A LIFE COPPED SWEET DESPITE SOME BUMPS – Saturday July 13

– it is a scene oft repeated: the father in the passenger seat quietly telling his daughter to slow down while she tells him not to fuss as she is perfectly in control.
The difference is we are travelling at something near warp speed along Springvale Road in a police car on the way to a stabbing in Mulgrave.
The man in the passenger seat is veteran Inspector Kim West while the driver is Detective Senior Constable Alexandra West – it his last operational shift and he has been given permission to share it with his daughter.
After 46 years and two months West is retiring – much to the relief of hundreds of crooks he has arrested, harassed and annoyed since he started as a super fit and slender constable first stationed at Fitzroy.
It was not supposed to be this way. As a teenager he had an interest in photography and had a half-baked plan to become a police photographer.
That disappeared after his first arrest – two women and a man playing an old con known as the badger game.
A woman would talks a unsuspecting fellow to a bedroom for a night of passion, only to be interrupted by an outraged “husband” who would claim the reclining lady in question was his wife.
The victim would be struck and relieved of his wallet. Too embarrassed to call the police he would limply toddle off home.
“I was introduced to the wonderful world of locking up crooks and I never thought of being a photographer again,” West says. Not surprising really as there was a family tradition in policing. His grandfather, Jack Orford, was a policeman sacked with every other cooper over the 1923 police strike. He then went on the stage for J. C. Williamson as an actor and singer.
It must be in the genes – a love of policing and a desire to dominate centre stage.
In May 1967, when West was training at the Police Depot he was known for his running prowess, shaded on daily runs around The Tan only by fellow recruit and St Kilda wingman Stuart Trott.
He may have filled out over the years but he hasn’t slowed down, maintaining his passion for policing until the very last day.
West is a walking contradiction. Loud, abrupt, generous, smart, persuasive and dogmatic, his stories invariably take more detours than a leg of the Tour de France before reaching their conclusion.
It was in the 1970s while working as a barman at Thornbury’s Croxton Park Hotel (the extremely resilient criminal lawyer George Defteros worked as a bouncer in the lounge) that your correspondent realised that West was building a reputation as a local lawman.
At the Island bar at the read of the pub a group of colourful locals were bagging a Northcote copper using expressions not fit for a family newspaper. But even they referred to him as “Mr West”.
And as his reputation and suit size grew, so did the lies. Most crooks out north had a West story although, according to the man himself, many were fabricated.
He remembers arresting a woman who complimented him on his fairness compared with “that bastard West” who had previously locked her up.
The art of crime detection, he says, really centres on the basics. “i was taught to never walk past a crook without talking to him.”
Such a rule thwarted a massive Commonwealth fraud when he spotted two crooks in a car. They fled and he followed, finding them desperately trying to dispose of counterfeit Medicare cards, licences and tax return cheques that were about to flood the market.
At one time West worked for your correspondent’s father (then Northcote’s detective senior sergeant) and we recall him saying of the young policeman: “He will win a valour award or end up sacked. Or both.”
He wasn’t quite right. West ended up with 14 police commendations and an Order of Australia for services to the community. And while he drove some of his bosses to distraction he left on his own terms. “You know when your time is up.”
It is easy to think of West as an old-school hardliner but he is a closet progressive, believing in helping young people before they become offenders.
Over the years he has raised millions for the junior drug and health Life Education programs knowing that prevention is better than a cure. He is now a life member.
We recall attending one function on a filthy hot day when he shoehorned a ridiculous number of friends and associates into a giant suburban Chinese restaurant for a fund-raiser. He preached the importance of a healthy lifestyle while we ingested vast quantities of fried dim sims and shrimp balls accompanied by a cheeky merlot.
West spent most of his career at the sharp end, including stints at the drug, tactical response and sex crimes squads. He was also in charge of the Cold Case Taskforce, which resulted in solving two homicides originally considered to be missing persons cases.
They also tracked hundreds of people declared missing decades earlier. “In one case we found a woman who went missing as a teenager. She was married with her own children. She didn’t want to see her parents, but at least we could tell them she was safe.”
No one gets through more than four decades of policing without scars. Every day he thinks of how he told a young policeman to ignore a night-shift barbecue to hunt a local armed robber.
They found their man, who turned his gun on the junior policeman (she survived). “It should have been me. I was responsible for him,” West says.
But it is the cases of children he can’t forget.
Some stories end happily, such as the kidnapping of a four-year-old girl from her own home. They were able to rescue her and arrest the three offenders. The investigating team still stay in touch with the family. “In kidnapping, rape and homicide cases there is usually a bond between the police, the victims and their families,” he says.
And then there are the tragic cases that still haunt. There was an accident on Christmas Eve – a van was hit side-on right in front of West. He ran to the driver and was initially relieved to see he wasn’t badly hurt.
The injured man asked the policeman to check the back of the van for his son. “I rolled him over and he was in three pieces.”
He finished his shift and headed straight to midnight Mass. “I stood at the back of the church nursing our four-month-old daughter [the same one sharing his last shift] and I thought, ‘How am I supposed to be normal?'”
One reason he managed to last the distance was he learnt something early in his career that many never grasped.
He saw burnt-out old detectives, men who watched the clock, drank at the Police Club and hated the world. And yet he heard stories of how they were elite crook catchers when they were younger. West saw that the world had closed in on them and they now only associated with fellow police.
So he searched for a hobby, something that would take him away from policing.
Around that time a fellow policeman gave him a glass of red wine, which he liked. Previously he was guilty of using Pink Star Wine to woo his girlfriend and now wife, Ann.
He read voraciously, tasted wines, did courses and talked to winemakers. He is now considered an Australian expert who writes and broadcasts on matters vinous while routinely winning blind tasting competitions. (Some say it is work/life balance. Others say it is getting on the gas.)
But policing always came first. Which is why he missed the birth of his only daughter, because he was kicking in a door looking for a fugitive.
Now that daughter is driving the police car as we swerve around and head to the Mulgrave crime scene.
Alex West has been in the job for 11 years, a career move that her father did not immediately embrace.
“I didn’t want her to see the things I had seen but we [the parents] knew she had to live her own life,” he says.
When she confessed she wanted to join, he said he would connect her with the right people in the recruiting department. She replied: “I start on Monday.”
“She had sat the exams, done the interviews and the fitness tests before she told us. She wanted to make her own way – and she has,” he says.
Ironically she started at Fitzroy, just like her father. At first she felt an outsider until during a patrol she was confronted by two drug addicts shooting up. One ran and “I took off after him. I did everything I shouldn’t have [not waiting for back-up], caught him and then sat on him until help arrived.” At Fitzroy she was immediately dubbed Mighty Mouse and “they stopped treating me like a kid”.
For a while she would not admit she was Kim’s daughter, not because she was ashamed but because she wanted to make her own way. She has since built her own reputation as a specialist investigator at the sex crimes squad.
“These days she’s not Kim West’s daughter, I am Alex West’s father. I am extremely proud of my little girl,” he says.
And the Mulgrave stabbing? A poor disturbed woman wandering over to the next street wanted to stab someone over a real or imagined slight.
She is handcuffed in her front yard, surrounded by cats and chatting amicably to the police who are waiting to have her medically assessed.
West strolls into the yard to talk to the police who were first at the scene.
“The thing about policing is it is the least experienced members who have to make the toughest decisions.
“The kids in the divvy van are the first there and they may run into a $5 shoplifter or the crime of the century.
“They have to make a decision in a split second that others may spend years analysing.” – John Silvester

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About Jumpin' Jack Cash

Crimewave2014@gmail.com
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