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Byron Shire
May 25, 2024

Ballina’s DCI Bill McKenna wins NSW Police Medal

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Ballina Detective Chief Inspector Bill McKenna. Photo David Lowe.

Detective Chief Inspector Bill McKenna is one of ten police officers across the state to have been awarded the prestigious Australian Police Medal for 2023.

DCI McKenna told The Echo he was ‘really humbled’ to receive the medal, which he said was a reflection on his front line colleagues who turn up to work every day and deal with the issues that arise, whatever they might be. He said he accepted the medal on behalf of those at the coalface.

He said he didn’t know who had nominated him for the award, which is for cumulative distinguished service. DCI McKenna has been with the police for almost four decades. ‘I was unaware of the nomination until very, very late in the piece,’ he said. ‘And I was taken aback by it.’

Before his time at Ballina, DCI McKenna was stationed all over NSW. ‘I’ve worked as a lockup keeper, and in detectives’ offices in very busy parts of the state, including Western Sydney, Mount Druitt, Penrith, Cabramatta. I’ve worked in crime squads; a whole variety of fields throughout my service.’

DCI McKenna explained he’s been in the Northern Rivers for the last 20 years. ‘I’m very proud of the police that we have up here,’ he said.

The Australian Police Medal is awarded for distinguished service by a member of an Australian police force.

‘Country policing is vastly different to city policing, you don’t have the same level of resources, and the police up in this area here are really committed to their work.

‘They do so much to go out and help the community, working with the community.’

Hidden contributions

‘99% of the work that we do, people don’t see. We deal with grief on a daily basis, whether that’s giving a death message; or whether that’s trying to calm someone down, who’s having a mental health episode, and making sure that they’ve got the right support in place, that’s a daily occurrence for us. And the police do that really well,’ he said.

‘It’s not about trying to work against your community, it’s about working with your community, because we’re all part of it. And just to try and make it as safe a place as possible for everyone to live.’

DCI McKenna will be remembered by many involved with the Bentley blockade nine years ago for his calm and measured approach, keeping the lines of communication open and visiting the site several times.

‘Policing is about adopting a common sense approach,’ he said. ‘We always get called to crises and we always get called in the hour of need. I like to think that when we turn up, we are calm, and we are professional, and we’re giving you a level of service that’s appropriate.

‘We don’t go in there flexing our muscles, trying to be authoritarian. It’s about coming in and trying to say, “Look, how can we resolve this within the law?”‘

Country resilience

Bill McKenna was promoted into Ballina as an inspector, having requested a transfer to the area. ‘Luckily for me, I’d previously done country service, so I was used to the tyranny of distance and lack of resources that is common for country areas.

‘What I have found is, country police are very resilient,’ he said. ‘They’re used to making things happen in a timeline, and without the resources that they would have in the metropolitan areas. The need for policing in these areas is exactly the same as in the cities, but policing here can be a lot more personable because you’re part of that community.’

As well as his police role, DCI McKenna is also part of the local emergency management committee. ‘I’m very fortunate, I’ve developed very strong ties to the community, but also with local government and other local emergency frontline responders; we generally work seamlessly together at major events.’

Flooded houses at Wardell. Photo Jodie Shelley.

DCI McKenna was on duty on the day of the Lennox Head tornado, driving straight to the centre of the emergency, and was then responsible for the police and emergency services response to the disaster.

He was also on duty for several major floods, including the two big ones in 2022, in which the police stations at Ballina and Lismore were both inundated, along with stations at Coraki and Woodburn.

He said many local police lost their homes in the floods. ‘But despite that, they stood up and rallied the community. They were the voice within those communities during that emergency. I’m extremely proud of all our police during that time.

‘There were lockup keepers that lost absolutely everything,’ he remembers. ‘And yet they turned up to work the next day with a police shirt on and a pair of board shorts. They were organising food drops, evacuations, rescues, you name it. They were the voice and the figurehead for their communities.’

