A Long Association: The O'Connor Years

NZPA | Thu September 1st, 2016

As Police Association President Greg O’Connor prepares to step down from the role after 21 years, he reflects on a job that has defined him, challenged him, given him incredible opportunities and insights and allowed him to put policing at the heart of the organisation. By Ellen Brook.

Greg O'Connor

A clear sense of home, of turangawaewae, has been the making and the saving of Greg O’Connor. It’s seen him through dark times and hard times, a wellspring of comfort, restoration and inspiration.

In the early 1980s, after completing a year of undercover police work, it was his return home to the West Coast for three months of downtime that helped re-establish his sense of identity.

Unlike some of the people he had met in the course of that year, he says, he had somewhere to call home. “It was then that I understood what your turangawaewae really means.”

In fact, he had been “incredibly lucky” to even survive the year of covert work, infiltrating organised crime groups to pursue prosecutions. The loss of identity felt by undercover police claimed many victims in those days and the support provided by Police after such operations was not as sophisticated as it is now.

Greg had struggled with the ethics of what he was doing and, looking back, he says it was pretty hard on a young man. “You were making friends with people and then busting them. They were real people, not always bad people, but smart people who had broken the law.

“I ended up liking a lot of the people I met. I kept thinking they were just like me, but had simply suffered from lack of opportunities and poor environments.”

In hindsight, he was probably honing his natural instincts to see beyond the often black and white didactics of crime and the law.

He was aware that there were multiple shades of grey in the world, something that had been reinforced for him the year before he did the undercover work, when he had taken leave without pay from his general duties role in Porirua to travel overseas.

He’d always felt a strong pull to learn about “life beyond the horizon”, and growing up in relative isolation on a dairy farm near Westport, the fourth of nine children in an Irish Catholic family, he saw joining Police as one way of learning more about the world.

Almost immediately after starting his training, with the 20th Sir Denis Blundell cadet wing at Trentham, that proved to be the case. He shared a room with a Maori cadet from Matata, near Whakatane, who took the 18-year-old farm boy from the Coast to visit his home marae. “It was the first time I had really been exposed to Maori culture, and it was a great way to see it… total immersion in marae life.”

It made him even more convinced of the value of learning as much as he could about the world.

A fair go at work

After graduation in 1976, his first posting was to Wellington, where he also became aware of issues of fairness in the workplace.

He was one of several recruits who at that time were forced to live in barracks. If they wanted to live elsewhere, they had to pay for the barracks as well as their other accommodation. “It was an antiquated and unfair system,” he says. “Our section got organised and successfully lobbied for that arrangement to change. The double rent was totally unfair.”

After Wellington, he was posted to Porirua, which proved another eye-opener for the young cop. It was a much more challenging environment in which to police, but “you got taken on your merits  and, as a skinny white boy, I had to learn how to deal with people. It was a great training ground for developing wider policing skills”.

Itchy feet struck soon after and, at 22, in 1980, he took a year off to see as much of the world as he could.

When he returned, he didn’t look much like a police officer any more. His hair was long and he’d lost his uniform – left in a previous Wellington flat while he’d been away – which may have been why it was suggested he take on undercover work.

His overseas experience had helped him shed his police identity and blend in, but it was a difficult time. “It was fairly easy to infiltrate criminal groups, but it was a dangerous business and the loss of identity was real.”

A year later, he was pulled out and went home for a break. “I was lucky. I had a good temperament and I had the back-up of knowing where I came from.”

He has carried that ethos of “a place to stand”, a place to feel empowered and connected, throughout his career.

One of the first public comments he made after becoming president of the Police Association in 1995, at the age of 37, was that a “sense of belonging” had been lost within Police, in part because keen young officers felt that their concerns were not being heard in the upper echelons of Police.

“The Association has a role in ensuring these messages are heard,” he told the Association’s newsletter at the time.

And helping recruits meet their aspirations was important to him. “Staff work best when they’re enjoying what they are doing. I have enjoyed my time in Police and I want all other members to feel the same way,” he said.

Greg has never forgotten a formative experience he had straight after graduation.

During his training, the length of the course was changed from 19 months to 12 months, which meant he was still only 18 and had to wait till he was 19 to receive a posting. In the meantime, he was put to work as a dogsbody at Wellington Central Police Station.

He did the cleaning, put out the rubbish, worked in the kitchen, worked in records, helped with prisoners and as a driver. “I got to know everybody in the station and to see how the place worked and how people interacted. I was incredibly lucky to get such a broad view of the policing environment.”

He has found, through the years since, that these “university of life” experiences can occur in unexpected places.

35 year claspReceiving his 35-year clasp in 2011.

Career path

After five years in Wellington in the 1980s, working in CIB, he took another break to travel, this time with his wife, Desley, also a police officer, whom he had met in Wellington. When they came back to New Zealand, they moved to Masterton, just after a spate of arson attacks on police officers’ homes there had put everyone on edge.

