FAIRNESS has to be the key to everything you do when you are the only copper in town, Mick Balazs says.
“Obviously you have some undesirables in town that you deal with regularly,” the Bridgewater officer says as his police scanner buzzes in the background.
A third of Victoria’s 332 police stations are staffed by just one person. Each of those officers is navigating the sometimes difficult job of both being part of a tightly-woven community and keeping it in line.
“If a bloke is treated poorly you might run into him at the pub or footy oval the next night,” Leading Senior Constable Balazs says.
“If you haven’t treated him fairly, trust me, he is going to let you know.”
Plus, in small country towns word spreads fast.
“If you lose credibility, what have you got?” LSC Balazs asks.
What a country copper hopes for is a community that respects the distinction between police officer and friend. That is what LSC Balazs has had in his 11 years at Bridgewater. It is why he says he has been lucky.
Being stationed at a single person police station is not for everyone, Axedale’s Laurie Mueck says.
“Some guys might work terrifically well at a big station and then find it a little bit overwhelming to be at a smaller one,” he says.
“Sometimes it can feel like you are responsible for everything.”
You might have to figure out how to help an elderly person who can no longer mow their own lawns, or you could get a call from someone asking if you can come out and shoot their injured horse.
“It’s stuff you just don’t get at normal police stations,” LSC Mueck says.
“I’ve known officers – and I’ve done it myself sometimes – to go around and help older people out with their lawns.
“It’s not really police work. It’s community work and someone has got to do it.”
Every station will have its own unique community with its own set of challenges. And every police officer who serves it will react differently.
Some officers will only stay for a few years. They and the community might simply not gel.
A copper might also start feeling isolated.
“Some stations are literally in the middle of nowhere, with not-a-lot happening,” LSC Mueck says.
“If you don’t keep up your levels of self-motivation you can fall into a trap of becoming bored or complacent.”
Before Axedale, LSC Mueck had done a stint at Apsley in the state's far west.
“The nearest major town was over an hour away. I only did that for a couple of years,” LSC Mueck says.
He ended up transferring back to Seymour.
Then LSC Mueck moved to Axedale, where he has been since the end of 2004. The town works for him because it is close to Bendigo and Melbourne.
Besides, the area has a few highways and gathering spots for tourists and locals. Things, in short, that need policing.
Still, Axedale is not as busy as places like Bendigo. That fact is part of the appeal for many officers at one person stations.
“It’s sort of old-fashioned policing. We don’t have the demand that you have at 24-hour police stations where you have a big workload,” LSC Balazs says.
“You can do your community engagement and investigate things properly, I would say. The more involved you are the better, in good policing.”
It is a strategy LSC Balazs and other officers are using to deal with a rise in livestock theft, talking, texting and reaching out on social media to farming contacts across the region.
“I’m asking them to take notice of suspect vehicles, loiterers and things they are noticing when driving around of a night,” he says.
“Rather than them thinking ‘that is a bit odd’ and then driving past, I’ve got them thinking ‘that is a bit odd and I better report that’.”
Those efforts have not lead to any arrests yet, but LSC Balazs says it is all potential evidence in ongoing investigations across the Loddon Shire.
Just about everyone in town has LSC Mueck’s mobile number and some locals will deal only with him.
“It happens at all one member stations. You go on leave and some people will wait those three weeks to report something,” he says.
“A lot of the community becomes reliant on their (police) members.”
“They trust you,” LSC Mueck says.
Have you signed up to the Bendigo Advertiser's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in central Victoria.