The Blue Rose Project has won Senior Constable Gary Wills the South Australia Police Officer of the Year award – and helped a whole lot of young people (aka “Gary’s kids”) from “ending up as a statistic”.
What is the Blue Rose Project?
The Blue Rose Project is a unique pilot program aimed at keeping at-risk 10 to 17-year-olds safe and out of the justice system through a proactive approach to policing based on intervention. It’s about addressing the underlying causes of crime and anti-social behaviour before they escalate.
The initiative’s key components are surprisingly old-school, but so far they’re working a treat.
How it works
Usually when a young person runs away, the police just try to find them and drive them back to their carer – then it’s straight on to the next call. But that’s not what happens anymore in the Barossa and Gawler areas.
The Blue Rose Project frees up one Gawler-based officer – Senior Constable Gary Wills – to focus solely on working closely with young people. That means Gary can follow up with 10 to 17-year-olds who’ve run away from home or had the cops called on them, and start building a relationship to stop it happening again.
Gary has the time to spend with each young person to find out what’s going on in their lives, and what can be done to help them cope with their problems in a healthier, safer way. Sometimes that means liaising with partner agencies to find necessary support, but often it’s just about listening.
“I tell them ‘I’m not your personal cop, but I am here to help you and try to make things better for you,” he says. “’I’m not here to point the finger and get you into trouble’.”
So who’s Gary?
Senior Constable Gary Wills has spent more than half his life as a police officer – first in Northern Ireland, and then in Adelaide’s North from 2008. A serious health scare in 2020 meant the 59-year-old stood back from the frontline, and into the special assignment of the Blue Rose Project.
“Blue Rose isn’t a job, it’s a goal,” says Gary. “It’s about thinking outside the box to help young people.”
“There’s no one size fits all, every case is an individual, and you have to tailor your problem solving to suit each young person.”
“It’s about listening to these young people, hearing what their problems are and from there teaching them some coping strategies,” he says. All the young people have Gary’s mobile number, and they know he’ll return their calls and texts as soon as he’s on duty.
Gary says total honesty – on both sides – has been the key to making those relationships work. “It’s been easier with some young people than others. But I haven’t found one yet that I haven’t been able to build a relationship with.”
Matt, Anna, and Tim talk to Senior Constable Gary Wills about the policing project keeping young South Aussies safe.
The stats speak for themselves
Before the Blue Rose project was launched in May 2021, there were more than 100 police callouts a month related to young people in care in the Barossa and Gawler area. The project started in order to reduce those callouts and help young people in care stay safe.
It’s certainly worked. When Blue Rose started, young people in care made up 53 per cent of the Barossa Police’s juvenile justice files – now that’s down to 13 per cent.
The project eventually broadened in scope to help all young people at risk and the number of missing person’s reports involving young people has plummeted by 62 per cent.
It’s a win for police resourcing, says Gary. “You’re taking one officer off the front line, but you’re reducing the callouts [by a number] it would take six officers to respond to.”
But more importantly, it means that young people aren’t ending up as a statistic – “and that’s the real win”, he says.
The awards – and rewards – are pretty impressive too
Gary’s work on the Blue Rose Project has won him the 2023 South Australia Police Officer of the Year award – which acknowledges an officer who has demonstrated “exemplary courtesy, courage, kindness, understanding, compassion and devotion to duty in the eyes of the community”.
The Blue Rose Project has also won a silver award in the police-led category of the 2023 Australian Crime and Violence Prevention Awards, presented by the Australian Institute of Criminology.
“It’s the best thing in my 31 years of policing that I’ve done by a long shot,” Gary says. “The rewards that I have got in these last two years beat all the other 29 years of it put together.”
He says he treasures every relationship he’s made with young people through the project – and he’s still in touch with some who have grown into successful young adults. “You can’t beat it when young people turn their life around … it’s fantastic.”
“It actually got to the point that as soon as I’d come into work, the sergeant would say ‘Oh, I want to speak to you about your kids,’ and I’d say ‘Well, I only have one daughter, and I know where she was last night’. But that was the way they viewed [the young people I worked with] – ‘they’re Gary’s kids’. And in all honesty, I take pride in that.”
To learn more about SAPOL’s Blue Rose Project, visit the SA Police website.
Interested in becoming a police officer but don’t think of yourself as stereotypical police cadet material? You might be just the kind of person SA Police is looking to recruit! Read all about SAPOL’s new ‘You Belong in Blue’ recruit campaign here.