Police commander and low-key philosopher
Michael O’Toole is a police superintendent and one seriously wise Aussie bloke. He’s experienced some traumatic stuff as a cop, but thanks to that he’s got tonnes of humble wisdom to share, from police stories to tips for getting through life.
Okay, let’s get started. So, could you please introduce yourself?
Yep, my name’s Michael O’Toole, I’m a superintendent of police and the police area commander of the Bankstown police area command.
When and where were you born?
Born in North Sydney in 1963.
Now you said you were born in North Sydney. What does someone in North Sydney have any work doing in Bankstown?
Well I was only — I left North Sydney when I was very young, so probably more of a country person. But the question still stands, what’s a country boy doing in Bankstown? Well it’s, um — I’ve worked across the state in a lot of different commands, in the city and rural commands, and as I’ve made my way through the ranks I’ve been presented with more challenges.
And Bankstown is one of those commands that I think benefits from having an experienced commander in the role, so that’s how I ended up here. And I’d say I’m happy to be here, however it’s a diverse command and as I said challenging, but very rewarding place with some good people.
Describe one significant memory from your childhood.
Oh, wow. Gee, that’s a tough one, a significant memory… Well, I suppose just holidays would be it, going on holidays to Terrigal with the family [interrupted by police radio in the background] You’ll have to edit that.
[Laughs] Okay, can you please answer that again for me?
Yeah, going on holidays would be the memory. The family all being together and staying in a caravan at — when it’s like 42 degrees and no air conditioning, so…
In Terrigal. Doesn’t sound like fond memories, but I guess it is now.
Is there a smell, taste, or image that takes you back to your childhood, and could you please describe it for me?
Uh yeah, it would be wattle. The smell of wattle, the national flower. Because it comes out in August every year, and when I was a young fellow it used to always come out around my birthday. So it’s something that reminds me of my birthday and of being young.
Where do you live now?
In Kiama, on the south coast.
Does it feel like home to you?
Kiama does, yeah. Yeah.
What dreams did you have for your future when you were younger, and how achievable did you feel your dreams were? What dreams do you have for your future now?
Well, dreams when I was younger were probably to be a rockstar [laughs]. Uh, whether it’s achievable or not, clearly it wasn’t so that’s why I’m here now. But dreams for the future are to just stay healthy, continue to contribute to policing and to the safety of the community.
Help — I particularly have an interest in domestic violence, so help drive initiatives in that area to make people safer and make families safer. And then after that, try and stay healthy and leave my body in a good enough condition so I enjoy a long retirement.
What does strength mean to you?
Strength. Well, there’s obviously physical strength which just about anyone can — well most people can work on and develop. But strength, obviously there’s a lot more moral strength and ethical strength, and a lot more courage out there seen by people who aren’t necessarily physically strong. So [they’re] two entirely different things.
But strength of character, strength to stand up for what’s right, strength to look after your friends and be honest, it’s um, it’s — there are a lot of demands placed on people to compromise those principles and it’s the easy way out to do that. But I think in the long run that people who do show the right moral courage and strength, and have a set of beliefs that they live by, they might pay the price for it but they’ll get the benefits from sticking to their principles in the long run.
What is the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome?
These are good questions [laughs]. The, um… I don’t know, see I overcome most things pretty easily [laughs]. Not becoming a rockstar I guess, but I have overcome that. Well, no, there are always challenges. There are challenges in — probably take it back to a policing context here, you wanna help as many people as you can but you can only do so much.
And there are challenges about having the community recognise that we are there to try and help them a lot of the time, and sometimes that gets misinterpreted so it can become very frustrating. Particularly when people don’t want to give us information and help themselves out of a situation that we’re convinced we can help them with, because of fear or whatever personal circumstances, or because of their beliefs of what police should and shouldn’t do for them. So they’re things that we have to overcome on a daily basis.
Is there anything in your personal life that has made you committed to pursuing your career as a police officer?
I think it’s just one of those things in your personal life that you — I suppose being one of the bigger kids at school, the little kids would come to me for help when they were in trouble from the bullies. So it was probably just a case of that I grew used to looking after the smaller people. Not smaller but those who found themselves on the rough end of the stick at times.