Despite his previous city policing experience, Greg says it was in that provincial environment that “I really grew up as a detective sergeant. We had no back-up at all”.

He was already a member of the Association, but, in his naturally inquiring way, he decided he wanted to know more about the organisation, find out what other members thought “about everything” and what was happening in the rest of the world. His involvement with the Association grew and his career was developing too.

After Masterton, he taught detective courses at the Police College for two years. Then, in 1991, he was back in Porirua as a detective sergeant working on child abuse and adult sexual assault cases. He was also the Kapi-Mana delegate to the Association’s Conference.

Then came promotion to senior sergeant and the offer of a job in Christchurch, an opportunity he and Desley decided to take, moving south with their family – eldest child Isaac and his disabled son, Michael, who was just a babe in arms.

He helped reassemble the Association’s Christchurch committee, promptly becoming the chairman and Conference delegate. He was also relieving as a detective senior sergeant and inspector.

“Being a uniform senior sergeant was a big learning curve,” he recalls and notes that there continues to be a lack of understanding about how important that role is in linking the frontline to the administration. “Moves to eliminate that rank will come back to bite us,” he warns.

Life was busy, including the demands at home of caring for Michael, but he and Desley had always said they wouldn’t let Michael’s disabilities stop them moving or taking opportunities if they could and that was certainly the case in 1995.

Greg O elected PresidentThat year, Steve Hinds stood down as president of the Association and Greg decided to put his hand up for the job, which, if he was successful, would mean a move back to Wellington.

Up against five other nominees, he won the vote and was keen to get to work, taking a secondment from Police for the task.

“The membership had recognised that there was a need for some fresh blood and to get policing at the forefront of the Association agenda,” he says.

A ‘babe in the woods’

Despite his enthusiasm, he soon realised he was “a babe in the woods”. “There was no manual for the job, really, but I had just done the inspector’s course, which helped in terms of leadership.”

The Association had gone through a significant period of growth in membership and resources, and Greg says that when he came on board there was some consolidation that needed to be put in place, including finding people to help with that.

Two years later, the national secretary, Graham Harding, resigned and Chris Pentecost was hired to replace him. It was the start of a partnership at the Association that lasted for 17 years until Chris resigned in 2014.

The two worked closely – Greg the strategist, Chris the details man, sometimes a mix and match of the two.

Chris says they had three guiding principles. The first was that everything the Association did was good for both the members and for Police. The second was to build on the vision of those who had gone before. The third was that it was not the Association’s job to keep somebody in Police who perhaps should not be there, but it was its job to make sure they were treated fairly.

It was important to Greg then, and remains so, that the Association provided an environment in which the president, as the only professional police member of the staff, was given the tools to “preside”. “It’s about being able to be the president.”

Historically, stretching back to the Association’s formation in 1937, it was the general/national secretary who was the main player, leading the charge on negotiations for pay and conditions, setting policy and acting as the public spokesperson.

In the modern era, it was the work of national secretary Bob Moodie in the 1980s that really pushed police matters into the public arena.

Greg acknowledges that work and says today’s organisation continues to build on the vision put in place by Bob Moodie, including that you have to “own your own piece of history”.

After 21 years, there’s no doubt that Greg O’Connor can claim his own piece of police history, including putting the position of Association president firmly at the top of the organisation.

It was his vision to have the Association recognised as a police union of best practice, in New Zealand and worldwide, to be the “credible voice of policing” and put policing at the core of the Association’s work.

To that end, much of the early days of his tenure were spent on internal reorganisation of the Association, “so we could balance our commercial activities with our obligations to the members”. There were also many policing issues to deal with – pay, Perfing and early retirement – and part of that meant building relationships with politicians.

Greg discovered that he was, in fact, not only a cop, but a political animal as well, and he learnt to move comfortably in the different, but connected, worlds of politics, media and academia and on the international stage in his role as chairman of ICPRA (International Council of Police Representative Associations).

One of the biggest problems the Association encountered in the political arena was that until the Labour government appointed George Hawkins as police minister in 2002, police ministers had all been low ranked.

“George was a high-ranked minister and he helped us promote our concerns. We were constantly lobbying to raise law and order issues into the public consciousness.”

One of Greg’s mantras has always been, “We don’t support politicians, we support policies”, followed closely by, “We play the long game”.

Under his presidency, the Association has managed to take several issues raised by members into the public arena – organised crime, frontline numbers, the rise of methamphetamine, problems at Police comms centres, unattended child abuse files and, most recently, the increase in illegal firearms.

In most cases, Greg says, it takes a disaster to happen before anything gets done, and, in all cases, the Association has flagged the issues well in advance, prompted by concerns at the grassroots level of the membership.

