The Australian: Has this former detective cracked it? Dubbo’s Detective Superintendent Peter McKenna

A hard-bitten cop posted to one of NSW’s toughest commands planned to come down hard on youth crime. Then he found another way.

By GREG BEARUP

Dubbo’s Detective Superintendent Peter McKenna with boys from Project Walwaay. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Dubbo’s Detective Superintendent Peter McKenna with boys from Project Walwaay. Picture: Nick Cubbin

Frank “Riverbank” Doolan has seen a lot of things, not all of them good, since he was born “a lotta summers ago, brother” on the old Aborigines Protection Board reserve at Bourke in the far west of NSW. The Wiradjuri elder grew up in an era when the police were a “force by name and nature” and in his youth he had more than his share of “beltings” from the law. Riverbank now lives in Dubbo where he is a much loved and revered figure, respected by black and white, and yet his first inclination when he sees a cop is to brace in fear and search for an escape route. “Blackfellas can sense a copper,” he says.

Late one afternoon, not too long ago, Riverbank was strolling through Dubbo’s CBD, down Church Street near the rotunda, when he saw a group of Aboriginal teenage boys walking towards him from the main drag, Macquarie Street. The boys were laughing and joking. And then a police car came cruising towards them. Riverbank stood in the shadows, observing. “Everyone was on high alert,” he says. “The boys, they was eyein’ the exits, ready to head for the gorge.” He couldn’t see exactly who was driving the police vehicle, “but I could see enough glitter ’n’ shit on his shoulders to know it was one of the seniors.”

All of a sudden a cry went up from the boys. “Hey! McKenna!” They recognised the driver as Detective Superintendent Peter McKenna, the big boss of Dubbo Police. They raced towards the vehicle and reached in, high-fiving and hugging the copper and trying to fit, head and shoulders, in through the window. “They were greetin’ him like a ­long-lost mate and he was doin’ likewise,” says ­Riverbank, who remained in the shadows watching it all unfold with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face. “It was a beautiful moment,” he says. “It was a spontaneous gesture of love and friendship on the part of both parties.” He pauses for a bit, looks at me through moist eyes and says: “Blackfellas don’t care what you know, they just want to know how much you care.”

Dubbo elder Frank "Riverbank" Doolan. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Dubbo elder Frank “Riverbank” Doolan. Picture: Nick Cubbin

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And Riverbank has no doubt that Peter ­McKenna cares. “What he’s done with that police unit is incredible,” he says. “They really get blackfellas. They’re forming meaningful relationships with some of our most vulnerable kids.” ­McKenna’s rapport with the boys is the result of a remarkable youth program in Dubbo, an initiative that ­Riverbank says is the most positive and practical reconciliation program he’s seen in his long life. “I’m a dreamer,” he says. “And one day in this city of Dubbo we’ll see a black police super­intendent, and it’ll be ’cause of this.”

The Wiradjuri elder’s admiration is for a bold and unlikely initiative from a hard-arsed old-school cop. “I come from a detective’s ­background,” McKenna says. “So my whole career had been about bringing offenders to justice and supporting victims, holding people to account and putting them into the criminal justice system.” And then, at the end of 2017, he transferred out west to be the boss at Dubbo, one of the toughest commands in NSW and with one of its highest crime rates, which was his duty to address.

Detective Superintendent Peter McKenna. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Detective Superintendent Peter McKenna. Picture: Nick Cubbin

It deeply troubled McKenna that Aboriginal kids were being charged and jailed at such ­alarmingly high rates. “In 2018, 86 per cent of all charges against kids in this command were against Aboriginal kids… 86 per cent! They’re 14 per cent of the population. It was out of control. Every morning we’d have a briefing and the same kids’ faces would come up. We were arresting these kids, we were putting them before the courts and we were making absolutely no difference to the crime rate. None!”

McKenna came to realise that 90 per cent of juvenile crime was being committed by about 20 out-of-control kids, who seemed destined for a life in and out of jail. He knew most of these kids were experiencing extremely tough childhoods. Some had seen both parents die of overdoses; one had come home to find his mother had killed herself. “It was really troubling me. I thought, ‘Someone really ought to be doing something with these kids’. And then I realised that someone was me.”

McKenna, who’d spent most of his adult life locking up crooks, set up a hand-picked task force with three full-time police and an Aboriginal ­liaison officer “to divert Aboriginal kids away from the criminal justice system”. There was great ­scepticism, not least from some police in Dubbo who dismissively referred to it as the Cuddle Squad. But it has worked. Since the Aboriginal Youth Team set up Project Walwaay in September 2019, Dubbo has seen a 60 per cent reduction in the number of charges against Aboriginal youths. It has significantly reduced the number of black kids being sent to juvenile detention. It’s changed the dynamic between police and the wider Aboriginal community. Could this be a blueprint for policing Aboriginal communities around Australia?

