Leader of the Pack
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“I feel I have had one of the most unique management roles around,” he says. “One moment, I’m dealing with a Holiday Home enquiry, the next I’m getting a medical opinion about cancer treatment for a child and the next, dealing with the family of a member who has been killed,” he says.
“That might sound depressing, but it’s very rewarding knowing that we have been able to help people in their time of need.”
The key is in the name – the Welfare Fund, the benevolent side of the Police Association. Nearly 25 years ago, Pete, a former police officer and association field officer, was appointed as the manager.
Apart from overseeing a range of products and services, including mortgages, the Holiday Homes network and insurances (covering everything from a member’s life to their boat and trailer), the “welfare” side of the work is huge, says Pete.
“It’s true that Police staff could buy health or life insurance elsewhere, but they couldn’t get the accompanying benefits of the Welfare Fund to help them when they hit the speed bumps in the road of life.”
Requests for assistance come through several times a day. At the serious end are critical incidents, where members have been required to use deadly force.
As a former cop, Pete has seen his fair share of police action and been involved in critical incidents, so he understands the issues that members experience after such events.
In recent times, the biggest call on the Welfare Fund was in response to Operation Deans (the Christchurch mosque attacks). The fund provided 200 welfare grants of $100 each and two nights in a Holiday Home for those who were in the thick of the initial police response on March 15, 2019.
At the other end of the scale are the more minor, but still serious, assaults on members in the course of their work that may require medical treatment or a few days off work, helped with the offer of a few days in a Holiday Home, some cash and a petrol voucher.
“It’s really hard on a family to see their loved one come home from work with a fat lip or a black eye. The Welfare Fund makes members and their families feel valued,” Pete says.
Personal tragedies also make their way to Pete’s desk, and that’s where the collective strength of the association can help, he says, recalling the case of a recruit some years ago.
“The man had just started at Police College and was taken aside by the commander to be told that his wife had been murdered that morning. The recruit had not yet had the chance to even sign up for any member benefits, but we approached the insurer to say, you will pay out for this. And they did.”
Under Pete’s watch, the fund has grown exponentially to meet members’ needs. Annually, it now provides nearly $1 billion in discounted Police Home Loans, 100-plus birth benefits, $7 million in payouts for death and critical illness and nearly $40m under the Health Plan. The Holiday Home portfolio has increased by 41, to 66 houses.
Pete steers the ship, “smoothing the way for family, and for members who are grieving, with practical help and advice”.
He’s empathetic, practical, tenacious and incredibly well known. It can take him a long time to walk along Willis St, constantly stopping to talk to people he knows, or, more significantly, who know him.
Originally from Rotorua, Pete perhaps didn’t show early promise for being a cop. At Rotorua Boys’ High School, he was involved with stage productions, art and design and the school magazine – “anything but schoolwork”.
He followed his creative instincts by being accepted for a role with an advertising company in Auckland, but, when police recruiters had visited the school (he was reporting on it for the school rag), he wondered if that might be a more exciting, and healthy, career path than the anxious, cigarette-smoke filled rooms at the ad agency.
In 1974, at just 18, he was off to the Police College as a cadet at Trentham, where he learnt from some policing legends, including Ken Taylor, Tony Olsen and Keith Morrow.
After 19 months of training, he was on patrol in Porirua, in August 1975. Coming from Rotorua, he was used to Māori culture, but much of the work was with Pacific Island culture and it was, he says, “a baptism of fire; the pubs especially were like something out of Once Were Warriors”.
The level of family violence that police encountered was shocking. “We dealt with one ‘domestic’ after another. If we were at an incident for more than 20 minutes, we were told to quickly move on. The pattern was that police had usually been called by a neighbour, the victim was usually a woman and no complaints were laid.”
It was tough. He learnt a lot, but says it’s clear to him that New Zealand society has never really dealt with this problem, “just handed it over to police, who are still trying to break the cycle of victims becoming offenders”.
On the bright side, it was while working in Porirua that he met his wife, Gill, a recruit at the time and, later, a youth aid officer.
In 1977, he spent four months on a trial with CIB in Wellington, realising early on that office-bound detective work was not for him. He got into the outdoors with the Wellington Maritime Police for two years before joining the dog section in 1980. And that’s where he stayed for eight years, making his mark as a successful dog handler in what he describes as “the apex of the sharp end of policing”.
Once again, he says, he was fortunate to have excellent mentors – Alan Symes as an instructor and Colin Guppy as his sergeant.
He also had what some might call a stubborn streak when it came to tracking offenders. Whereas others might be inclined to pack up and go home when the trail went cold, Pete would hunker down with his dog, Pal, in a hedge or ditch, for an extended period until the hapless suspect thought the coast was clear. “Don’t ever give up” was Pete’s mantra.
