– The inexperienced constable first tried to humour the stubborn middle-aged man making a nuisance of himself by blocking the Flinders Street Station steps.
Just five months out of the Police Academy and still on his first posting, Greg Roberts became more assertive and kicked him out three times before knocking off at 3pm.
Twenty minutes later the man walked up behind Senior Constable Norm Curson, who was talking to a newspaper vendor on the station’s steps, and cut his throat.
Roberts returned to the Russell Street police station to see the offender, who was already in custody, cheerfully waving at him from the watchhouse cells.
Curson died within hours, and the man with the knife, James Henry Belsey, was later acquitted of the murder on the grounds of insanity.
It was January 8th, 1974. Now, nearly 40 years later, Roberts is the man assigned to make sure such incidents don’t happen again.
After retiring in 1997 as a Detective Superintendent, he was recruited back to set up the Protective Services Officers’ training program needed to fulfil the state government’s promise to employ 940 PSOs to patrol Melbourne railway stations every night.
Make no mistake, this was an ill-conceived, politically-motivated, vote-grabbing policy made in haste and without proper consultation. It also appears to be working.
Like most career police, Roberts had his doubts about the probable quality of the applicants and the likely effectiveness of the program. At least three times, senior police privately urged the government to reconsider, arguing 500 extra transit police would be more effective than nearly twice the number of PSOs. But the government (particularly the then police minister Peter Ryan) wouldn’t budge.
Surveys showed people were frightened to travel on trains at night and something had to be done. Initially there were concerns the applicants would be the type who shouldn’t be trusted with a sharp stick, let alone with semi-automatic Smith & Wesson pistols, capsicum spray and very hard batons.
Now, Roberts says he is not so much pleasantly surprised as quite shocked at the variety and quality of those who have joined.
The average age of PSO recruits is in the mid 30s and they have come from remarkably wide backgrounds.
“We have a large number with military experience, we have accountants, teachers and some with MBAs,” says Roberts.
One, he says, can speak six languages (we refrain from asking whether late-night drunk, “Can you please direct me to the nearest kebab shop?” Is one of them).
One graduate proves the recruitment net couldn’t be wider.
“He is a 67-year-old, big, strong farmer – a single father with a 17-year-old son. He said he wanted to work for three or four years to out his son through university,” Roberts says.
Their reasons for joining are just as varied. About 20% see it as an apprenticeship to joining the police force and plans are under way for a bridging course so PSOs will gain credits when they make the jump.
Others are looking for a new challenge while some are drawn to the security of a government job when alternative career choices are narrowing.
Darko Benich, 54, who graduated on Friday, has run his own business, worked as a computer programmer and is experienced in the building industry. When his concrete grinding business crumbled and he was looking for a new job, a federal police friend suggested the PSO option. “I ought it could be worthwhile and the course has been great.”
Fellow graduate Jago Jonker worked as a motor mechanic for 28 years. “My career was flat-lining and there was no scope to grow.” He said the desire to try something different drew him to apply to be a PSO.
The students have to pass a 12-week course, concentrating on the law, communications and Operational Safety Tactics Training (OSTT) – including the use of firearms.
If they fall behind they can slip into a following course to catch up ground. Few wash out.
About half have never touched a gun and they are drilled for days on non-negotiable safety measures before they are allowed to fire a shot in the adjacent range. At the back of the academy is the purpose-built PSO centre complete with its own railway station and recently decommissioned railway carriage. Over the loudspeakers a 90-minute tape of Flinders Street Station sounds is played and to add authenticity the carriage has been mildly graffitied.
Scratched into the window is the message, “All PSOs are dicks”. Clearly Hemingway does not work at the police academy.
When we visit, a squad is receiving hands-on training at the station for the first time. An instructor, playing the role of a local crook, is trying to break into the office. The PSOs are broken into pairs to confront the suspect – two at a time.
They are polite with their questions but the argumentative and non-compliant crook produces a knife and approaches. The reaction varies from assertive to slightly confused, and despite being warned to try to keep any offender at least four metres away the suspect quickly gobbles up the ground.
Lead instructor Andrew Walker stresses the need to maintain control and to keep a safe distance from the offender. “Distance is king. Distance gives you time to consider your options.”
They are told to run if needed to keep that vital protective buffer, then turn to re-engage.
Two recruits hard against a fence pull capsicum spray that they threaten to discharge. In the real world it would have been too late.
The group listen and learn. In a few weeks they will be out on patrol – first with transit police and then at a nominated railway station. As of today there are 362 PSOs working at 43 of the biggest stations and certainly there is evidence they are making a difference particularly at the trouble-prone ones.
Police say crime at and around Dandenong, Footscray, Frankston and Broadmeadows is down and, more importantly, there has been no obvious displacement effect.