Dubbo Police Supt. Peter McKenna joins the Thursday morning fitness activities for youth at the local PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Dubbo Police Supt. Peter McKenna joins the Thursday morning fitness activities for youth at the local PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin

Peter McKenna had to be gently ­frogmarched down the path to enlightenment, according to long-time Dubbo youth worker Joh Leader. When he arrived at the end of 2017, the police chief was hell-bent on putting a dent in the city’s high rates of crime, and that included charging young offenders and putting them before the courts. Leader has been running programs for Aboriginal kids in Dubbo for a decade and knew that once they were exposed to the juvenile detention system they became even more difficult to deal with – often, it set them up for a life of jail time. “We were doing everything we could to divert kids away from the juvenile justice system,” she says. McKenna’s officers, meanwhile, were busily locking them up. “He was hammering the kids,” she says.

With the help of local community leaders including Riverbank, Leader encouraged McKenna to travel with her to Armidale to see the groundbreaking work being done by Bernie Shakeshaft at BackTrack, a program that had the full support of the Armidale Police, the local council and the community. At the time Leader was in the early stages of setting up a program in Dubbo called LeaderLife, with the support of Shakeshaft. A local farmer had gifted the use of a rundown lime farm and she was taking groups of Aboriginal boys there to teach them farming and ­horticultural skills while restoring the orchard to a profitable business. Leader was a “community hero” finalist at this year’s NSW Women of the Year awards.

In 2006, Bernie Shakeshaft, a former Territory jackaroo, started BackTrack in Armidale, ­working intensively with troubled kids with the aim of building their confidence and coping skills while training them to enter the workforce or return to education. More than 1000 kids have been through the program and it is credited with reducing Armidale’s youth crime rate by 38 per cent and diverting scores of kids from juvenile detention. It led to Shakeshaft being named Australia’s Local Hero at the 2020 Australia Day Awards.

On the drive over to Armidale to meet ­Shakeshaft, Leader told the police superintendent he’d better prepare himself for some emotional ­stories from the kids he would meet. “You know I don’t cry,” McKenna replied. “All my tears dried up years ago.” He spent a couple of days in Armidale and was impressed. He was influenced, too, by what the town’s senior police and the mayor thought of BackTrack. He loved the fact it had led to a huge decrease in juvenile crime. But most of all he was moved by the stories of the kids themselves and the hope they now had for the future. “One day one of the kids was telling him a story about where he’d been and where he wanted to get to in life,” Leader says, “and the big fella had a big tear running down his cheek. He came back to Dubbo and he said, ‘I understand it. I get what you are doing. I will do whatever it takes.’ And that really changed the trajectory of things in Dubbo.”

Dubbo Police Aboriginal Youth Unit officer Lyndsay Kohlet and Snr. Const. Ian Burns at Thursday morning fitness activities for youth at the Dubbo PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Dubbo Police Aboriginal Youth Unit officer Lyndsay Kohlet and Snr. Const. Ian Burns at Thursday morning fitness activities for youth at the Dubbo PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin

“I decided to look at things in a completely ­different way,” McKenna says. “We knew that many of these kids came from highly traumatised backgrounds and had intergenerational issues with drugs, alcohol and poverty, and so we decided to take a completely different approach and look at why they were committing crimes.” He hand-picked a team that included his crime ­prevention officer Senior Constable Ian Burns, his long-time Aboriginal community liaison officer Willie ­Middleton and two other senior constables, Kelly Shields and Lyndsay Kohlet, the latter an ­Aboriginal policewoman who also happened to play left back for the Matildas in the mid-2000s.

“We got everyone together in town who had anything to do with kids – health, education, ­community services, juvenile justice – and had a brainstorming day,” McKenna says. “We knew we couldn’t do this alone. Willie got the elders involved to get their blessing, and they gave us the name Walwaay – which means ‘young man’ in Wiradjuri, even though we also work with girls.” The Walwaay program was approved as part of a push by NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller to steer disengaged young people away from crime and into education, vocational training and employment under an initiative called RISEUP. Fuller says he’s been pushing the 65 PCYCs across NSW to become more active in working with troubled youths. “Then you’ve got people like Pete McKenna who take it to the next level… you can’t train people to care the way he and his staff do.”

The team started slowly building trust with the Aboriginal community and friendships with the kids. They began going out in buses, picking up kids two days a week, and taking them to the PCYC to play touch football, basketball and soccer before giving them a hearty breakfast and sending them off to school. They’ve since opened up the PCYC each Friday night and now up to 180 kids are bussed in, and then home, exhausted but having had a good meal and a fun night. In summer, they open the Dubbo pool at night for the kids. This ­initiative saw Friday nights go from the busiest time for crime in Dubbo to the second-quietest.

