Dedicated to The Job, hook, line and sinker

THE police force is often seen as a giant conveyor belt that spits out robotic men and women trained to respond in exactly the same way to anything they have to confront. The truth is that, for better or worse, our 12,000 coppers are all a little bit different.

THE police force is often seen as a giant conveyor belt that spits out robotic men and women trained to respond in exactly the same way to anything they have to confront. The truth is that, for better or worse, our 12,000 coppers are all a little bit different.

There are those who are timid, lazy, stupid, ill-mannered and, as court records show, bent as boomerangs. And there are others who are dedicated, compassionate, brave and selfless.

There are those who see it as just a job and others who see it as The Job, forcing everything else in their lives to take a number.

Some are filled with ambition and want to be chief commissioner, while others never aspire to high rank and want to do their daily job with as little drama as possible. Rather than carrying a field marshal's baton in their knapsack they are more likely to have a packet of Scotch Fingers secreted in their man-bag for a sneaky morning tea.

It is a job in which people tend to find their own levels.

But if you want to fill the high-profile, pressure cooker positions, you need three things: desire, talent and stamina.

No one makes you join the homicide squad and those who apply need to be top investigators, have an innate ability to empathise with victims' families and have the work ethic of a Yorkshire pit pony.

Most jobs have their own stresses. But think for a moment what it would be like to be a murder investigator.

If you fail to solve a case you will always remember the victim and the family with the gnawing suspicion you have failed those in desperate need.

If you lay charges, your investigation (which may have taken years) will be deconstructed by a legal defence team looking for flaws, real or imagined.

You will be forced to justify split-second decisions made on the fly, often when you are sleep-deprived after days on the road.

For 35 years your correspondent has observed at close quarters these men and women at work and very few could be categorised as spuds.

Their careers usually contain both light and shade. After the unremitting glare of murder investigations they may move back to uniform, where the work remains demanding but the stresses are different.

But there are some who could never bring themselves to head for the shade. One of those is Phil Swindells.

From the time he joined the job in 1976, he gravitated to the hectic stations and the tough jobs, rarely pausing to catch his professional breath.

He was just 19 when he graduated as a self-confessed "naive teenager". After a solid grounding in station policing he became a detective, moving to the busy districts before joining the armed robbery squad for nearly five years when banks were being robbed nearly every working day.

In those days the "Robbers" squad conducted most of their own raids and rarely used the highly trained Special Operations Group. This meant detectives, often fuelled on a diet of beer, cigarettes and adrenaline, would take it in turns to be the first to crash through crooks' doors at dawn.

By today's standards they were reckless cowboys but back then it was part of the deal. "We were running from job to job and we enjoyed apprehending villains with guns," Swindells says.

But it was never a game. Several notorious gunmen bragged they would rather shoot detectives than be arrested.

Swindells returned to the squad as a detective sergeant in 1988, just weeks after Constables Steven Tynan and Damian Eyre were murdered in Walsh Street. Police have always maintained the gang of gunmen who ambushed the two young officers originally planned to kill armed robbery squad detectives as a payback.

Many of those detectives later moved from the furnace to become police instructors or country coppers or chose to leave the job for a quieter life.

Some, like Swindells, could never give up the chase. He moved through the rape and drug squads before transferring to homicide, just as fissures in Melbourne's underworld began to widen.

For years homicide has been structured into investigative crews, each run by a senior sergeant. At any time one team is on call, to be replaced by the next when a job is reported.

This structure worked well, with autonomous and highly motivated units left to work on one case, but the drawback was that in focusing on individual cases it was easier to miss the whole story. As the number of underworld murders grew, police continued to deal with each in isolation, refusing to recognise we were in the midst of a gangland war.

It was only when three crews working on separate murders (Frank Benvenuto, May 2000 Dino Dibra, October 2000 and Paul Kallipolitis, October 2002) realised they were each looking at the one suspect that they saw the links.

That man was Andrew Veniamin, a small-time drug dealer and standover man who had transformed into a prodigious underworld assassin. His time at the top (or the bottom) was brief as he was shot dead by Mick Gatto in a Carlton restaurant in March 2004. Hitmen rarely need to worry about superannuation.

Swindells' crew was assigned the Kallipolitis murder, and within two weeks Swindells became convinced of the need for one dedicated team to take on the underworld.

He wrote a confidential report urging his superiors to set up a taskforce. As a result Purana was formed, with Swindells the first boss. Originally called Rimer, it consisted of a team of just 12.

They quickly realised that the police intelligence section had rusted to the point no one had a real idea of the underworld pecking order. "We didn't have much of a clue about Andrew Veniamin or Carl Williams," Swindells says. So Rimer had to reclaim lost ground, spending months building dossiers on suspects while the murders continued and public pressure mounted.

Eventually it became Victoria's highest-priority investigation under the name Purana, with a strength of 55 and commanded by Detective Inspector Andrew Allen.

But the hunters knew they could also be the hunted. First they were made "invisible", with their names expunged from title records, electoral rolls and VicRoads computers. Then they were taught counter-surveillance methods to minimise the chances of being followed by the men they were investigating.

Slowly they pushed back, building the pressure, cultivating a network of informers, using phone intercepts and listening devices while tracking down the main players' hidden assets.

Purana adopted a deliberate policy of disruption, once arresting the killer known as "the Runner" while he was on the way to his birthday party. Allen and Swindells turned up at the party instead, telling the tattooed and toothless they shouldn't let the ice-cream cake melt as the guest of honour was delayed at another engagement. (Not long after Swindells learnt how that felt, missing his own birthday party when he was called in to follow yet another underworld killing.)

The Runner eventually became an invaluable Purana informer, once requesting from police a giant vanilla slice and a reduced sentence for giving evidence proving that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

Even as the crew built the multi-layered cases, Swindells says many remained convinced Purana would fail. "They said we would never break them. Carl had a favourite saying: 'Those who speak don't know, and those who know don't speak'."

But it was not just a case of trying to catch the gangsters Swindells tried to save them from themselves. He gave evidence in support of altering Lewis Moran's bail conditions because the restrictions made his movements predictable to hitmen. It did no good as Moran was gunned down in The Brunswick Club in March 2004.

With the back of the underworld war broken, Swindells became an Inspector at the Ethical Standards Department, chasing errant police as hard as he once went after gangsters.

In 2008 he transferred to the Geelong area, closer to his coastal home where he could indulge his passion for deep sea fishing in what should have been the rewarding final chapter of his career.

But pressure can't be seen or accurately measured. Sometimes the most solid branches fall well after the storm has passed.

There are some police who play the stress card, going off sick because they are just sick of work. And there are others who refuse to acknowledge their battle with inner demons, choosing to self-medicate with alcohol or, in cases rarely discussed, to take their own lives.

Swindells was one of the smart ones. He saw signs in himself that he was struggling and sought help. "You don't really know until you have been through something like this how tough it can be. I can't tell people who are suffering from stress or depression how important it is to seek outside assistance. The first step is often the hardest to take."

In a few weeks Swindells, 55, will retire to travel with his wife, Helen, enjoy the company of his sons, Jarrad, Trent and Joel, and head out to catch sharks rather than crooks.

After 36 years as a policeman, he has learnt what many of us don't until it is too late. Health is more important than a job even The Job.

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