December 1 2014
– Detective Sergeant Steve Howard has been in the NSW Police since 1990
If you switch on the TV at night, chances are some sort of police or crime drama will be on.
These programs give a dramatised look at the role of a police detective, as they try to solve baffling crimes and bust hardened crooks.
But is what they show even close to what life as a detective is really like?
Detective Sergeant Steve Howard is the Investigations Manager for the NSW Police’s Lachlan Local Area Command (LAC), based in Parkes in central west NSW.
Sgt Howard joined the police force in 1990, and transferred to Forbes from Sydney in 1995.
His role is to now oversee the management of seven detectives in the Parkes station, as well as to supervise investigations himself in the LAC.
Becoming a detective in NSW is a long and involved process.
After a minimum of two years working in general duties, officers who show an expression of interest spend six months in the detective’s office on a rotation.
From there, they’re assessed, and if the results are positive they face the ‘Bull Ring’ – a selection assessment made by senior police officers. There they are quizzed with scenarios, and tested about their knowledge of charges and the law.
If officers pass the assessment, they go on a waiting list to become a ‘plain clothes officer’ where they work as a detective, but aren’t fully certified. This process lasts a minimum of 12 months.
Successful officers then attend a year-long training course at the Goulburn Police Academy. Once finished, they are fully-designated detectives.
What makes a good detective?
Detectives are the people assigned to investigate some of the most confronting and heinous incidents that happen in our communities.
It’s a job that requires a special set of skills- including an analytical mind and emotional resilience.
“[Having] tenacity is a big thing, [and] being able to overcome a hurdle [are required skills],” he said.
“As police, we have to play by the rules, and we’ve got to abide by the law. A lot of criminals don’t have any of that to deal with- they can lie, cheat, do whatever they like.
“We’ve got to be able to outsmart them. That’s challenging, but when you get a result, it’s very satisfying.”
A day in the life of a detective
As with many parts of NSW, a broad array of crime is perpetrated each day in the Lachlan LAC.
From sexual assaults and suspicious deaths, to car crashes and robberies, Sgt Howard and his team are faced with cases of varying levels of complexity.
“Each day is a different day. You can come into work and might find that you’re at the desk for the entire day doing paperwork and supervisory duties,” said Sgt Howard.
“Other days you can come in [and be out in the field] – like last week, there were a couple of serious motor vehicle accidents, and we were all out there working on those for the entire day.
“Even though each day you think you know what you’re going to be doing, often you aren’t because it takes a different tangent.”
Fact versus fiction
On television, police dramas are some of the highest-rating programs on air.
But do they overly-dramatise what the job of a detective is?
“I physically can’t watch those shows,” said Sgt Howard.
“I find them too frustrating that they’ve actually arrested somebody and they’ve got their DNA back within an hour, and they’ve got these magic things that pixelate all the pictures; it’s quite ridiculous at times.
“There are some good shows out there, [but other ones] are too much, I can’t watch them.”
With a new breed of want-to-be police officers applying for the academy each year, do these police shows give a false sense of what life in the force is like?
“Anybody who’s been here for a short period of time will soon realise that what you see on TV is not how it is in reality,” said Sgt Howard.
“I think anybody that comes in as a general duties police officer will find out what it is like- there’s a lot of time spent on the street, but there’s also a lot of paperwork that we have to do too.”
The detectives in the Lachlan LAC have a large workload, with each officer having up to 10 cases on the go at once.
Sgt Howard said often the public doesn’t understand the limitations of a detective’s job.
“Some of the public expect to get results [like on the TV shows],” he said.
“They expect us to go and get DNA or fingerprints off a crime scene back within a day, and when we say that it could be several weeks, they think, ‘It can happen on TV, so why can’t you guys do it?'”
Challenges and rewards of the job
Having been in the central west for almost 20 years, Sgt Howard said the difference between country and city policing is dramatic.
He said detectives in rural areas are more connected to their community, which adds another level of complexity to investigations.
“When something happens, generally you will often know the victim [or the] offender.
“I like to think that there’s more of a compassionate side to how we do things [out here]. We take crime a bit more personally too,” he said.
“I’ve got a detective that lives in Orange, one in Canowindra, Forbes, and Parkes. We’re all part of the community.”
Sgt Howard said he still finds the job rewarding and plans to remain in the police force for some time to come.
“I like the challenge of what we do. It keeps your mind active and makes your day go pretty quickly; but it’s always satisfying.”
– Robert Virtue