Susie Boswell catches up for a chat and lunch with our top cop, Paul Fehon.
In police terms, Paul Fehon, our top cop, is “not cooperating”. This Out To Lunch gig aims to get our community’s best and brightest to talk about themselves. Yet, as Fehon deals with his grilled squid and I grill him, the prime witness merely keeps up an unbroken narrative about the people in his command and the great work they do. I can’t break him.
As Mid-North Coast Local Area Commander of Police, Superintendent Fehon is in charge of near 200 staff, among the region’s biggest workforces – making him among our few top executives. There are 163 officers; civil support workers take the number to 190. The area under his control runs from John’s Creek in the south along 160km of coastline to north of Nambucca, inland to Kempsey and Wauchope, on up to Ginger’s Creek, covering 14 stations and including Lord Howe Island.
It’s an impressively vast bailiwick and an impressive dude in charge of it.
But I have to apply some personal forensic skills to discover this, because one of Fehon’s chief attributes is humility – or evasiveness. It’s impossible to get him to blow his own bugle. He dances rings around me, like a boxer light on his feet. It fits his physique. Wiry, tending to slight of frame, he’s far from the traditional hulking, overbearing figure some blokes see as macho. He reveals, in fact, that his passion to join the force presented a big challenge: 10 rigorous months of physical training to make the then-mandatory weight to enter the Police Academy, graduating in 1980.
The son of a company director-accountant and one of seven kids, five boys and two girls, from Sydney’s respectable mid-western suburbs, his dad’s involvement with Wests football club saw him spend weekends at Lidcombe Oval; his mum made sandwiches for the troops. He gives a textbook answer to why he chose a police career. “Ninety nine per cent join because they want to help people,” he reckons. Two younger brothers followed him into the force and moved on to the corporate world; Fehon says all his siblings have been successful in their chosen fields. In fact, I find later he has modestly and significantly understated how well they’ve done. “It’s nice to reflect on good parenting, to see they’ve been successful in their own right,” is among the few details he gives. In command here for two and a half years now, he’s married to Detective Sergeant Kim Fehon. His parents had long had a holiday home nearby and have since moved up permanently. “I’m fortunate knowing the area and having watched it grow; you pick up on local issues and concerns.”
A large part of Fehon’s earlier career was in criminal investigation, organised crime squads, Internal Affairs and attached to the National Crime Authority (NCA). “[Crime work] gave me a lot of diversity in working with criminals in the metropolitan area and also a national and international focus, around Australia and in undercover drug operations in South America,” he admits, allowing a brief recollection of satisfaction to cross his face.
In fact, I learn – from elsewhere – that he’s highly regarded by HQ. Seconded to the NCA, the elite unit held onto him for over six years. “You’ve got to be bright to stay with the NCA,” a senior police authority tells me. He’s recognised also for his integrity, a quality not historically always a police preserve. Of his time with IA – the police who police the police – a source tells me: “You don’t succeed there unless you have great strength of character and total integrity.”
Fehon exhibits a positive, sunny nature, apparently eternally optimistic. I could fill Focus with the details he offers about the diversity of proactive police work in this area, its challenges and successes, the great people in his command, their flexibility, adaptability and resourcefulness, quick response training, detectives, general duties, the growth in education roles, in-car cameras, computer DNA-linking, the big Camden Haven drugs bust, youth, school and domestic violence liaison, highway patrol, zero road deaths this year, the Retired Police Association, interactions with younger police, specialists working with him in his role as Local Emergency Management Controller with the power to summon up cranes, choppers, troops and defence aircraft in emergency incidents, re-establishment, and so on. (If you’re not in that list, don’t worry, it’s just lack of space: he covered it!) He has a sharp mind, is in total command of his brief and speaks concisely and comprehensively, yet off the cuff.
I am now qualified to write an authoritative manual on MNC Police but not much wiser about my lunch companion, known simply as “The Boss”. I get a rare glimpse when I ask about his hobbies, his spare time between long hours in the job. He grins instantly: “I LOVE fishing!” Offshore, relaxing, getting out away from work. Otherwise, it’s watching football; he’s always had a sporting background, played police rugby league, and enjoys AFL with his son. It’s bit tough, then, that his office has fabulous views north over the Hastings River mouth and carefree anglers on a bank 50 metres from his window, pulling in blackfish.
Only once does a frown darken his face, when we talk about cops who lose motivation or go bad, as alleged in a couple of recent local headline cases. “You’re better off without them,” he says bluntly. An observer says of him: “Excellent leader and communicator; community-minded; likeable; enthusiastic; top all-rounder; lucky to have him; his future is fantastic”. I can add that he should be a diplomat or pro poker player: point blank, he will not discuss the future. I’m told his next move could be to an assistant commissioner’s post. But he seems happy and professionally motivated in his current role.
With a sense of humour too. A passer-by waves, approaches our table and brightly issues an order: “You ARE coming to the trivia night, Paul!” commands the woman from his kids’ school P&C. It’s fancy dress; he’s to turn up in pirate costume, she declares. Bandanna, cutlass, eye patch. Fehon agrees obligingly but when she turns away, he wears a grimace of mock despair. “Oh no,” he shakes his head, reluctantly but good-natured. What’s wrong? Oh, nothing at all, he says. But?
“Yet another uniform!”
> Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.