When Superintendent Tony McWhirter looks back on his 35 years of policing one event stands out.
The phone call he made in July 2009 to the dad of missing British boy Jamie Neale who was found alive in the Blue Mountains after being missing for 12 days.
“I had said to him earlier that week that I’d like to send you home with your son, preferably walking but likely not,” Mr McWhirter said.
“So it was definitely one of the best things — ringing his dad at Sydney airport to say — “We’ve got your son, come back, he’s alive and well” — just as he was about to get on a plane.
“The dad hadn’t given up hope. He always thought we’d find him alive, he said to me ‘Jamie’s very resilient’.”
Finding backpacker Jamie Neale, who lived on seeds and weeds in the bush near Mt Solitary, occurred while Mr McWhirter was “boss” or commander of the Blue Mountains Local Area Command and by then he was used to being in the headlines.
“One of my friends at the time said it was the littlest command I had ever worked in, but I was on TV all the time — but it’s because we have a major highway, major rail link and bush that is accessible to anyone within an hour and a half of the city —and of course the bushfires.”
Mr McWhirter, 51, has lived in Lawson with his wife Cathy for the last 17 years and joined the NSW police force on July 4, 1977, age 15.
He was the last police cadet from the old NSW cadet corps — replaced by a more formal junior police trainee system. Hailing from the timber town of Wauchope, his dad died in a tragic accident at the timber mill two years after his son joined the police force.
During those early years he was commended for his maturity — attending a suicide while still a very young officer.
He moved though the ranks quickly, initially working in traffic at Chatswood where he told the Gazette he famously operated a telex machine that meant 20 minutes after being first alerted to a possible stolen vehicle, he could get the matter confirmed. He was made a detective at 24.
Mr McWhirter said while technology, DNA, investigative skills, search warrants and much more had changed policing methods, one thing that had remained was “the quality of people that you work with that go out on a daily basis and do not know when they are coming home”.
The former superintendent said there were “lots of cases that kept me up at night” — cases that “solved themselves like triple murder suicides” but still left their mark. During his career he was awarded the NSW Police Medal, a Commissioner’s Commendation for Service and the National Medal.
“I’ve worked in the metropolitan area, I’ve worked in the bush, I worked as a detective in a job I loved.”
Mr McWhirter was also the first police officer to work as the head of HR (a quasi American-styled police internal affairs role). It was a job that involved “making recommendations to the commissioner about management action against other police officers . . . the greatest challenge of my life”. He said police shows, while popular, had made life tough for detectives who were now “expected to solve the crime in half an hour instead of seven months”.
A Victory motorbike rider, he was one of the first Australian police officers to start charity rides for police legacies and helped organised the Australian polic Wall to Wall Ride for Remembrance in 2010. Fve police commissioners took part and they raised 200,000 for police legacies around Australia. Some of that group also travelled to America to ride in events there.
“Last year we went over to Texas for the Ride for the Fallen, it’s to ensure our fallen heroes are never forgotten.”
He retired earlier than he planned — his final official duty marching off the parade grounds at the Goulburn police college on Friday December 14.
“I was unwell ... in the end it was those things that keep you awake at night. It’s quite interesting you send members of the armed service overseas to areas where we know there’s war, they know who the enemy is and they get debriefed at the end but we send cops in to do the same thing every day.”
This year his plan is to do “whatever is on my wife’s list.”