THE BEAT GOES ON ... BUT IT’S A VERY DIFFERENT RHYTHM OF LIFE IN LAUNCESTON TODAY FROM THAT WHICH GREETED JUNIOR CONSTABLE STEPHEN HORTLE WHEN HE FIRST PATROLLED THE STREETS IN 1967.
Drunken behaviour, the odd fight when pubs closed as the GPO clock struck 10pm and minor theft were the most common crimes. By 11pm the streets were usually empty and quiet.
He recalls with a wry smile that he went for nearly two years on the beat without hearing any indecent language, until “one night outside the Hotel Tassie (in Charles St) this guy in a suit shouted four-letter obscenities at me. I said: ‘You’re coming with me,’ and he was fined $10 for swearing,” Steve says. “I was shocked as I would have sworn that Launceston people didn’t swear ... It turned out though, that that bloke was from Hobart, so I can still say that in my day Launceston people didn’t swear in public.”
When Stephen returned to uniform in the ‘80s after seven years in the drug squad he recalls two or three nights could pass without a call-out from the radio room. He said there were few reports of theft or domestic violence.
These days as the Northern Districts Support Inspector of Police Tasmania and in command of 18 sections and 79 officers, Stephen can look over any seven days of call and see that the patrol officers haven’t had a breather. “Early in
the week it’s busy, but Friday, Saturday and Sunday there is no break between reports of burglaries, minor assault, noisy neighbours, domestic violence, and tragically, sometimes murder.”
“In my day on the streets it would be one police officer on patrol, although in theory it should have been four, and we had no radios. We had one phone box in Brisbane St where we could call the station for help or we had to rely on a passing motorist to get word out that assistance was required. These days police have to be in pairs, they all have radios and/or mobile phones, and we try to have six constables on duty at any one time; there’s the added support when circumstances dictate for help from officers at Newham, two or three officers in traffic and on-duty CIB.
“There’s more support, but there’s also more crime.”
Stephen is pleased that Launceston no longer lays claim being the murder capital of the world per capita as it did 30 years ago. Given the high-tech archival retrieval systems and crime management units now in place across Australia, catching criminals and targeting problem crimes and crime ‘hot-spots’ have become easier. He cites domestic violence as the area for most concern. That’s not to say
that there is more incidence of domestic violence, it’s just that more people are reporting it given the pro-arrest policy and advertisements encouraging people to report such crimes.
A Victim Safety Response Team, comprising five officers, has been introduced and Stephen, at the time of this interview, was confident it would see more offenders being put before the courts. “The tragic thing about domestic violence is that it is the number one cause of the murder of young children and a significant number of males committing suicide in the community. It’s frustrating not being able to act in time sometimes, but this team not only helps the victim but also visits the alleged offender to offer words of caution not to get involved again. We’re trying to get across the idea that the police are here to help both parties to avoid further domestic altercations that could lead to worse outcomes.”
Other areas under his watch include traffic, prosecution, forensics, crime management, accident investigation, licensing, coroners’ office, District Youth Services and Freedom of Information as well as the Police Citizens’ Youth Club at Newstead. PCYC, sadly, is perhaps the loser in such a big portfolio that demands
so much attention to administration. “I don’t get out there as often as I would like, and yet the kids love to have the police visit and talk through their roles and get involved in their activities.”
Stephen understands only too well what a difference it makes when the community
people and I’m sure that’s helped me over the years; especially in the drug squad where the public would ring up and leave a message for the bloke in there that plays football to contact them. Growing up at Prospect and going to Launceston High also meant I knew the town and how it worked.”
anywhere in the north of the State and cover all sorts of different crimes.”
What it didn’t prepare him for, however, was the murder of his only child in 1999.
Nathan Hortle, 24, went to help a mate in a domestic matter at Perth. Unarmed, and standing under a house light, he
better understands the policing role or knows the local police officer. His early days on street patrol were made easier because his was a recognisable face among the crowd.
A footy career, which started with the City South under-19s in 1967 after he couldn’t get clearance to play for Longford, saw the full-back tackle his way to State Premiership glory in 1972 and 1974.
“Launceston loved its football and playing footy made me known to its
So what is it that has kept Stephen in the police force for nearly 40 years and has seen him reject retirement when it was offered in September 2005?
“The great thing about policing is that your day can change at any second. In CIB, for example, the worst thing you could ever do is plan the next day’s work. There’s that element of danger and anything can happen at any hour, but the sense of satisfaction when a crime is solved and charges can be laid is enormous. When in CIB or the drug squad my working day could take me to Flinders Island, Ross ...
was shot in the stomach with a 12- gauge shotgun.
“He shouldn’t have gone there, been there, but no-one expects to be told their child has been murdered,” Stephen says. His voice wavers and eyes brim full with emotion and anger that’s still raw despite the six years’ time lapse.
Stephen was a detective inspector at the time, working in Burnie, but he had to take stress leave and only briefly returned to the North-West, accepting a transfer to George Town on his return two months later.
The great thing about policing is that your day can change at any second.
“It’s a cruel irony for a police officer to have to deal with murder in his own family,” Stephen says. “This career hardens you, you learn from the older sergeants and listen, but nothing can steel you for such news as death. The hardest job is to tell loved ones that someone has died.”
His personal tragedy convinced him of the benefits of counselling within the force. “It’s certainly not looked at as a sign of weakness to need to talk things through,” he says. Without the support of his wife Pauline and many friends and family he is unsure how he would have coped.
Nathan’s killer, for the record, received a 16-year jail sentence.
Stephen rates armed robbery and rape as the most detestable crimes. “The sort of people who commit those crimes are cowards – it’s easy if you’re holding a weapon against a defenceless person.”
He cites the conviction of a father-and-son drug racket at Longford as one of his best moments in policing.
He had arrived in the drug squad in 1976 only to be told by everyone from the outset that ‘you won’t get the man from Longford’. “It took a long time, but we did,” he says, a smile in well-earned self-satisfaction clearly evident. “The intrigue and elusiveness of a result in such a long case makes you more determined.”
Policing is a job that has seen Stephen mix in all sections of the community from “the low end of the scale through to the Governor of the day”. A wall of his office
is decorated with certificates of high commendation. Some are for results in serious crime investigation. One of the more recent is for excellence in organising skills for the Rugby World Cup match played at York Park on October 30, 2003.
“That was a security operation on a huge scale that saw 20 members of the defence forces, from the mainland in town for weeks assessing the ‘what if’ scenarios, and I had 129 police officers assigned to duty during the 24 hours leading up to and including the match. No threats were received, nor were there throughout the entire rugby programme on the mainland. All we had was one pitch invader, unfortunately, which tarnished an otherwise perfect result. Whatever you plan for, you can’t stop some people making idiots of themselves,” he says of the streaker, who braved that chilly October night.
The rugby was also the operation that set the ground rules for security for all AFL matches played since at Aurora Stadium (previously known as York Park).
Forty years’ police service allows Stephen these days to wear a highly decorated uniform each day and don a hat that’s $100 more expensive than his junior officers thanks to the gold braid resplendent on its rim.
Importantly, however, it’s a job that sees him and his fellow serving officers satisfied to be guilty as charged of “making a difference” to a grateful community.