So they’d come to me for a bit of help, and I enjoy helping people, and that’s probably buffered me into a career in policing. Also the fact that it’s a good job to get out and meet a lot of people, and it’s very unpredictable. I’ve worked in very predictable jobs for about six years before I joined the police, and I couldn’t see a future in watching the sun come up from an office and watching it go down, and then having two days off a week. So it’s very, very different in policing.
Do you enjoy your job?
What is a quality that you love about yourself?
Well, I don’t know… that I’m still here I think [laughs]. The fact is that policing has its challenges and there’ve been a lot of good people who have succumbed to the pressures of policing. So I enjoy the fact I’m here, I enjoy the fact that I’ve good a good strong family behind me.
And as much as I probably did it through luck rather than by design, I’ll still take credit for the fact that I’ve built a good family and I’ve built a good career, so I suppose I like that about myself.
If you have one piece of advice for your younger self, what would that be?
Uh, well, there’s — I could probably make a list of things, but probably be a little smarter with money when you get it when you’re a young person [laughs]. Oh but it is, it would be — as I say, I worked in other jobs before I joined policing and it’s good to get life experience, but I think I would’ve mapped that out a little bit better. Been a little bit more… Had a little bit more design about where I wanted to go rather than leave it just to chance, or to where the next paycheck was going to come from.
So, plan. I would encourage people to try and fit travel into their plans before they get too burdened with the responsibilities of adulthood. So plan to travel, but I’d also tell my younger self to also plan maybe a career a little bit more.
What were the other jobs that you had before you were a police officer?
I was, I worked primarily — so I had a few jobs, but I worked in an abattoir as a young fellow, I used to wash cars. I did manage a band, a rock band at one stage but never made it as a rockstar. But the proper paying jobs were in a bank, as a teller in a bank, and an accounting role in local government.
Do you have any advice for children who would like to pursue a career in policing?
It’s a — as I say, I enjoy the career and it’s a really good career, but it’s not a career for everyone. And it probably goes into that part about planning what you want to do, really have a look at what your strengths and your weaknesses are, what your principles and goals are, and what you want out of a job, and then determine whether policing is for you.
So I’d encourage people to strongly consider it, but it’s not a sort of career that you’d take on lightly. It involves dealing with very difficult people, a whole range of emotional things, some very tragic matters that you have to be quite, um, almost cold about to get through it and put your emotions and feelings to one side to look after other people. When you throw shift work on top of that then it can be a very challenging career.
But it’s also very rewarding in that you do get to help the community, you do go through those range of emotions, you do expose yourself to a great deal of experiences that other people will never see in their lifetime, and make some great friends, the pay’s good and you get some holidays. And the shift work is 12 hour shifts, you still get time off to, um, engage in other activities outside policing. [Police radio announcement interrupts interview].
That was good timing [laughs].
How do young people respond to you as a police officer?
There’s a range of responses from young people. Predominantly they’re happy to see us up to a certain age, and then they start to, um, form opinions about the police, what their role is in society, and whether they’re actually there to help or not.
So the very young are quite happy to see us and enjoy a school visit from us, most of them, but then as I say once they start to have run-ins or hear about their friends having run-ins with the police, the police activities start to impinge upon their freedom and their liberties in that we hold them to account for certain things that they may be doing wrong. And then their opinions sometimes start to change, but a lot of the time they come back as well as they get a little bit older.
What does freedom mean to you, and how do you express your freedom?
Freedom, well, it’s being in charge of your destiny. Freedom is designing a life that allows you to achieve those goals, [that’s what] I think is freedom. It’s one thing to say you can grow your hair long and go live on a commune and not have responsibilities, but I don’t see that as freedom. Freedom is about identifying what your responsibilities are, getting them to be manageable, and allowing yourself time to still engage in pursuits that you enjoy.
What advice can you share with others who may be going through who may be going through a similar experience that you have overcome? How can you help others to recognise their inner strengths?
The best thing you can have in overcoming challenges, I think, are friends. And good, honest friends who are prepared to tell you when you’re right, prepared to tell you when you’re wrong, prepared to support you through the tough times. So people that want to overcome challenges, I think do it by having strong friends — and strong family, of course family will fall into that category as well.
Just have those — surround yourself or have a core group of people that you can turn to to give you honest feedback and help you through tough times. And acknowledge those people when they do it. At the end of the process when you’re happy again, make sure you thank them for their efforts.
Do you guys have any questions that you want to add?
Yep, I have a question. Can I ask a question now?