The youths who would hang out at the stations getting involved in fights, thefts, drugs and criminal damage have lost their meeting place.
In other words the hoods wearing the hoods carrying stolen goods have been kicked into the woods.
In Dandenong, taxi drivers have returned to the railway station rank they had abandoned and in Frankston shopkeepers have thanked PSOs because patrons who once headed home at dusk are now prepared to venture out after dark.
Superintendent John Hendrickson (Transit Safety) says PSOs have impacted on suburban crime. “Criminals use trains and stations as key transport hubs. At one shift at Ringwood and Croydon they apprehended two offenders for theft, two for aggravated burglary and two for armed robbery.
The government says it is on track (please) to recruit the promised 940 PSOs to staff 216 metropolitan stations plus Ballarat, Traralgon and Geelong by November next year.
Your columnist must declare a conflict of interest here. We have a two-slab wager with former police minister Ryan that it won’t – a bet that is looking decidedly shaky. If we lose we shall vigorously shake the boxes so when he opens one it fizzes over him in a revenge plot code-named Ryan’s Slaughter.
The evidence thus far is PSOs enjoy the work (there have been only two resignations), are improving safety (issuing 8390 infringement notices in 10 months) and are welcomed by the public.
The employment package is nothing to sneeze at (unless you work at a draughty station). PSOs earn up to $55,000, usually work close to home, finish with the last train and some work 10-hour, four-day shifts. They also receive nine weeks of annual leave.
The question remains whether the project will be cost-effective when it rolls out to smaller stations in hamlets where the biggest crime involves cheating at Gin Rummy.
Hendrickson says an unexpected by-product of the PSO rollout is they have become a valuable intelligence source for police.
In one case a PSO report led police to raid a house and arrest an offender over drugs, weapons and graffiti offences.
Last week after an assault and robbery at Eastland, PSOs grabbed the suspect within an hour. Identification was hardly a problem as both the crook and the victim were on the platform at the same time.
During their training PSOs are constantly reminded they are law enforcement officers with duties that involve risks and responsibilities.
And if they forget, all they need to do is read the plaque that has been placed on their training platform.
It is dedicated to Norman Curson, the senior constable killed at Flinders Street Station nearly 40 years ago – John Silvester


About Jumpin' Jack Cash

Deep connections are the most important aspect of my existence. I don’t care if people don’t know what they want. I love books. I’m cynical of love stories, although I’m romantic. I adore gardens. I like women who challenge me. I love the rain as an excuse to stay inside and dream. I'm furiously impatient. If I ask you a question best to tell me the truth as I'm likely to already know the answer. I'm a carnivore. I continuously underestimate the magic of fresh flowers in my home. I love warm rain in the summer. My mood elevates to epic proportions when the sun shines. Tell me not to do something and I'll do it twice and take photos. Running is my antidepressant. I loathe lies. I rarely forgive a lie. Loyalty and honesty are my most noble virtues, and I value them more than anything in other people. I love to love, and am able to fall in love very quickly, although it's only ever happened once. I understood myself and fixed myself only after destroying myself. My greatest excitement comes from deliberately getting lost in foreign cities. I can be extremely loud and frighteningly silent. I hate insinuations. I love storms. Justice for all. I'm a proud man, but welcome the influence of the feminine soul. I have two sisters. I’m a dreamer. I’m a deep thinker. Don’t deal with guilt trips or drama that well. I'm extremely stubborn and persistent. I'm brilliant at keeping secrets. I love driving. I become absolutely and completely lost while watching a burning fire. When the toast pops from the toaster I’m never ready and shit myself. I play the guitar, but require much improvement. Solitude and warmth of the sun are perfect together. I’ve been married once and now divorced. I’m a music junkie. Chocolate mousse is the shit. I curse too much. I find it difficult to make friends. I spent four years as a firefighter. I’ve run my own company since 1991. Bright lights, big cities. I’ve been an executive producer of a feature film. Some people don’t care, and that’s the biggest let-down of the human race. There are cures and solutions for many evils, but no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings. The sound of the Italian language being spoken is as good as my favourite music. I hate corrupt cops. I relentlessly and passionately pursue anybody and anything that sets my soul on fire. I'm a dog lover, and all my dogs are considered family members. I have an obsession with photography. I have some close friends who are household names, but shall always remain anonymous. I’m crazy but not lazy. Losing a soulmate has hurt me badly. My two young sons are the nucleus of my universe. I love airports. I love freedom. If you are dishonest or disloyal, I can erase you from my life and memory immediately and permanently. I yearn to explore, dream about and discover as many friendships, deep connections and places, one possibly can in a lifetime.
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