FOCUS: Master of this one man town

HE isn’t used to the quiet.

The office before this one was a hum of phones ringing, banter, crackling police radio and always the ready-to-spring-into-action tension hanging in the air.

There was another office before that, years ago, where out on patrol as a constable he took a gun from Alphonse Gangitano.

Leading Sen-Constable Aaron Ibbott is more likely to be wrestling with the overgrown lawn out the back of the police station  than underworld gangsters in Tangambalanga, but that’s exactly the way he wants it.

“Tangam” is one of the 103 one-officer police stations in Victoria and as the new cop in town, Sen-Constable Ibbott has one of the most unique jobs in the force.

The isolation weighs heavy when you’re the only copper responding to a serious job and back-up feels hours away, but at the same time when you’re in a town where most people know people, it’s like you’re living in a fishbowl.

“My first job is to get to know the town and the people and get involved,” Sen-Constable Ibbott said.

And that, says his counterpart at the Dederang station about 30 kilometres away, makes all the difference.

Leading Sen-Constable Craig Lee has worked there for six years, living right next door to the station with his family.

“If you don’t answer the door, they’ll pop their head over the fence,” Sen-Constable Lee said.

“There’s a place for technology in the police force but we don’t need the faceless man. We’ve still got to have that person.”

That local knowledge can also be the difference between solving a crime or a cold case, because, despite the quiet of some of the North East’s smallest towns, when crime hits, it can be major and rocks its townspeople beyond that seen in regional centres like Albury-Wodonga and Wangaratta.

Take Whitfield, for example.

It has a population of a few hundred and, for the most part, the most action the picturesque hamlet in the King Valley sees is tourists on too much plonk stumbling from its famous wineries.

But it’s had more than its share of crime and tragedy — there was the 2008 murder at nearby Cheshunt in a deadly confrontation between fruit pickers and last year, there was a stabbing, a fire at the general store that killed its beloved owner and a $21 million cannabis crop found growing underneath grape vines.

“When this place came up, it was a one-in-a-million chance, it’s so sought after because it’s in a beautiful, beautiful location, the people are good and there’s just enough work to keep your interest ticking over,” Whitfield officer Leading Sen-Constable Ben D’Ornay said.

Not that he was expecting to be woken up with a phone call at 6am in August last year, barely a month into the job there, to tell him someone had been stabbed a few hundred metres from the police station.

“You certainly don’t expect it, but I knew who it was straight away,” Sen-Constable D’Ornay said.

The accused was arrested two hours later at a home nearby.

His local knowledge also came in handy recently when a dozen firearms were stolen in a burglary.

“We recovered all of those, every single one, within 24 hours,” Sen-Constable D’Ornay said.

And unlike the regional stations of Wodonga and Wangaratta, coppers tend to hear when they have done a good job.

Sen-Constable D’Ornay caught four P-plate drivers, all mates, all travelling in separate cars and speeding with the first car detected at 148km/h in a 100km/h zone.

“Their parents contacted me to thank me because they needed a good kick up the backside,” he said.

“There’s still a mentality in places like this that the policeman will fix things.

“There’s still a great deal of respect and it’s a real eye-opener for anyone who hasn’t done remote policing.

“They come to you with just about anything and a lot of it is not traditional police work, they seek your opinion and they respect that opinion.”

Though it was covered by nearby stations, Tangambalanga was without its own officer for four months after its former policeman took another position.

“Not a lot happens in Tangam, touch wood, and we’re not in each other’s pockets, but we look out for each other ... when there’s nobody there, it’s a bit disheartening,” general store owner Ros Hughson said.

She welcomed Sen-Constable Ibbott to the town and said the sure-fire way to the town’s heart was to build a rapport with its people and get involved.

“Just be a physical presence and be approachable,” she said.

“It brings peace of mind really, just to know there’s a little bit of security.”

Sen-Constable Ibbott, 42, grew up in Tatura, near Shepparton, on the dairy farm his parents looked after for 45 years.

It was an area policed by one of Northern Victoria’s most well-known small-town officers, Leading Sen-Constable Frank Hogan.

“I don’t even know if Frank would have remembered me, but I’d like to think I have some of the qualities that he had,” he said.

“He was a community-minded person, he was a good bloke and he was liked by a lot of people.”

Sen-Constable Hogan died last year after a long battle with cancer and his death spawned an outpouring of tales from former wayward teenagers who dodged a misspent youth because of his direction.

Sen-Constable Ibbott is a man who has had a packed career — he’s gone from chasing underworld figures to investigating outlaw motorcycle gangs, investigating Asian heroin rings to the water police, the federal police’s assistance mission to the Solomon Islands and investigating the worst road fatalities with the major collision investigation unit.

He moved to the area two years ago in search of the country life with his wife Andrea Ibbott, who has started a human resources business called Border HR.

He expected a quieter life at the Wodonga criminal investigation unit but what he got was one of the busiest CIU’s in the state where serious assaults, aggravated burglaries, arson and armed robberies were not unusual.

But now, Sen-Constable Ibbott thinks he’s found his patch of paradise.

“I really believe I have an affinity with country people and I’m very happy to be working in an area where I’ll be exposed to the kind of people I grew up around,” he said.

Leading Sen-Constable Aaron Ibbott has covered all facets of policing during his career, including chasing underworld figures — but it is at his latest appointment at Tangambalanga, a one-officer police station, that he has found a home and his dream role.