You said earlier that policing is a great career to get into, but isn’t for everybody. What are some of the personal qualities that maybe are good for policing, or suited for that career path?
Well you have to… you have to be able — you have to want to help people. It’s one thing to — some people, I think, join because they enjoy the power that comes with policing, which is fine to go and exert those powers on the community. But they need to be done from a basis of using your powers for the greater good of society.
So if you want to give out tickets for speeding, as long as you do it because you know that’s going to reduce road trauma then that’s good. If you wanna go and engage with young people and move them on from locations where there’s going to be problems, as long as it’s done for the right reasons, to save them from trouble and to save other people, then that’s good. So people who join and want to use the powers bestowed upon them for the good of society, to save lives, to make life better for people, then that’s a good quality.
But they also need a whole range of other qualities. Resilience, I think a sense of humour is incredibly important in policing, adaptability, communication skills. Probably they will develop a thick skin over time when the people they’re trying to help in the community don’t necessarily appreciate the work that’s being done for them. And so there are a lot of skills that we could probably sit down and get a whole page of them, but they’re ones that spring to mind.
Mhmm, yep. Roseanna, do you have a question?
Um, maybe. What’s one of the hardest things that you’ve had to overcome in terms of being a police officer, with some of the things you have to deal with one a day-to-day basis?
Probably, oh not so much day-to-day, but those tough jobs where they’re just terrible and gory and — not going into too many details, but having to help people through the worst times of their life are things that nearly every police officer has to deal with and overcome. And it just is absolutely — if it doesn’t affect you there’s something wrong with you, if it doesn’t affect you then you shouldn’t be a police officer.
So those things affect police, cos they’re just normal people. We don’t go to a special factory to go and get police, they’re not ready-made somewhere. They come from the community, they come from families, they’re normal people like everyone else who gets thrown into extraordinary situations.
And everyday — they mightn’t do it everyday, but everyday there’s a possibility that they’d be exposed to something which would test the metal of the most hardened person, and they generally overcome that.
Mhmm. Is that it?
Can I ask another question? You also mentioned that you were interested in implementing anti-domestic violence initiatives. Have you seen any kind of changes through those initiatives, or maybe the rate of domestic violence in this community?
Yeah there’s been — in this community in the southwest metropolitan area, there’s been a reduction in repeat victimisation.
Now, we can talk about increases in domestic violence and decreases in domestic violence, but often it’s the case that when there’s an increase in domestic violence it may be as a result of increased confidence to report it. If there’s a reduction then we can’t necessarily always claim that as a success, that’s in raw numbers of domestic violence incidence.
So I think the best measure for domestic violence is repeat victimisation, where the police and other agencies are made aware of a situation, given the opportunity to intervene and bring to bare the resources and tools they have to resolve that situation, and they fail to do so and there’s repeat instances. Those amount of repeat instances have gone down in the southwest metropolitan area, so people are less likely to be a victim again, and again, and again. So that’s one of the good changes that we’ve seen as a result of initiatives, and there’s a whole range of initiatives.
Perpetrator accountability is now an area that we’re focusing on, so we’re not just talking about supporting victims, we’re talking about holding offenders to account. And that might mean — there’s a whole range of things that [it could mean] from locking them up, the ones that just don’t get it and are beyond our ability to change their behaviour, sometimes they need to be arrested and locked away. Right down to those people who just need help with managing conflict in relationships. That conflict which manifests itself in a domestic violence situation. So we’re putting in place programs to change people’s behaviour but also hold those people to account.
And you’re seeing success stories.
Mmhm, yeah. Yeah. Unfortunately, as I say, it’s a hard one to measure. And it’s a very frustrating area because it is — there’s an incredible amount of pressure on victims not to report things, and then, not only just not to report it, but even when they have the courage and the support and the confidence to come and report it, there are elements out there, or there are things that happen, which will sometimes attempt to undermine their ability or desire to continue.
Like the spouse comes back and ‘I’ve changed!’, or they’re made aware of the fact that if they leave they’ll have to go onto other maybe Centrelink payments or move out of the house, or they won’t get access to the kids. So there’s a lot of pressure on people who take that step forward, so it’s up to us and other organisations to help them navigate through that very, very difficult time. But as we work more closely together and get more programs in place, hopefully we can help make that happen.
Yeah that’s a tough one, so hard.
I can’t think of anything right now.
Yeah, me too.
Could I ask one more question, is that alright?