And then the Walwaay officers began to work intensively with a group of boys, initially around 20, who were identified as repeat offenders. “Some of these kids were prolific, committing upwards of 40 offences a month,” McKenna says. “Break and enters, stolen cars, steal from motor vehicles.” Team leader Ian Burns says they have worked hard to get to know each of the kids and their individual ­circumstances. Some came to Walwaay because of their bail conditions, but most came willingly.

The Walwaay team take them tenpin bowling. They organise trips to Sydney to see the footy. They know their parents and grandparents. They organise drug and alcohol counselling. They have a touch football team and police play alongside the kids in the local competition. They arrive at their homes if one is arrested, to offer comfort and “to ensure they have the support they need and to understand the ­processes”. They arrange medical appointments if the kids are ill. They’ll take a phone call at 3am if a kid is in trouble. They visit boys in juvenile detention if they mess up – sometimes they are their only visitors. They lobby ­magistrates about bail conditions, advocating for conditions that can practically be met.

These officers have become invested in the outcomes for these troubled kids. They’ve come to understand them and their circumstances. They don’t give up on them, even though they know it’s not always going to work. “You invest so much time and energy and, dare I say it, love with the kids, and then some of them relapse and ­commit crimes and it really breaks your heart,” says Senior Constable Burns. “And it embarrasses you because you’ve invested so much and not everyone is a believer… but I go home, most days, very proud to be a police officer.”

Senior Constable Ian Burns drives kids home after the Friday night PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Senior Constable Ian Burns drives kids home after the Friday night PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin

One afternoon I head out with Burns in the police minibus – it’s touch footy arvo and Burnsie, as everyone calls him, makes his way around the housing commission estates of Dubbo, picking up his gun team of young Aboriginal players. His first passenger is Kyle Daley, 17. Kyle jumps into the bus armed with some big news. A while ago he got a job at Western Plains Windows & Glass, where he’s in a team making window frames. Kyle tells Burnsie he’s just got a promotion to second-in-charge of his ­section. The policeman beams like a proud father. He knows how far Kyle has come.

We sit in the back of the bus chatting as Kyle fiddles with his fancy new footy boots. His dad, he tells me, has never been around much. He went to jail for a bit and then moved to South Australia, apparently to look for work. His mum, however, is a “real hard worker” and has a job at Kmart. He lives with his grandma, his mum and his brother. His is a relatively stable household. Nonetheless, a few years ago Kyle started heading off the rails. He was running with the wrong mob and getting into a lot of trouble. “I was runnin’ amok – break and enters, bein’ abusive to others…” He was told that if he didn’t turn his life around he’d end up in juvenile detention. “They made it pretty clear that I was on my last warning,” he says.

Friday Night PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Friday Night PCYC. Picture: Nick Cubbin

After finding his way into the Walwaay program, Kyle started training a few mornings a week at the PCYC gym. He joined the touch footy team. The Walwaay officers have been helping him clock up his L-plate hours so he can get his driver’s licence. He’s turned his life around. He got a job and now he’s saving to buy his own car. I try to urge him in the direction of buying a second-hand vehicle. He’s dismissive, aiming for a brand new one. “Everything is lookin’ up for me,” he says.

I ask Kyle why he reckons Walwaay works for kids like him. “They just put you ’round heaps of good people,” he says. “They get us back into ­fitness and routines so we can get up for work and stuff. My ­little cousin used to run around with me doin’ bad things, and now he’s got a full-time job too. These guys, they check to see if you are OK and stuff. They see if your family is goin’ well. They care. It’s just unreal.”

Next on the pick-up run is a 16-year-old boy, Jack*, who McKenna told me earlier had been among the most prolific teenage offenders in the city. Jack confirms he’d been arrested “probably over 30 times… breakin’ into houses tryin’ to steal money… I was just a dickhead, back in the day, doin’ dumb shit with the boys”. He’s been in juvenile detention “five, maybe six” times, the longest for three months. He lives with his nan, because Dad is “locked up” and Mum is “gettin’ around somewhere in Dubbo… I see her here and there.”

Jack hasn’t been in trouble with the police since he joined the Walwaay program two years ago, and he now has his sights set on joining the ADF as an infantryman. What do you think of McKenna, I ask. “He’s mad, hey, he’s a real good bloke.” McKenna told me earlier that he distinctly remembered the very first time he met Jack, not long after he’d arrived in Dubbo. The superintendent was walking down the main street in his ­uniform and Jack walked past and called him a “cocksucker”. Now, Jack has McKenna’s mobile number and occasionally calls if he needs a lift; if McKenna isn’t too busy, he’ll oblige.

