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As Waikato/Bay of Plenty field officer Graeme McKay retires this month, he reflects on his decade of service and the virtues of “common sense”.

Luke Shadbolt, a former Police Association vice-president, recalls that when Graeme McKay became a field officer in 2008, there were a few rumblings from members about him not having a police background.

Graeme’s working life had been in hospitality, running hotels and working for the Hospitality Association. His only contact with policing was through a good friend who was a former officer and dealing with Police over the granting of liquor licences for various venues.

“But,” says Luke, who was also a Region 2 director, “in a very short space of time, everyone was impressed with how Graeme advanced employment relationships and how well he understood the newly introduced Code of Conduct rules.”

Graeme, who is retiring at the end of the year, says he was expecting police to be a tough crowd to win over, but his first “strong impression” was the level of trust police had in field officers in terms of allowing them into their workplaces.

When he visits police stations, it’s access to all areas. “People know me and talk to me. It’s great to have that level of status for the job and the connection with the staff.”

Graeme notes that when he started in the job, there was minimal training for the field officers. He was covering a huge area on his own too – Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne – though the southeast has since been taken on by Kerry Ansell.

There was no prep at all when, in his third week on the job, there was a suicide in the cells at Rotorua Police Station. “It was very traumatic for all the police who were there at the time,” he recalls.

Another significant incident was the Napier siege in 2009. “It was an eye-opener being on the sidelines as the situation unfolded.”

As their colleague, Len Snee, lay dead on the street, it was Graeme’s job was to make sure that staff were getting the support they needed. “Welfare was the top priority, ensuring the proper rotation of AOS, connecting with families, checking with staff on cordons and making sure people were getting the right counselling.”

Last year, Graeme had to deal with four police shootings in six months. Such critical incidents are time-consuming, emotional and energy sapping, and the field officers see and hear some horrific stuff, including all the disclosure files.

The field officer’s role is to meet with affected members and remain calm, “not get too caught up in it myself”, he says.

“Police has got better at dealing with these incidents, mainly because they have seen the work the association has done.

“A lot of what we do is just common sense,” he says.

Challenges do come with the territory, however. “I always wonder what will happen today, and something always does.”

It’s certainly not difficult to fall foul of Police policy, he says, with cases of fleeing drivers being a good example. “Police has a very detailed policy, but it’s very difficult to match the policy to reality when you’re in the middle of trying to stop a fleeing driver.”

Field officers get to see every possible outcome of the employee-employer relationship. And it’s not always the bosses who are the problem. “It can be difficult dealing with the belligerent attitude of a small number of members who don’t think they haven done anything wrong and blame the employer for everything.”

His approach to workplace issues has always been to consider them from the view of what any employee or employer might do and what is reasonable and fair.

The key, he says, is to try to discuss matters as part of an employment relationship, not as part of the Police structure. “Police officers’ day jobs might be involved with investigations, but investigating a crime is very different from looking into an employment matter.”

Policing is very complex, and that means that representing members is complex too, he says.

“One thing I always tell members is this: If you tell me bullshit, you will be found out. Police have a habit of finding out things and it will be worse for you if you didn’t tell the truth in the first place.

“I apply the same principles across the board. I just hope that people appreciate the effort I put in. I always want the best outcome.”

One aspect of the job that is particular to the field officer’s role is working from the home office. Over the past 10 years, Graeme has realised there are a few fishhooks if you don’t watch your own work practices. “You’ve got to manage your time and your commitments carefully, or you can end up doing too much work. If you’ve just spent a lot of time dealing with someone who has been through a critical incident, you shouldn’t rush home and start trying to fit in lots of other work. It’s important to take some downtime. In those situations, I mow the lawns.”

Now that he’s on the verge of retirement, he’s wondering how he’ll fill his days – there’s only so much lawn to keep tidy at Lake Okareka, near Rotorua, where he lives with his wife, Rochelle. “What will I do with no office, no phones, no emails to check?”

He’s not sure, but he does enjoy golf, fishing, travelling and gardening and has volunteered for the local Citizens Advice Bureau, which will be lucky to have the benefit of his common sense approach to complex issues. – ELLEN BROOK

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