As we survey the eclectic decor and the poetry written on the walls of Vincent’s at the Coliseum, Brett Greentree and I are feeling pretty funky. “On trend”, I believe, is the term.
We can’t wait to tell our kids we’re funky. “Dad joke”, I believe, is the term.
Greentree needs some lightness, and time with his three kids, after the intense and frenetic days he’s had prior to our lunch interview at the Mayfield cafe.
Breaking Bread: The complete series
As the commander of the Newcastle police district, Superintendent Greentree was at the helm of a massive investigation into the alleged abduction and sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl at Adamstown Heights. Within days of the alleged incident, and riding an enormous community response, officers had arrested a 47-year-old man.
“All the police, and I feel it in the community as well, everybody’s relieved,” he says as he sips on a soft drink and orders frittata.
“It’s been a very busy week, but a very satisfying one. Still a long way to go. We’re very happy to get this far, that’s for sure.
“As a parent, this rocked me. It’s such a serious crime that can happen to anyone at anytime, to anybody’s child. That’s what hits home.”
BRETT Greentree isn’t one of those cops who joined the force with stars in his eyes, determined to make a difference. He signed up because it seemed like a good steady job. Mother Nature had ruled out him pursuing his first choice.
“I wanted to be a jockey,” shrugs Greentree, who is 195cm tall (about 6’4” in the old scale). “Those dreams were crushed early.”
Horse racing was a passion for the young man. His father, Reg, was a labourer and bookmaker based in Inverell, where Greentree was born in 1975, the second of three sons.
“I spent every Saturday at the races in country NSW,” he recalls. “So I was brought up around racetracks. Dad going to work as a bookie. So that was an interesting upbringing. Loved it.
“Growing up around racetracks, meeting a lot of characters – as you do – taught me a lot about people, and I’d like to think that I’m a people person. Taught me a lot about community and people, which I think has held me in good stead.”
The 42-year-old still loves that world: “I always loved that atmosphere. Still do. I’m not a big punter, but I do like the horse races.”
He may have been too tall to be a jockey, but he rode horses on the family’s farm just outside of Inverell. As for the police, he had little to do with them, except a couple of local sergeants who were mates of his dad.
“The local police were really well respected,” he says. “The sergeants in the town were firm but fair, we were scared of them, but they were good people.”
When he finished high school with no clear idea about what he wanted to do, Greentree worked at a local supermarket which taught him something he often refers to in his role as a police officer: customer service.
He explains that when he was a young officer, the focus was usually on the “crooks”. Police have a duty of care to suspects, he explains, and they have rights. But they’re not the “customers”, and the police force’s “customer service” should be directed towards the victims, witnesses and wider community.
After his father suggested he should consider a job in the force, 18-year-old Greentree wandered along to a police station open day, liked what he saw, and applied. Within a month or so he was accepted and off to Goulburn for training. But first, he sought advice from the local sergeants: “Keep your head down, listen to your senior officers and do as you’re told … that was about the crux of that!”
Once he finished training, the teenager from a town “that didn’t even have a traffic light” was posted to the big smoke and into the heart of city issues, in Sydney’s CBD. He concedes his life experience up until then was “virtually zero”.
“Here you are, intervening in people’s lives, with domestic situations, and you’re only a boy yourself,” says Greentree. “Probably more good luck than good management got me by. When I joined the police, they were sending the probationary constables to Sydney and I would have done anything to go to Inverell, to get back to the country. But you know what? My life would have taken a different turn, and I might not be where I am.”
After a couple of years in Sydney, Constable Greentree moved to Moree, where he could be a country police officer, but also it placed him in line for a detective’s job.
“I just really liked the idea of investigation,” he explains. “General duties is really, really hard. They’re your GP of the policing world. They’re busy and reactive a lot of the time. I really liked the idea of spending time on investigations, talking to people.”
About three years into his time in Moree, Greentree swapped into plain clothes, covering a huge patch of north-west NSW. As a junior detective, he worked on a landmark case in Wee Waa in 2000, when just about every man in town was DNA tested as part of an investigation into the bashing and sexual assault of an elderly woman.