Of course, the program doesn’t always pan out as well for others as it did for Jack. His younger brother is also in Project Walwaay and is, according to police, “a lovely bright kid”. But then an older man was released from jail and convinced Jack’s younger brother to go on a house-breaking spree with him. The boy is now in juvenile detention. It was a very sad day for the Walwaay team when he was ­sentenced. Yet again, it was discovered that not all of McKenna’s tears had dried up. The boy will go back into the program upon his release.

We arrive at the footy fields, on the flood plains of the Macquarie River. The Walwaay team play a fast and free-flowing game of footy – their ball skills are incredible – but are narrowly defeated by a more experienced side. McKenna, their manager, delivers a pep talk at the end of the game. He too sometimes takes to the field when the team is short of players – and, to the delight of the boys, he has been known to get sent off.

And then, footy and post-game ­analysis over, the boys of Dubbo, who were once the kids most likely to steal your car or break into your house, are driven home by the police, content and exhausted.

Boys hanging out in Dubbo. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Boys hanging out in Dubbo. Picture: Nick Cubbin

Tony Fuller, senior project officer with ­Aboriginal Affairs NSW and a Wiradjuri elder, says the Walwaay program is changing the relation­ship between the town’s Aboriginal community and the police. “In Dubbo it used to be that the cops were on one side and the Kooris on the other,” he says. “That’s the way it always was.”

Back in 2005, on New Year’s Eve, the relationship was at a low ebb when a police car drove into Dubbo’s notorious Gordon Estate in pursuit of a stolen car. When the two detectives went to make an arrest they were set upon by a mob. One ­suffered a broken jaw and the other facial injuries; they were lucky to escape without more ­serious injuries. The unmarked police car and the stolen car were set alight. When they heard that two police had been attacked, scores of officers from throughout the district, and the riot squad, ­surrounded the housing estate. It could have descended into a pitched street battle between the cops and the Aboriginal community. Ten ­people were arrested and it led to the eventual demolition of the troubled estate.

Those were the bad old days, says Fuller, and it now seems unlikely that those ­tensions will return. While I was in Dubbo there were reports in the media about Aboriginal youth crime being out of control in Townsville and another report about violence at Walgett High School, where more than half the teaching ­positions are vacant despite ­millions having been spent on upgrading the school facilities. Fuller says that whenever he reads these sorts of stories he sends a link to ­McKenna. “I say to him, ‘Pete, you should be ­puttin’ on your ­Superman coat and headin’ up to Queensland or to Walgett’.”

Uncle Willie Middleton has been an Aboriginal community liaison officer with the police since 1995. He’s seen various initiatives come and go, with limited success. Why has this one worked? “I think because it starts from the top,” he says. “We still have a lot of problems, you know, but the boss, he’s really gone out on a limb and I’m really glad he did ’cause the change is tremendous. He’s taken three full-time police off the front line to do this and these three police are awesome. They want to make this work. They want to see change. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Dubbo Police Aboriginal Youth Unit Liaison Officer Willie Middleton. Picture: Nick Cubbin
Dubbo Police Aboriginal Youth Unit Liaison Officer Willie Middleton. Picture: Nick Cubbin

Uncle Willie says he has no doubt the program has diverted scores of Aboriginal kids from ending up before the courts and in jail. McKenna says that of the 34 youths that Walwaay has worked with intensively, only 11 have been charged since the program began in September 2019. Of those, four have gone into custody for any length of time. The team stays in touch with each of them while they are locked up, and assists their reintegration when they are released. “When you consider that some of our kids have previously had extensive and prolific criminal histories and have come from the most traumatic of backgrounds and ­circumstances, this is pretty bloody good,” says McKenna proudly. “The fact that many of these young ones would have been ringleaders shows that when we get them to stop committing crime, it has a massive flow on to the others.”

Uncle Willie says McKenna’s leadership and his compassion towards Aboriginal kids has not gone unnoticed by the other 100 police stationed in Dubbo. It has had a dramatic effect on the ­attitude of police towards Dubbo’s Aboriginal ­population.

This works both ways. ­McKenna says that at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, a protest was held in Dubbo to show ­solidarity to the cause. Much of the anger of the movement had been directed towards the police. “I thought I’d better show my face down there,” McKenna says, “as a sign of support and respect for the Aboriginal community of Dubbo.” He had developed great relationships with the ­community and the elders but was still a bit hesitant, not knowing the response he’d get. He walked to the protest in uniform. A group of ­Aboriginal elders came up and hugged him. Others shook his hand and thanked him for ­coming.

That must have been a very proud day for you, I say. “It was,” the big fella says. I ask him if this is the most important work he’s done in his long policing career. He pauses and leans back in his chair. “It’s definitely the most satisfying.”

* Name has been changed for legal reasons

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