With the leverage that can be achieved by having a high membership (about 95 per cent of people who work for Police), also comes a responsibility to maintain the credibility of the organisation, he says.

A confident, off-the-cuff and, importantly, available speaker, Greg has been able to raise issues in the media, backed by reliable research and fact-gathering done by the Association.

Speaking to media

Public profile

Possibly his greatest benefit to the membership has been the development of his public profile, which, in turn, has raised the profile of the Association and of policing. He has become the first port of call for the media on policing issues.

Hand in hand with the public profile have been the photo-ops: being Tasered (“I’m a swearer, not a screamer”); crewing on a rubber boat in the annual Police Association Raft Race; abseiling off the side of a 12-storey building for charity; handing out trophies at sports events; and attending myriad public speaking engagements.

His wife recently noted that he’d been “on call for 21 years”.

But being available, especially to members in times of crisis, such as after a police shooting or other traumatic events when an officer’s day has gone pear-shaped, is an important aspect of the job, he says.

And providing an unfettered channel for information to flow from the frontline to the president has been a cornerstone of his presidency, harking back to his early observation that young officers felt their voices were not being heard.

Perhaps it’s part of his ongoing natural curiosity about the world – or, as he might add, half joking, his “enormous ego” – but he likes to put himself at the pointy end of policing issues.

During trips overseas as part of his ICPRA role, he has cultivated police contacts in many countries, gathering grassroots intel on policing issues. He’s delved into the cannabis culture in the Netherlands and visited legal pot shops and cannabis grow houses in Colorado. He’s toured the crime hotspots of the United States, Sweden and South Africa with local police.

Back home, he continues to be concerned about putting “crime back into policing”, shifting emphasis away from administrative developments in Police and putting police at the centre of what the Association stands for.

Greg says a defining moment for him was the shooting of Stephen Wallace in 2000 in Waitara by “Officer A”. “It was a significant event for the organisation. Officer A received grossly unfair treatment and Police didn’t back him.”

It refocused Greg’s belief in the need for police to be fairly treated by their employer and by society.

Another watershed for Police came with the revelations in the Louise Nicholas case around events in Rotorua in the 1980s. “That represented the absolute worst of police culture, where people sought to leverage off the uniform. It was a reflection of that time and probably of other parts of New Zealand society. The Association did not represent the officers involved.”

For all the pain it caused, he says, it turned out to be good for Police.

More recently, the Teina Pora case became a challenge for the Association and for Greg personally. “It was a hard thing for the Association to do – to come out and say he was innocent. We had been sitting on the sidelines, but it became clear that something had gone wrong.”

When the Association said the case needed looking at again, he paid a personal price, taking flak from some members.

However, he says, “lessons have to be learnt. Every organisation goes through that.”

Firearms

One issue that won’t go away is firearms. During Greg’s tenure, there have been five fatal shootings of police officers and a lot of other officers have been wounded, “but Police seemed to have had their head in the sand about it. There was no policy change. It just seemed too hard”, he says.

He had not been in favour of general arming of police. “In 2011, when the Conference voted in favour of it, I was hoping it would go the other way, especially if we had the Norwegian model [firearms in vehicles] as back-up for access.”

With 72 per cent of frontline members wanting general arming, Association policy reflects that view, but Greg says there is neither the political nor public will to introduce it at the moment. He notes, however, that with the prevalence of illegal firearms in the possession of criminals, “it is probably inevitable” in the longer term.

“Society is pretty broken in many ways as the gap widens between rich and poor, and we see more mental health issues, which the police are left to deal with.

“Police are always dealing with the poorer side of life. I want us to be able to help the good people who live in the poor areas and who need police. We don’t want to end up abandoning those people because of the pressures put on police, including unfair criticism from people who have hardly any interaction with police.

“We must not forget who we work for. Cops are reflective of the societies they police. It’s pretty easy for a Kiwi cop to say they’ve never taken a bribe… because they’ve never been offered one.”

New Zealand is justifiably proud of its police, he says, and we must be wary that changes in “efficiency”, such as Mobility, don’t mean that we start to lose touch with our communities. “Even off-duty, police are part of the community.”

Another of Greg’s favourite observations on the world is that “everything is joined up”. To that end, he says, you have to have knowledge from all sides of a debate. “Take in the different perspectives, have a thirst for knowledge…”

His decision to not seek re-election this year was met with disbelief by some members, many of whom had not even joined Police when Greg became President. It is, however, the right time to go, for himself and for the organisation, he says.

“The Association is in great shape. We’ve had a great pay round and, most importantly, the big issue of extra staffing for Police is now being considered by Government. We have been working behind the scenes to make that happen and it will be an election issue.”

On a personal level, he’s happy to be leaving on his own terms, knowing that there are “good people” waiting to follow on.

He hasn’t decided where he is headed next, but he’s still travelling to find out what’s over the horizon.

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