Yeah, that’s what we’re here for. Ask as many as you like.
Um, I guess just for the people who are going to be listening to our podcast and stuff, do you think you could give us a quick description of a day in the life of a police officer? You could start wherever you like.
Yeah well, so let’s say, we’ll make it night shift because that’s probably the more challenging one. So your typical Friday night would be to come in, and get in early because there’s other people waiting to go home and they’ll be staying back and finishing some of their stuff. So you wanna let them concentrate on what they need to finish up. You’ll come in and report for duty, go and put your gun on and check your emails and outstanding things on your worklog as they call it.
So it might be cases or statements that you’ve set reminders that you have to go and look into for that shift. So you’ll set up, you’ll try and plan your shift with the best case scenario in mind that you might get a little bit of time to go and do some of those outstanding jobs. And then you go and get the taser and the OC spray and all the other, you know, the body-worn video and everything else, and attend a briefing and get the intelligence for that shift.
Find out who you’re working with and if you’re out in the truck, hopefully, rather than the station, then you go and team up with your partner and go out and start copying jobs as they call it, when you acknowledge a job over the radio, copy a job on the radio. In this command there’ll probably be about at least half a dozen jobs waiting for you when you get in anyway, and so then it’s a matter of going out and responding to those jobs as need be. Prioritising those jobs, so a neighbour dispute might be dropped back if a domestic comes in, or maybe a little accident comes in or a suspicious person looking in someone’s window. So they get prioritised.
And then they just scurry around and do those jobs as need be, and if there’s a couple of spare moments they might see some people hanging around and stop and talk to them and decide to search them or move them on, or leave them be if that’s the case. And then there’ll be some urgent duty jobs, which kind of wake everyone up a little bit. There might be a person on the premises trying to break into a house 10 kilometres away, so they then have to do a risk assessment as to whether they go with lights and sirens or drive a little bit more slowly, based on the risk to the community and the risk of the job.
And if there’s a person suffering a medical condition and the ambulance are some distance away, they might decide they’ve gotta rush there and go on urgent duty. So that’s why you see them racing around with lights and sirens, which can be, um — as I say it’ll wake them up but there are also risks associated with that. So you rush around, do all the jobs, get all the statements, do everything you need to do to investigate assaults and all the other crimes. And eventually you might get to the neighbour dispute three hours after that came in and people wonder why it took you so long, but you’ve got all those other jobs to do.
And then at some stage, hopefully you fit a quick meal break in, quite often take away because you’ve been too tired to cook something during the day. So you don’t get a healthy meal, you go hit one of the fast food outlets and then eat that while you’re doing paperwork, and then hopefully things will die down about 5am. So you can put all your jobs on the system and finish at 6:30, so it’s pretty — and then the vehicle diary, make sure the trucks are all good and everything, put all the equipment back. And go home, and about two hours later you’re starting to feel like you’ve unwound just enough to get to sleep. So…
[Laughs] That’s a lot.
And then if you don’t cope well with night shift, you get about four hours sleep and then you’re back to work at 6 o’clock that night.
I imagine that there is a lot of, like, unwinding to be done when you clock-off. Cos you can’t just turn your brain off, even though you’re not at work anymore. What are some of the things that you’ve found helped you to mentally clock-off?
I think exercise is the big thing to try — well, try and get all your work done if you can so that you feel like you’ve not got things running through your brain, thinking, prioritising what you need to do next time. But yeah, try and eat well and try and keep fit and, uh, yeah.
But studies show that police get up to that [high] level of alertness during the shift, and because they stay there for so long they just end up staying there, forever. So getting to sleep sometimes… they don’t go up and down like normal people, when people become — if you hear a loud bang and you reach that high level of alertness, police end up being stuck in that whole level of alertness forever. So they don’t necessarily become, like, insomniacs, [they just] don’t necessarily unwind too well.
But, yeah, fitness and being made for the job, being the right fit for the job. So you do say, ‘Well, yeah, I am tired and I’ve pushed myself hard, but I’ve looked after myself and I enjoy the job I do, I enjoy the work I do’, and so you have a sense of achievement which helps you hopefully sleep well at night or during the day. Have I made it sound like a great job yet? [laughs]
Full on, that’s for sure.
It’s a good job.
Right, that’s it! Okay. Then I say thank you. Thank you for that. Thank you for taking part in this interview.
It was my pleasure, thank you.