From cameraman to cop
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Chris Jones was 48 when he became a recruit at Police College in 2018 after 27 years as a TV news cameraman.
He had worked in some of the world’s worst war zones and disaster areas, filming death and destruction and relying on gut instincts to keep him and his colleagues safe. He’s been shot at multiple times and been “scared shitless” on more than one occasion.
“I thought I had a pretty good handle on what life was about,” he says, “but really I had no idea about a lot of things until I became a police officer.”
Once he was on the other side of the news, the highly regarded cameraman, who is also a karate black belt, admits there were “certain sides of life that I had never seen”.
“Now,” he says, “I feel like I have gone through a door and that’s very hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t done the job.
“It’s not any easy job. You can face abuse from anyone.”
However, his commitment to his new role is unwavering because it is the fulfilment of the seed of an idea that was formed during his career in TV.
“For years and years, the stories we did were as much about helping people as showing what had happened. Often, we would arrive in places before the aid agencies got there. As the first on the ground, I just felt I wanted to help the people I was filming.”
On occasions, Chris and his reporter colleagues shared supplies, such as water and food, with disaster-affected victims, but he knew he wanted to do more for others and that led to his decision to join Police.
He left TV3 in 2017 and was accepted into Wing 314 at Police College the following year. He struggled initially with the studying. “I hadn’t done anything like that for 27 years. It was hard making that transition and I was not the best student. I was working extra hard to try to be average.”
He found the practical side of things easier than the academic, but says his fellow recruits helped him get through.
He was posted to Avondale PST in Auckland and joined road policing. He has recently requalified as one of the country’s 24 motorcycle riders.
“Now I get a chance to make a difference,” he says. “I can ‘police’ things. You see something wrong and you can change it – speeding in a suburb, reducing drink-driving, searching for missing people and general offending. Lots of little things you can do that make a big difference.”
But there have been sacrifices. “The shift work is hard, the money is not great and the work is always ongoing. I couldn’t have done it without the support of friends and family.”
His wife still works in television and they have two teenage children.
On the upside, he says, he now really enjoys his holidays because when he gets on a plane, it’s not rushing to cover a crisis somewhere in the world. “I used to have two sets of clothes ready to go at all times – one for hot weather and one for cold – and I could get ready in 45 minutes.”
Chris’s CV reads like a Wikipedia list of significant world events over three decades. CHOGM* protests and the eruption of Mt Ruapehu in 1995 in New Zealand, the Kosovo crisis and the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1997, East Timor in 1999, the Fiji coup in 2000, the Bali bombings in 2002, Iraq in 2003, the Sudan refugee crisis in 2004 and the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand in 2004…
The list continues through elections, Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, cricket and rugby tours and world cups, America’s Cup competitions and more natural disasters, including the Canterbury and Kaikōura earthquakes, bush fires in Australia and chasing cyclones to get the best footage to tell the story.
Along the way there were awards and accolades from the broadcasting industry.
“It’s what all cameramen do,” he says. “The role is to try to work out, along with the reporters, how logistically we are going to do it. While the reporter is worrying about how to do the story, I would be dealing with maps, cars, power, food, how to purify water, figuring out how long can we stay there, along with filming, editing and packing up the story. I travelled with a satellite dish.
“I’ve spent years filming from helicopters, planes, boats, cars and motorbikes. I’ve hiked, swum, climbed and abseiled to get shots. I stayed in five-star hotels, tents, burnt-out buildings and airport lounges. It’s all part of the job.”
Much of that job is a “behind the scenes” role, but in 2016, some of Chris’s footage went around the world – all thanks to a trio of cows. He was in a helicopter heading to Kaikōura to record the aftermath of the 2016 earthquake when he noticed the cows stranded on a tiny island of green grass amid a huge landslide. The footage he took of the unlucky farm animals was seen by millions around the world and caused a sensation. “People were rallying to save the cows. There were paintings, a children’s book, cakes…”
It was ironic, he says. “I went to all these dangerous places around the world and no one would know anything about that work I was doing, but after the quake, people knew my image of the cows.”
As far as better work stories go, Chris’s are right up there. “You went to a dangerous place, did what you had to do, then went to the bar and had a few drinks. That was how you dealt with it.” A sentiment that many police would relate to.
Among the close calls that went with the territory was the time he and a reporter accidentally walked into a mine field in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. A passing cyclist alerted them to the danger. “We picked our way out safely, but every step was very tense. We laughed, and then didn’t talk about it.”
Later in Kabul, he was travelling as part of a Nato media team in a two-vehicle convoy towards a government compound. When they arrived at the barrier arm there was a long delay in letting them through.
“From out of the crowd this person sweeps down both Land Cruisers looking in all the windows, and looks me straight in the eye. He walked around the back of the Cruiser and melted into the crowd, but as he did, I saw him flip open his cellphone and make a call. I just knew he was alerting someone to us as targets, possibly for a suicide bomber.
“I told our driver we’d been spotted and that we were a pretty bloody good target sitting there in two cars outside a ministry building. About 30 seconds later, I saw across the far side of a big intersection a person in a full black burqa crossing the roundabout, straight toward us. They stopped about three metres behind the right corner of my Cruiser, standing in the road.
“I felt a white sheet of cold go through my body and thought, oh my God, that person has been called. The next thing I’ll see will be a bright flash and that will be it.
“And then they sort of stopped and touched themselves around the chest, straightened themselves out, turned and left.”
The relief was palpable. “Afterwards I was told that that person was most likely a ‘dicker’, called in to a high-value target to blow it up, but for some reason they didn’t follow through.”
He admits that there is “no way that sort of stuff can’t affect you”, but accepts he has a degree of inbuilt resilience and he’s bringing that with him to the other side of the line.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline in this job too.”
Coincidentally, another former TV3 camera operator, Christine Smith, joined Police just before Chris, and also works in Auckland. One shift they found themselves working together in the i-car. “We had to pinch ourselves to believe it,” Chris says.
*Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting