While there is no policing in her background, as a child she developed a desire to learn, a keen interest in justice and first-hand knowledge of how to overcome adversity. Her mother, Mary, was a primary school teacher with a natural curiosity.
Her father Frank was to have become a Trentham potato farmer but was struck by polio as an infant. Incapacitated, he studied law and became a respected County Court judge, which means he went from a life planting potatoes into paddocks to planting spuds into prison.
There are hundreds of different jobs in policing and not everyone is cut out to work in the crime department. The cases are traumatic, the cost to victims can be shattering and the demands unrelenting. Mobile phones mean too many detectives simply don’t allow themselves a break from a case.
‘‘You lose a bit of yourself working on the worst of the worst,’’ Tess Walsh says.
But for those who investigate the dark cases to catch serious crooks there is a unique sense of satisfaction: ‘‘There is a joy in justice. There is nothing like arresting someone for a heinous crime and holding them to account.’’
She had only four years’ experience when, in 1991, she was seconded to the Spectrum Taskforce, the group that investigated a series of schoolgirl abductions that culminated in the murder of 13-year-old Karmein Chan. She worked with some of the best detectives in the state, yet the killer was not caught. It still rankles: ‘‘We will revisit that and other unsolved cases.’’
The Crime Department once housed the rock stars of policing – the ones we would see on the TV news at murder scenes or walking out of robbed banks wearing short-sleeved shirts, shoulder holsters and concerned frowns. This was reflected in this small verse I once wrote about Homicide Headliners (with apologies to Carly Simon and “You’re So Vain”):
You walked into the crime scene, Squad tie in a Windsor knot, Your hat strategically dipped below one eye, You were eating a dried apricot, You had one eye on the camera, As you declared the wound a garrotte, And all the “Ds” dreamed that they’d be your partner, They’d be your partner …
Today they are more low key and many of their cases don’t hit the headlines. Walsh says the priority is prevention, disruption and deterrence – trying to stop a crime before it happens.
In the swish new police building in Spencer Street is a Major Incident Room, designed to deal with terrorist attacks, mass shootings and similar crime catastrophes. Just about every week it is staffed by Armed Crime detectives who run operations into undeclared kidnappings. Usually it involves a drug syndicate chasing a debt where the defaulter is offered the choice of a payment plan or a torture plan. Often the victim is returned bashed, shot and occasionally short of a toe, but refuses to make a statement to police.
Other cases involve family violence and these types of real-time investigations save lives, such as when police rescued a bound and gagged woman while the offender was digging her grave.
There are new technology crimes that beggar belief. Young international students have been victims of what is called ‘‘virtual kidnapping’’ – a terrifying international scam. Walsh explains that a student is contacted by what appears to be a mainline government agency and told they have breached national law and are under house arrest. They are told they must imprison themselves until authorities arrive and are persuaded to tie themselves up and provide photographic proof. The picture is then sent to the victim’s family with a ransom demand.
Hackers remain a threat, with police phone systems knocked out not by organised crime but by bored nerds. ‘‘We are considering having a cyber Hackathon and employing hackers to learn more.’’
Then there is the continuing underworld arms race. ‘‘Most of our young offenders now carry firearms,’’ Walsh says. There have been 46 non-fatal shootings this year, or more than one a week.
While the homicide rate in Victoria remains low, some believe it is actually due to improved emergency medical treatment, with at least a dozen of the recent shooting victims lucky to still be alive.
Police say old-style gangsters were just as ruthless but not as reckless. It they had to shoot someone it would be over a long-running feud or when less violent alternatives had failed. Now, they say, guns are drawn at the slightest confrontation.
Crooks, like everyone, are embracing the latest devices to make life easy. One young man developed a business model based on an Uber-style delivery system. The customers were given an encrypted communication app and they could order substantial quantities of drugs for delivery. There were more than a dozen young drivers, all armed, available to service the demand throughout Melbourne.
Sometimes, though, fat fingers foil smart plans. There was a bushie at the back of Lakes Entrance who kept getting a text message that the ‘‘gear was ready for pick-up’’. He spoke to a local cop who discovered the message was being sent to the wrong number and from a phone owned by a convicted Perth drug dealer who was duly picked up himself.
So where do the crooks get their guns? The Crime Department is about to launch an investigation to try and track the flow of weapons. Some are ordered through the Dark Web while many are legal guns stolen locally. ‘‘There have been thousands of firearms stolen in country Victoria and we have seized very few of them,’’ Walsh says.
The Crime Department is now split into six arms: Support, Intelligence, Serious Crime (homicide, cold case, sex offences etc), Finance and Cyber Crime, Anti-Gangs, and Organised Crime.
There is a growing trend to track not just the crime but the criminal because the major players do not specialise. The serious organised crime figure may traffic large quantities of drugs, organise extortions, order murders and launder the money.
There is an agreed list of Australia-wide targets, with law enforcement agencies sharing information of their activities. Some who have become aware they are under the spotlight have chosen to leave Australia but Walsh says they still have the capacity to run their syndicates from offshore.
Where crime used to be local, with suburban police knowing their crooks, increasingly it is national and international, such as the syndicate boss in Britain who used US hitmen to abduct and murder a man in an eastern suburb over a debt initiated in Asia. Or the Melbourne-based bikie gang, connected to the US mother chapter, that recruits Pacific Islanders as muscle, sources its drugs from South America and Asia, then launders its money through the Middle East.
Walsh knows that while her detectives go after the big fish there will always be others because we are prepared to buy massive amounts of illicit drugs at wildly inflated prices. ‘‘Meth[amphetamine] is a massive issue. There was a seizure of 1.7 tonnes destined for Melbourne and there was no change to the waste water monitoring levels [the intelligence system that accurately identifies drug use through sewage samples].’’
Long ago police embraced new technology, tracking offenders through bugged phones, texts, emails, phone tower pings and CCTV. But some older police say the younger ones are better at using a computer screen than old-school detection.
After all, state police were only granted the power to (legally) tap telephones 30 years ago. As today’s crooks are using the Dark Web and encrypted systems, the very old skills of the detective, dealing with crooks, and getting the inside mail are back in vogue.
For the Assistant Commissioner there is a balance. She needs detectives who are experts in the field, but how long can they stay on the front line without suffering long-term damage? Sometimes, she says, there is a need to rotate people who are still performing well and don’t want to move. ‘‘Mental health is a serious challenge,’’ she says.
As Walsh talks you can feel her enthusiasm as she plans to embrace technology to attack new-age crooks without losing the specialist skills needed to take on serious crime: ‘‘What will never change is sitting there talking to suspects and getting them to confess to save the victims and witnesses the trauma of trial.’’
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.
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