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A Ballarat police officer is determined to work his way up the ranks while improving relationships between police and Aboriginal people. Born in Western Australia, First Constable Josh James is from the Noongar Nation of Wardandi Gnalla Karla Booja. He lived in WA for about 20 years, before his job as an umpire took him north to live in the Northern Territory for five years. About five years ago he decided to move to Victoria to chase his dreams of becoming a police officer. Based out of Geelong, he started working as a Police Custody Officer – a role he worked in for just over a year. He then took on the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer role, covering Division 1 in the Western Region, before applying to be a sworn police member. Stepping foot in the Police Academy in 2018, he made history when he was elected by his peers to be their squad leader – the first time an Aboriginal person had been elected to the role. After graduating, he completed a stint working on the frontline in Werribee before moving to Ballarat in August this year. This week he was promoted to the First Constable rank. First Constable James elected to move to Ballarat due to a strong desire to work on country and with the large population of Aboriginal people living in and moving through the region. Acknowledging the dark and tragic history between Australian police forces and Aboriginal communities, he is aspiring to make a positive impact and change the narrative going forward. “There are all the bad times in the past that have happened between police and Aboriginal communities around Australia,” he said. “I want to try and have a positive impact and try to get the relationship to where it should be – so there is a good relationship between Aboriginal people and Victoria Police.” While he believes working in an area with a strong Aboriginal presence will benefit him as well as the community, working as a police officer hasn’t always been easy – he has faced backlash from not only people in the Aboriginal community asking why he would work in such a role given the history, but from his friends and family too. “There can be a lot of negativity, which is understandable,” he said, adding that these attitudes are what motivate him to continue to work to improve relations between Aboriginal people and police. “I believe that we should respect and acknowledge the past and what has happened but let’s move forward,” he said. In addition to his frontline duties, First Constable James is one of the region’s Police Aboriginal Liaison Officers. This sees him help to manage communications with people of Aboriginal descent who find themselves at the station – whether as a victim, an offender or a witness – to ensure their cultural needs are understood by police. With an Aboriginal upbringing, he understands the cultures of Aboriginal people and how there are often avoidable misunderstandings with police, especially due to language and a lack of cultural understanding. For example, Aboriginal youth often call their uncles and aunties their fathers or mothers but police may find this confusing or misinterpret this as lying during questioning. The PALOs work closely with the non-sworn Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer for the region, Pauline Smith, and complement each other’s roles to work towards better outcomes for Aboriginal people when they come into contact with police. READ MORE: How Pauline is breaking down barriers between police and the Aboriginal community First Constable James believes delivering cultural and sensitivity training to police members so they better understand how to interact with Aboriginal people to be greatly beneficial. It is something he is passionate about and helped to deliver in Geelong, and he hopes to do it here, too. “Whether they are witnesses, victims or offenders or just struggling with life in general, teaching [police] how to interact and connect with Aboriginal people so they understand the system is important,” First Constable James said. While he is a police officer, his pride at being an Aboriginal man is as strong as ever and he thoroughly enjoys sharing his culture with co-workers and the wider community. He started a piece of Aboriginal artwork with his peers at the Academy, that was later handed to the Chief Commissioner at their graduation. He also saw through the Many Hands Together Project before he left Geelong. This involved Aboriginal youths and police dipping their hands in paint and printing them on bollards out the front of the police station. Similar ideas to bring police and Aboriginal people together in a non-formal, casual way – to build positive, respectful relationships – is something he wants to see happening more frequently in Ballarat, as he believes it will assist to establish mutual trust and respect. According to the force’s Aboriginal Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2021, of the almost 20,000 employees at Victoria Police, only 87 identify as Aboriginal. That is less than 1 per cent. Of these, 61 per cent are sworn police members – police officers and protective services officers – and the vast majority are male, with 60 per cent working in Constable and Senior Constable ranks. There are also some at Sergeant level, though very few above that. The other 39 per cent of Victoria Police employees who identify as Aboriginal are public servants working as police custody and forensic officers. With so few Aboriginal people working in Victoria Police, First Constable James wants to defy the barriers and progress through his career to higher ranks to show other Aboriginal people what is possible. While it was somewhat challenging in the beginning, he now feels like he belongs in the organisation. “When I first started at the Academy, it was such a shock. I didn’t know what I was stepping into and I was the only Aboriginal person there.,” he said. “But I feel safe and comfortable in my working environment now. I love waking up every day and I don’t know what to expect – it’s a new day and anything could happen.” He aspires to continue climbing the ranks to at least Sergeant – aiming to reach that milestone within eight years – and wants to try a few different roles to get there, such as Highway Patrol, the Proactive Unit or Youth Tasking Unit. “Hopefully I will have built the experience during that time to perform that role to a high standard.” By moving up the ranks, he wants to inspire other Aboriginal people with the knowledge that despite the challenges felt by Aboriginal people, they can seize opportunities and build successful careers too. “Despite the struggles of the past, you can get out there and achieve things like any other person,” he said. Victoria Police has a goal to increase the number of employees who identify as Aboriginal to 2 per cent by 2021. In addition to his role as a police officer, First Constable James is also an Aboriginal Ambassador for the AFL. He believes the two roles complement each other, as it is another way that he can engage with the Aboriginal community in a positive way. Making his mark umpiring senior state football in the North East Australian Football League and Northern Territory Football League, in his secondary career as an umpire, spanning 20 years, he has umpired 12 senior grand finals across Australia. Through his role with the AFL, he spends about 10 hours a week helping to coach Aboriginal boys and girls to become umpires – at footy camps, through school programs or other events. While trying to teach attendees to respect umpires, he also highlights to those in attendance that there are so many more career opportunities in the AFL other than being a player – there is also umpiring, coaching and administration roles. With an umpiring program in Geelong and other areas, he hopes that with such a strong Aboriginal culture in the Ballarat region, that a similar program can be developed here. First Constable James encouraged Aboriginal people not to be afraid to call police if they need them. If nervous about calling, ask for a PALO and ACLO, who can also help to direct you to support services if required.