relaxed?’’’
Slotting nearly six years on the force before he became a dad, Snr Constable Roberts said everything changed when kids came into the picture.
Regularly encountering innocent children entangled in horrific family violence situations, he said it took all he had not to grab the kids and take them with him.
‘‘They’re so helpless, they don’t have a choice and yet they’re stuck in the middle of it,’’ he said. ‘‘Often they’re similar ages to our kids and they have some of their mannerisms, which can be spooky. And they may not have a great future if this is what they’re exposed to early on. You just wonder how they’re going to turn out.’’
Since his early days in the force, Snr Constable Roberts has witnessed an evolution in the handling of family violence cases.
‘‘We have much more awareness of family violence now and even how we deal with it has changed. There’s more we can do to help with referrals and emergency accommodation if they need it. We take increased action to deal with it now and to try and prevent it from happening again,’’ he said.
‘‘We do our best to get both sides of the story. It can be quite difficult if there’s only two people present, trying to get the straight story from both sides. If I’m with (Leading Senior Constable) Brenda, she’ll speak to the female, I’ll speak to the male and we’ll come back and reassess from there. And it’s not always the male who’s the aggressor. Sometimes it’s the other way around. So you do need to keep an open mind.
‘‘We also keep a close eye on repeat offenders. Often they’ll say, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ And we say, ‘Well no, not really, because you’re the ones who cause us the most work.’’’
The handling of family violence incidents is not all that’s changed throughout the years.
The drug trade has also shifted — although not necessarily for the better.
Whereas marijuana was the prevalent drug 10 years ago, it has gradually been superseded by ice and other methamphetamines.
‘‘With ice, the huge issue is the associated crime such as burglaries and thefts. It’s not a cheap habit and you have to pay for it somehow. It’s not uncommon for people to have in excess of a $1000-a-week habit,’’ Snr Constable Roberts said.
‘‘And ice-affected people can be difficult to reason with. Sometimes their strength can be quite abnormal and their tolerance for pain can make it pretty hard for us to control them.’’
While local officers have deterrents such as guns and (in some cases) Tasers available for tense situations, Snr Constable Roberts said their most powerful tool was just talking to people.
‘‘I’ve been in some pretty tense situations where I haven’t had to use any other options besides just talking them around. Later on you sort of go, wow, glad that worked. It’s part of our training, but it’s also something you learn as you go along,’’ Snr Constable Roberts said.
Above all, Snr Constable Roberts hopes to galvanise trust with Kyabram locals.
‘‘At the end of the day when we take this uniform off, we’re all just normal people. I wasn’t born a police officer by any means. We’re normal people who sometimes have a difficult job to do,’’ he said.