Despite the floods and other disasters, Inspector McKenna says he feels ‘very fortunate’ to be working in the Northern Rivers.

‘Between us and our our brethren up at Tweed Heads, we’re extremely busy. We’ve got vast areas to cover. And we deal with the same issues that police deal with across the metropolitan area, but also globally. People are always needing assistance, and support.’

DCI Bill McKenna. Photo supplied.

Is every day different?

‘Yes, that’s been the story of my policing life. One of the things I find attractive about policing is you come to work, and you never know what’s going to happen.

‘To give an example, I might come into work at six o’clock in the morning, and by 6.20, I’m racing down the highway, at 6.30 performing CPR, at 7.30 in a pursuit or something else.

‘Every day is different, we’re always responding to the radio.’

Inspector McKenna says he tries to maintain a high level of physical fitness to help unwind from the stresses of the job. ‘Also, the longer that you’ve been in this job, you are exposed to a lot more, but you also get an understanding that these things happen just because they happen.

‘Despite your best efforts, you can’t save everybody. What you can do is leave a nice impression with everyone that you deal with, remind people that your local police are here to help and support you.

‘So whilst we’re out there every day, and dealing with things that the majority of society won’t see, we know we can’t bring every person back. But how can we leave a really good impression on the families that are left behind? And let them know that we are there to support them and their families in their hour of need? And then following on from that, if they need anything, just to give us a bell?

‘I’m really proud of that aspect of policing. And the staff we’ve got up here, they just go that extra mile.’

Big changes

Inspector McKenna says he’s seen many major changes since he joined the police, much better support systems for those in the job, and better understanding of mental health generally, as well as a completely different set of tools.

‘When I joined the police in the ’80s, we had a gun, a handcuff and a baton. And that was our safety equipment. That was our professional equipment, that was our equipment for everyday use, you know. No safety equipment, no computers,’ he said.

‘It’s a far more advanced police service today, and a far better police service. As a young bloke of 19, I remember as a probationary constable having to assist in post mortems with the local government medical officer. We don’t do that any more these days, which is a good thing.

‘So many things have changed.’

Inspector McKenna says there are new problems to deal with, but also more sophisticated training for officers. ‘Yeah, I think we’re a lot more understanding, and a lot more empathetic. We’re a modern organisation that keeps changing.

Police out on the job.

‘In the ’80s though, the drug problem was nowhere near as endemic as it is today. And so that brings out another level of violence, another layer of violence, another layer of issues. But that’s right across the board.

‘What we had to deal with in the ’80s seemed to be a lot simpler, and a lot more defined.’

And is society getting more violent, as some people say?

‘I think the level of violence is probably worse,’ said Inspector McKenna, ‘but I don’t have the data to talk about the exact amount. A lot of the stuff that we deal with seems to be mental health related, whether it’s drug induced psychosis or something else. It seems to be very prevalent.

‘A lot of calls for assistance relate to mental health issues. And that’s where we have to be a lot more empathetic and understanding with the people we’re dealing with. A lot of our work relates to domestic violence, which also involves that mental health aspect. And so we’re there making assessments and assisting ambulance services, prior to them arriving. We’re making determinations in relation to putting that support in place, or waiting for the experts to turn up.

‘In the early ’80s, my main job was crime fighting,’ Inspector McKenna remembers. ‘That’s evolved now to being almost like social workers as well.

‘As an organisation, we’re in a much better place today to deal with issues for society, because society has changed dramatically over the last four decades, and your police service has changed with it – for the better.’

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  1. “we are calm, and we are professional, and we’re giving you a level of service that’s appropriate.
    ‘We don’t go in there flexing our muscles, trying to be authoritarian. It’s about coming in and trying to say, “Look, how can we resolve this within the law?”‘
    Perhaps he should be shown the video of the four “officers” assaulting the naked child in Byron.
    Still, it’s all about P.R. isn’t it ? G”)


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