News

Stanhope’s main man

By Gus McCubbing

The new top — and only — cop at Stanhope police station comes with 30 years’ experience, mostly in and around the Goulburn Valley.

He also brings with him haunting stories of the dangers our police face on an almost daily basis — and how in the most threatening of environments just a split second separates them and disaster.

Potentially so much can go so wrong that recovery from the mental trauma would be a long, hard road with no results guaranteed.

Leading Senior Constable Frank Scopelliti said the hairs still go up on the back of his neck when he thinks about one of the most bizarre near-misses any cop could face in their career.

That hammers home the message of the profound, too often life-changing impact some everyday decisions made by police can have on the lives of individuals.

Riding tandem with now-retired officer Narelle Fraser, the pair were sent out to investigate a report of shots fired on a property near Girgarre 12 years ago.

They found a ute with spotlights cutting through the dark before they got their own lights and sirens going to show they were police, and gestured for the unidentified driver and passengers to come forward and identify themselves.

That’s when things dramatically escalated.

The ute kept going and pulled up to the police car and blinded both officers with its high-powered spotlights.

No response was then made when the police asked the driver and passengers to step out of the vehicle.

At which point both officers drew their own weapons, aimed at the car and demanded the lights to be turned off and everyone to get out of the vehicle and drop their weapons.

It was, literally, a hair trigger situation. If the next move by the unseen occupants had been aggressive, bullets might have started flying.

Even today, years later, Frank sounds as though he still cannot believe what happened next.

After a brief pause that seemed anything but brief, out stepped a six-year-old, a seven-year-old and a 10-year-old — all armed.

Frank and his partner were stunned.

‘‘They had just panicked and didn’t know what to do,’’ he said.

‘‘So we went back and dealt with the parents on the farm — but when we spoke about it later, all I could think about was I could have shot and killed small children.

‘‘The circumstances were that scary at the time — there had been shots fired and they’d come over and lit us up, basically blinding us despite knowing we were police.

‘‘You’d never live with yourself.’’

It’s moments such as those, when the adrenalin started pumping, that Frank said police officers needed to rely on their training to get the job done properly.

And while this experience stands out as one of the most disturbing across his career, which began after he graduated from the Glen Waverly police academy in July 1989 — at just 18 years of age — there have been plenty of highs to go with the lows.

With all his years on the job, and his strong knowledge of the region, Frank said he was confident he could make a positive impact on his new beat in the small town.

Born and raised in Shepparton, Frank attended Notre Dame College and always knew he wanted to become a police officer.

‘‘It’s about helping people — you want to make a difference,’’ he said.

Following graduation, his first posting was Prahran — just 10 months after the Walsh St police shooting in which constables Steve Tynan, 22, and Damian Eyre, 20, were ambushed and murdered.

Frank knew of Damian Eyre, who also grew up in Shepparton around the same time.

‘‘Things were pretty raw at the station back then,’’ he said.

‘‘But it was an interesting time and I learned a lot during my first 14 months there.’’

He then worked at Russell St and Hawthorn police stations, before he went back to the country with stints in Shepparton, Kyabram, Mooroopna, Tatura, Echuca, Tongala, and now Stanhope.

‘‘When I look back over my career so far, I’ve had lots of little wins,’’ Frank said.

‘‘They might not be significant in that I haven’t changed the world or solved the drug problem, but I had strong individual impacts.’’

One of these wins, he said, involved a young Kyabram man he encountered in the late 1990s, who was ‘‘off the rails’’ on drugs and repeatedly committing burglaries and thefts.

‘‘I dealt with him a few times — back then we didn’t have as much support from agencies — so I really took the time to give him a hand,’’ Frank said.

And then a decade later, again working in Kyabram, this man’s mother came to him and said the former drug addict had managed to turn his life around.

He was now happily married, living and working in Western Australia.

‘‘She told me it was just because I took the time to treat him like a person,’’ Frank said.

‘‘That kind of stuff might not work on everyone, because maybe they’re not ready, or maybe you don’t have the right relationship with them. But it can also change someone’s life for the better.

‘‘They’re only little wins, but they’re a big impact on those people and it makes it all worthwhile.’’

And now, less than a fortnight into his new role at Stanhope, Frank has turned his attention to making that positive contribution to the town as its lone police officer.

‘‘Working solo is a challenge, but with 30 years in a variety of roles, I know I’ve got the experience and knowledge to do the job,’’ he said.

‘‘Every town, especially those smaller ones, like Stanhope, has people who have been there a long time and are really passionate about them.

‘‘And I’ll be well supported by the stations at Kyabram, Rushworth, Rochester, Elmore, and Tongala, who are all part of a bigger cluster that works together.

‘‘So I’d like to work closely with the locals to help achieve their goals and keep Stanhope a nice town.’’