Tales from a true detective: “I’m living a movie”


Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Joshua Smith, Reporter

The word ‘detective’ has become somewhat synonymous with ‘superhero,’ ‘wizard’ or ‘unicorn,’ as it seems like the type of thing that only exists in our favourite TV shows, movies and books.

The wide variety of entertainment revolving around detective work makes it seem like the job itself is fictional. This can make it easy to forget that those stories are based on real life detectives, doing real life detective work.

I found myself wondering how being a detective in real life compares to what we see on screen, so I sat down with one of Perth’s own detectives over a Dome Big Breakfast to pick his brain.

Jake Huffman (not his real name; he’s a detective after all) has been working as a detective in Perth for two and half years, and though he may be relatively new to the scene, his life is by no means dull. He ran me through an average day-in-the-life of a detective, and to my surprise it was full of as much excitement as you might see on your television.

Huffman told me that his days usually started at 7am, and like in most offices, checking emails and grabbing some coffee was usually the first order of business. However, the difference in a detective’s office is that “it can be 0 to 100, literally in seconds”.

“One moment I’m sitting in the office in front of my computer catching up on paperwork. The next minute I’m literally running out the door, because there’s a stolen car that’s in the area, that’s just been ripped from a home invasion or something, and the next minute I’m in a high-speed chase,” he explained.

I will again emphasise this is an average day for Huffman, where high-speed car chases are a regular occurrence.

On top of this, a day in Huffman’s shoes sees him solving cases, making arrests and interrogating suspects. There are no two days ever the same, being a detective comes with a lot of unpredictability, because as Huffman puts it: “Crooks don’t run on our time.”

For Huffman becoming a detective seemed like a natural choice, as his father was a detective and his mother also worked for the police. He can recall how much of his childhood took place in detective’s offices.

“I grew up cleaning my dad’s police gun,” he said.

Huffman added, that he has always had a natural extreme attention to detail, an analytical brain and a love of solving puzzles.

He also described himself as having a “servant heart,” which was a large part of his motivation to follow in his father’s footsteps; he said it’s a very honourable thing to be able to help somebody when no one else can.

Huffman described the sense of duty he feels to help victims of serious crimes.

“They can go to anyone, but a lot of people can’t help – they can only sympathise with them. I can actually do something about it.”

The excitement that comes with the job – while perhaps terrifying to some – is what gets Huffman out of bed every morning.

“It’s the excitement. It’s the adrenaline. You get addicted to the job.”

This doesn’t mean Huffman doesn’t get scared in certain situations. He said he couldn’t count the number of times he’s genuinely feared for his life. For him the most daunting part of the job is the unpredictability that comes with every case. He said, it can be scary never really being sure what you’re stepping into.

“You can do all your intelligence before you go into something, but there can always be a curveball – like someone in the house that you didn’t account for – or a threat,” he said.

The nature of the job requires Huffman to face dangerous situations head-on.

“I’m the one who’s gotta go in there when everyone else is running away.”

The times he fears for his life the most, however, are in the all-too-frequent high-speed pursuits. He described how if you’re driving 140 to 160 kilometres per hour in the middle of the day, weaving through traffic and swerving around tight bends while chasing a stolen car, there’s not a lot of room for error.

It’s an incredibly stressful position to be in, Huffman said, and possibly even more so when he’s not the one driving: he might need to quite literally place his life in his partner’s hands and trust that his partner will make the correct split-second decisions to keep them both alive.

The danger of the job, however, is part of what makes it so appealing to people like Huffman.

“At the end of the day,” he said, with a gleam in his eye, “I thrive on the adrenaline.

“I’ve searched houses in pitch dark with just a torch and a taser out or a gun out, and I know someone’s in there with a knife, and I know it’s not training: I know it’s real life now. And I get a rush out of that.”

In terms of training, Huffman actually compared some of it to an episode of the popular cop show Brooklyn 99. In the episode, the detective precinct takes part in an anti-terrorism training simulation where they fire paintball guns at actors pretending to be terrorists and criminals, in what’s supposed to represent a potential real-life situation.

Huffman told me that on top of the initial weapons training at the Police Academy and, of course, specific driving training for pursuits, simulations like the one in Brooklyn 99 aren’t unusual.

When I asked him if there were any other similarities between his job and Brooklyn 99, Huffman said the humour and atmosphere of the show’s representation of a detective office was the most accurate part.

Huffman said it’s not uncommon to throw a ball around the office while thinking through a case, or to play some office cricket and get yelled at by the sergeant for smashing the ball into his office. The camaraderie and jocularity are portrayed very accurately in the show, according to Huffman.

He also said that while TV shows and movies are obviously over-dramatized to make them more exciting, there have been moments in his career as a detective where he felt like he was living out the events of a movie.

“One of the partners I’ve worked with before, we were like friggin’ Bad Boys, man,” he said.

But despite all the excitement of the job, Huffman said the weight of responsibility underlies everything they do. People like Huffman work in intense, high pressure, and delicate situations and are often investigating victims of rape or murder or armed robberies. In these circumstances, Huffman said, there’s a lot of pressure to do your job right.

“The hardest part is that people think because we’re detectives – or police in general – we can’t make mistakes. It puts a lot of pressure on you, and then when you do make a mistake, they almost crucify you for it.”

Huffman said the hardest part of the job is that your mistakes carry a lot of weight and garner a lot of criticism.

There is no shortage of people – especially in the age of social media – who like to think they can do jobs like Huffman’s better than those trained to do it.

Huffman said, despite all this, he’s still excited to go to work every day. Whether he’s cutting a dead body from a tree, putting on a disguise, stumbling across a gruesome murder, or pulling off a $4 million drug bust, Huffman loves his job. And yes, those are all real-life examples of things Huffman has done.

We like to think that little old Perth is a bit of a safety bubble and relatively free of such serious crimes, but the fact of the matter is that it’s people like Huffman who are keeping us safe. At the end of the day, Huffman’s motivation to do his job couldn’t be clearer:

“I like putting bad guys away.”