The first step turned into a career

By Ivy Jensen

Senior writer IVY JENSEN caught up with some of Echuca’s frontline policewomen and discovered their roles really have moved to the forefront — but it has been a long and pioneering role.

WHEN BERNADETTE BROOKS joined the Victoria Police 32 years ago, she was automatically a minority player.

She was among a number of women in Victoria joining the ranks, thanks largely to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s which fought hard for equal pay, education and employment opportunities for women in Australia.

And while this was a huge leap forward for equality, Victoria Police were still marching out of step with progress and had a long way to go.

“I was definitely one of very few when I first started,” she said.

“Once upon a time you couldn’t go to the dog squad, you couldn’t go to the homicide squad. And you always had your token female.

“I would say it’s equal now — and I am treated as an equal.”

Leading Senior Constable Brooks started in the new role of youth specialist officer for the Campaspe area in November.

As part of role, Snr Constable Brooks identifies young people at risk of being caught up in the justice system and tries to divert them away from a life of crime.

“There is a great need for it here,” she said.

“That includes bullying and the fact there are 540-ish young people not attending school in the Campaspe area.”

Snr Constable Brooks grew up in country Victoria and worked for the public service in St Kilda Rd, just up the road from the Victoria Police complex, before joining the force.

“They had a big drive and I just went along with someone else to join up,” she said.

“I had no inkling as a child that this is what I wanted to do as a career.”

Training in Oakleigh for 12 months, Snr Constable Brooks started her career as a plain clothes officer in the transit division.

“I dealt with graffiti and worked undercover on the trains and that’s what I liked,” she said.

“That offered a lot of freedom and we could go anywhere in Victoria. It was very busy.”

She then worked in St Kilda before moving to Swan Hill, Cobram and Mooroopna where she stayed for 22 years.

She had her five children there, who are now aged from 14 to 22.

Family is everything to her, so when Victoria Police offered part-time work in about 1998, Snr Constable Brooks jumped at the chance.

“Having that work-life balance was extremely important to me,” she said.

“The reason I went to Mooroopna was because they had no on-call and no night shift, so I could care for the kids.”

More than two decades later and she scored the new position at Echuca.

“In Mooroopna I was dealing with a lot of young kids and when this position came up, I was recommended for it,” she said.

For the past six months, Snr Constable Brooks has been working with at-risk youth as well as local schools; the Navigator program, which aims to help young people aged 12 to 17 at risk of disengagement from school; and local services such as Campaspe Cohuna Local Learning and Employment Network.

What she hopes to achieve is to disrupt that ‘intergenerational feeling of hopelessness’.

“Giving kids the opportunity to break that cycle of poverty, violence and not going to school, the expectation’s there to give them a little bit of hope,” she said.

“The expectation for each individual kid is up to them, not just what their families expect of them.’

And so far, she seems to be making progress.

“The majority of kids are definitely happy to engage. I think sometimes parents’ expectations are what needs to change,” she said.

“Sometimes young people are just dealing with their life and they’re doing it quite well but the parents are sometimes expecting something else. Just be happy with your kids, just be grateful they’re healthy and doing okay.”

Snr Constable Brooks has achieved a lot during her long career but she prefers not to share those war stories.

Rather, she said helping individuals was the most rewarding aspect to her job.

“Making a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “Breaking that cycle and making sure everyone has opportunities.”

Just like the opportunity that presented itself to her all those years ago.

Now she is encouraging more women to join the ranks.

“Females bring a different perspective to policing,” she said.

“It’s a fantastic career, allows flexibility and can offer a great work-life balance.”

Snr Constable Brooks is one of about a dozen women police officers across Campaspe and her views are shared by many of her colleagues.

Senior Constable Bernie Cowley, who has been with Echuca police for 13 years, said women were vital to the police force.

“Women are important because we add an element of de-escalation to a job and that helps our ability to communicate,” she said.

“I think our nurturing nature allows people to trust us and feel safe.”

First Constable Jules Tenace has only been in Echuca for six months, but loves being an essential part of the community.

“Policing is not a male-dominated career anymore,” she said.

“We all bring something different to the job. We all have our own areas that we’re good at. I find myself to be fairly relatable, calm and relaxed and people respond well to that.

“If I am respectful to people, I find I get that back.”

Belinda Vicary has been Echuca police’s administration property officer for the past eight years and while she is not on the front line, her job is just as important and she is treated as such.

“We are all seen as equals here which is great,” she said.