WELL-known south-west policeman Wayne Oakes has a unique and rather macabre nickname — 1080.
It’s a highly effective type of rabbit poison and the veteran ex-cop earned the moniker because of the number of sudden deaths he attended as part of his duties.
Mr Oakes turned 56 this week and has now retired after 35 years on the job — 26 of which were spent in the south-west.
Like so many others, he joined the police force with the romantic notion of helping change people’s lives.
And for the majority of years, his police career had been time well spent, he said.
“I’ve done lots of things with people I would not have had the opportunity to do in other circumstances. I’ve always treated people with respect and 90 per cent time got it back,” he said.
He estimated he had attended hundreds of fatalities, including 42 sudden deaths in just one year.
“The staff at the coroner’s court all knew me by name. If we had a new police officer who hadn’t been to a sudden death they would be put on the divisional van and it wouldn’t take long to gain that experience.
“I’ve been to plane crashes, road accidents, gassing, fires, suicides and just about anything else you could think of.”
Mr Oakes said one fatality that stuck in his mind was a fatal plane crash at the Point Cook air force base which happened on a sweltering day just before Christmas. It was well before airconditioners were standard in police cars or ambulances.
The victim had been in the sun for most of the day while investigations were carried out and, following the ambulance while the body was transported from the accident scene, he was forced to stick his head out the window to just stay conscious.
Such close and frequent association with death by necessity breeds a certain professional hardness, but also a genuine compassion.
“In the country I found I had time to spend with families grieving. I could follow through and assist people and made relationships with people in those situations,” he said.
Mr Oakes said one night at the end of a shift he and a colleague on patrol duty came across a car parked on a back road in the western suburbs of Melbourne.
“It was at Altona North and we were about to knock off. It was about 2.40am in the morning when we came across this car. Usually we would just have done a registration check but I went up and wiped the dew off the window.
“This fellow in the car had massive head injuries. He’d blown his head off with a shotgun. He was involved in a cult. We had trouble finding out his name because he had a cult name with the Orange People. Eventually we found his name and went to his home in Yarraville.”
Mr Oakes said the police officers found a list of things the man wanted to do before he took his life and one was to kill someone to see how it felt.
“We talked to his mum and she asked if we had spoken to his girlfriend, who lived at Werribee. Well, his car seemed to be facing away from Werribee back towards Yarraville and we got real worried.
“We went screaming out to the address at Werribee, went bang, bang, bang of the front door. Got no answer and forced the door open. There was this woman there. I asked her if she was the woman we were looking for. She told us we had the wrong address and the woman lived next door.”
Mr Oakes said he went next door and knocked.
“A woman came to the front door and confirmed she was the woman. She was fixing her kids breakfast. I didn’t know what to do, hug her or what. I was just so pleased she was alive,” he said.
Mr Oakes said he also talked down a man who was contemplating suicide by jumping off the West Gate Bridge.
“He was from Sydney. His mate’s wife had kicked his mate out and the bloke had offered to let his mate stay at his place while he got back on his feet. Anyway, the bloke goes home one night and finds his wife was not on her feet, she was in bed with his mate. He jumped in his car and drove to Melbourne. Tried to get into the high-rise buildings to jump off. Anyway, he finished up at the West Gate Bridge. He hadn’t eaten for three days. I managed to talk him down.”
Mr Oakes said his involvement with sudden deaths sparked an interest in joining the homicide squad but he was glad he never did.
“My family had to put up with enough keeping their husband and dad in the job,” he said.
“I’m not sorry, I’m glad it didn’t happen, because of the impact it would have had on my family. My family sacrificed enough to help keep me at work.
“I tried to never bring an incident home, a tragedy. I talked about a lot of things with my wife Judi and that took stress off me.”
Mr Oakes said police life in the country was slower and allowed police officers to build relationships.
“I’ve attended incidents where I knew the people involved. A lot of people have a lot of questions. I can sit with the families of suicide victims and try to answer their questions,” he said. “They may be insisting to see the body and I try and explain that the victim would be embarrassed if they were seen before they could regain some dignity. If they shouldn’t look I’ll tell them. I’ve often visited people after work where it was appropriate or I thought it necessary and pointed people towards counsellors or the local church.”
Mr Oakes’ career started at Avondale Heights just six months after getting married.
He completed almost five years at Werribee followed by almost four years with the crime car squad covering the western suburbs, then 26 years in the south-west based at Warrnambool, Camperdown and Colac, while also doing temporary stints at most of the stations in between.
Mr Oakes said the attitude of police officers had changed, and believes previously there was a lot more camaraderie.
The long-serving officer said one thing he would change in the police force was the promotion and transfer system, which pitted colleagues against each other for no gain.
“The system theoretically leads to the best person getting the job, but it turns good friends into competitors, it ruins friendships and everyone on temporary higher duty wants to leave a mark for good or bad. It’s created a lot of distrust and not advantaged anyone.
“The old system was based on seniority but members could appeal. The current system has made things a lot harder on people and killed aspirations. Station officers in charge now spend more time in meetings than running stations.”
Mr Oakes said the difference between officers who wanted to be good police members and others chasing promotions had never been greater.
“There’s a definite distinction between the two, I’ve never seen anyone able to do both,” he said.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding police officers. Generally people don’t have as much respect for police but that’s society. Schools have no authority, everyone is meant to be nice but no one wants to take responsibility.
“There’s now families where no one has ever worked, there’s a lack of discipline and drug-based offending has led to people being extremely unpredictable.”
Colac police station commander Senior Sergeant Ken Slingsby said Mr Oakes was an extremely dedicated police officer and received the police valour award for bravery after arresting a Melbourne offender armed with a knife.
“Wayne has been a pleasure to work with. He is the sort of member young officers aspire to be like,” he said.