“I think in the community it helped calm the situation,” Greentree said of the mass DNA testing which helped lead to the capture of the perpetrator. “I was heavily involved from the get-go and it was a really interesting case, a terrible one, something you remember from all those years ago.”
Working in Moree, Greentree was just up the road – well, about 140 kilometres – from Inverell. So he could head home frequently. And it created the circumstances for him to meet his future wife, Kylie, in about 1999. She was working at a local veterinary clinic.
“She was the vet on duty. I took my brother’s dog in there, because he wouldn’t take it in,” he recalls.
To be with Kylie, Greentree took a job at Inverell in late 2000, working as a specialist detective investigating child abuse cases.
“I tell you what, that hones your communication skills,” Greentree says of interviewing children. “Talking to a four, five, six-year-old boy or girl to record a conversation, [for them] to tell some of the most horrid things that have happened to them, I’m very proud of the ability to be able to do that.”
The experience of investigating harrowing crimes also prompted the young detective to think about how the work affected him.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be careful you don’t let it skew your whole view because you’re dealing with dysfunction and sadness, particularly when it involves kids; it’s something I could not do now,” he says of his job at the time. “I did it prior to having kids. I really find anything involving kids is very disturbing.”
Early in his career, Greentree would talk with his mates as a release. After he met Kylie, who he had married in 2002, the detective had someone he could confide in, “a good sounding board”, a role she continues to play.
But, he adds: “Some things I probably keep to myself and try to block out. Those individual coping mechanisms. Some things you compartmentalise. It doesn’t mean you don’t ever think about it, or anything like that; I just try not to dwell upon it.”
Thankfully, Kylie’s job as a vet was also transportable. For the next decade or so, Greentree had a string of postings from Tingha to Tweed Heads, from Tamworth to Bourke, accruing experience and earning promotions before being appointed a detective inspector in Maitland for 18 months.
Then, when he was made a superintendent, he was transferred to Sydney, into the cauldron, working as a staff officer in the commissioner’s office.
“You have, as a staff officer, exposure to the inner sanctum of the workings of the organisation, and the interaction with politicians, the ministers, and the premier’s office, as well from that executive unit in the police. So that was a fantastic experience.”
But it was also a frustrating one: “It was a funny job, a great job, but I did used to go, ‘What did I achieve?’ I achieved a lot, but I couldn’t really recall what I achieved,” Greentree muses. “Enjoyable, but I did feel as a superintendent of police, ‘I want to command, I want to lead people’.”
Superintendent Greentree’s opportunity to lead people came in 2013 when he was appointed commander of the Lake Macquarie police district. Then, late last year, he took up the role of leading the Newcastle police district.
That meant a change of location, but Greentree’s approach is the same: customer service. Get to know the community. Be part of the community. So, in effect, be a country cop. And that can work here, he reckons: “Newcastle is like a big country town.”
“I think it’s important people know who the commander of the district is because I’ve got to front them when things are bad, not just when things are good. That’s my job, so I don’t want to be not known in that way.”
Greentree is busy in the community, not only speaking at events but driving his two daughters, aged 14 and 11, and six-year-old son, to sports events. And he’s an enthusiastic participant of parkrun: “I love it! It’s my Saturday morning ritual.”
After his experience working just near the commissioner’s office, Greentree doesn’t rule out being in there one day – “I don’t know what sort of ambition I harbour at the moment” – but he’s in no rush.
“At the moment, I still want to learn the trade, develop into a better leader, because I don’t think you can ever have too much experience in the leadership field. But also I want to make sure I’m a good dad, a family man. So I guess that’s my balance.”
Talking of balance, after all that he has experienced, confronting and investigating some of the darkest elements of our society, what is his view of human nature?
“I like to think that generally speaking people are good,” he replies. “I refuse to give in to the thoughts of all the bad things I’ve been to, and the jobs I’ve done over the time. I believe it’s just a minority.
“I think there’s some really good people. And you know what? That job [at Adamstown Heights] last week proves it. There’s the evidence. People are generally good, and you couldn’t ask for a better community response to such a terrible crime.
“So, yeah, I’ve still got hope for humanity that it’s still good.”
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