During his time with Police, Pete was a keen supporter of the association, prompted in part, he says, by Tony Olsen helping him out of a few scrapes when he was a cadet. Pete was a member of committees in Porirua and Wellington and then the Wellington representative to the National Dog Group, negotiating allowances for dog handlers.
Midway through the 1980s, there were two tragedies within the space of 18 months that shocked the policing community. The first was on July 2, 1986, when the police launch Lady Elizabeth capsized during a storm in Wellington Harbour and two crew, Senior Sergeant Phil Ward and Constable Glenn Hughes, drowned.
The Westpac rescue chopper, piloted by Peter Button, winched the survivors to safety.
Sixteen months later, Peter Button was dead too. Assisting during a police search for an offender, his helicopter drifted into high-voltage transmission lines and crashed, killing all on board.
“I knew all the people involved,” says Pete. Both disasters preyed on his mind.
“I think that, before that, like a lot of younger people, I thought I was indestructible.”
He and Gill had two kids by then (the first of four daughters) and he started to feel more aware of his vulnerabilities.
He made the decision to quit and in 1988 took a leap into the unknown, helping to set up a business with his brother and sister-in-law. They started SDC, the Security Destruction Centre, the first outfit in New Zealand to securely dispose of documents, with clients such as the GCSB, SIS, Defence and the Reserve Bank.
He enjoyed it, though, like all ex-police, he found he missed his colleagues at the coalface.
After five years, the opportunity came to reconnect. The Police Association created three field officer positions and Pete was successful in being appointed for the Wellington job – a bit of a misnomer as the area covered New Plymouth in the west to Napier in the east and Nelson and Kaikōura in the south. Trevor Mayes covered the rest of the North Island and Dave McKirdy covered the rest of the South Island.
They were trailblazers for the role of field officers, visiting every police worksite in their area twice a year, facing off with hostile district bosses and spending half their day on the phones. “Dave McKirdy and I both received a gift of leather juggling balls from Bell South because we were among the top 20 cellphone users in the country.”
Greg O’Connor became president in 1995 and began a strategic review of the association’s activities. Because of Pete’s greenfield business experience, he became involved and in 1996 was appointed as the change co-ordinator at the national office.
It was the start of a period of radical redevelopment.
In 1997, Pete was appointed as manager of the Welfare Fund. Looking back now, he says he takes “his hat off” to former chief executive Chris Pentecost for putting the fund and Police Health Plan into a good financial situation and for building on the vision that former national secretary Bob Moodie had created for the association. “We are still reaping the rewards of that.”
Personally, he’s proud of the expansion of the Holiday Home network, the creation of the Member Services Centre and the introduction of more professional practices to the Health Plan.
“When I first came to this role, the Health Plan had many challenges, including age banding and a lack of reserves. Under Chris Pentecost, the plan was prudently managed to the point where the interest from reserves now sustains the administration overheads and members receive 100 per cent of their premiums back in benefits paid out.”
Life insurance was also a large part of the role, making sure it provided enough for members’ families to carry on after the death, or disablement, of a member.
Pete also worked with members outside New Zealand. Firstly, in Phuket, after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 and, later, visiting members in Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands.
“It made me very proud to be a Kiwi,” he says. “Our members excelled in everything they were asked to do. Even the Australians and British said the New Zealand police officers were the best there.”
It’s been 27 years of commitment from Pete, but he’s quick to also acknowledge former and current staff and the members who get involved with the association, from the committees up to the president. “They are the backbone of this organisation, and I applaud them.”
As for the state of policing, Pete has some thoughts for the old-timers and words of support for new recruits. Having spoken to virtually every recruit wing for the past 25 years, he speaks with some authority.
“What concerns me is the misleading idea of young, inexperienced cops that comes from people in the 50-plus age range. In my view, these new officers are as keen and dedicated as we were, and now with better training and equipment, and working in a more difficult environment, both externally (think video cameras) and internally (heightened compliance).”
Understanding, adapting to and communicating with our changing membership is crucial for the association, he says.
Association president Chris Cahill says he cannot speak highly enough of Pete’s contribution to the Welfare Fund and to Police. “Pete ‘gets’ people and responds to them with natural empathy and understanding,” he says.
“He has earned the respect of police throughout New Zealand, and also provided immense support to me and my predecessor as a great sounding board for ideas and always putting the interests of members at the forefront of decision-making.”
Pete has a loyal following among his staff, says Chris. They value his opinions and knowledge, not to mention his storytelling… “He will always have a story to tell, which is a great way for staff to understand their role in terms of the day-to-day lives of our members.”
Pete’s final day at the office is April 9, after which he and Gill will be moving to Pete’s home turf in the Bay of Plenty for a well-deserved retirement and time with family and their new grandson.