From crocs and robbers to top job

By Phil Taylor

New Police Commissioner Peter Marshall wants to reduce paperwork so there are more police on the streets for longer. Photo / NZPA
New Police Commissioner Peter Marshall wants to reduce paperwork so there are more police on the streets for longer. Photo / NZPA

After a few years behind a desk at police national headquarters, Peter Marshall hankered for a bit of adventure.

He sure got it.

There was a tsunami that claimed 53 lives, an incident in which he warded off 13 machete-armed home-invaders with a ceremonial sword, and the annual rainy season problem of crocodiles straying into the suburbs.

All part of the job for the Police Commissioner of the Solomon Islands. When Marshall and his wife Pamela return to New Zealand in April for Marshall to take up the role of Police Commissioner, he will have served four years in the Solomons.

Though not likely to be called upon to arrange for errant crocs to be "dispatched" (that's police language for shot) he's under no illusions there will be sharks.

Yes, he says, on the phone from Honiara, the Solomons' capital, he is aware that politics swirl around the role and he suggests he has had a foretaste.

Labour leader Phil Goff this week did what Oppositions do by suggesting Marshall would be in the pocket of police minister Judith Collins, citing the shorter than usual (three instead of five years) term of his contract. Marshall would be more compliant, said Goff, for fear of not being reappointed when his three years was up. Marshall rejects the assertion and says the shorter tenure was his idea and suits because he will then be 61.

None of which necessarily means the Government will leave him alone. "There are changes that will have to take place in the police," Prime Minister John Key said cryptically this week.

What does that mean? Marshall says he doesn't know as he's yet to sit down with the Government. He knows he won't be offered a bigger budget.

No matter. "I regard myself as being practical and a realist. But I'm sure we can manage some improvements in terms of serving the front line."

He'll give little away about his plans but says he intends to explore ways of culling paperwork to put more police on the streets for longer. "People want to see police officers on the street, they want to see police officers who have a bit of personality and police officers who will actually take action when they see something happening."

Ask police and lawyers who have worked with Marshall and you learn he is decent and capable.

"His biggest strength will be how he comes across to the public," says one officer. "The Commissioner role is difficult. You deal with all the curly questions. But he will come across really well in the media."

Unlike Howard Broad, who was considered a political animal and consequently not popular with rank and file, Marshall is well regarded in the ranks. "Straight as a die ... [and] an inspirational leader," said a source.

Never got in trouble, says former MP and one-time controversial policeman Ross Meurant. "Marshall has a pleasant manner about him ... and is of a far higher calibre than some who drift to the top."

A serving officer describes him as a people person who remembers everyone's name."

"He will lead from the front. He knows what he wants, but he'll ask you in such a nice manner that you won't mind doing something you didn't want to do."

Leading from the front has been Marshall's MO in the Solomons. Last week he was on the streets of Honiara as the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force quelled a riot that broke out after cabinet minister and former leader of the militia group the Malaita Eagle Force, Jimmy "Rasta" Lusibaea, was jailed for wounding a citizen and assaulting a police officer.

Seeing Marshall personally make arrests as New Zealand's top cop is unlikely, but we will see more of him than we have of his predecessor. He says being seen to be doing the job is part of good policing and applies from the top down. Each day he has 20 to 30 police on the streets of Honiara.

He believes good societies and good police forces go hand in hand.

"The foundation of a good society is an ethical and well-resourced and disciplined police force with police officers who are professional.

"I enjoy the work and I want people who work with me to enjoy their work as well. Sometimes we take ourselves a little too seriously." A little "police humour" helps leaven the burden of work that can be disturbing. Listen to Marshall describe dealing with his first death as a young constable and you can understand the role of black humour as a coping mechanism.

Acting on a report by neighbours that an elderly man had not been seen for some days, officers removed the louvres from the toilet window to gain access. As the smallest, it fell to Marshall to squeeze through into the cubicle - where he found a body already affected by rigor mortis. "That was a fairly brutal introduction to police work as a 19-year-old."

He recalls too his youthfulness, being the butt of jokes on the beat.

"Didn't we see your name in the paper Constable?" A wit asked rhetorically as Marshall made the rounds of an Auckland pub. "Congratulations son, the School Cert results came out last night!"

"Everyone in the bar gave me a round of applause," says Marshall.

In fact Marshall had attended university for a time but only as a means to his attaining his goal of becoming a police officer, the only career he has ever wanted. "I thought it might sound better on my application if I was a university student."

Not surprisingly, he is a proud policeman.

He understands that pride in the job and professionalism go hand in hand and nurturing that has been a priority during his time in the Solomons where 200 homes are being built for police officers (police there are entitled to a police house), the police HQ has been renovated, the barracks are about to be and Marshall has put the "Royal" (dropped by a past governor-general) back into the name.

"It might seem quaint from a New Zealand perspective, but the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was a name they had held dear.

"Something like that made a huge difference to morale and the feeling of executive support for the 1100 staff here."

New uniforms are ordered and as a final step in what Marshall called a "rebirthing", all of the islands' police will in February re-swear their oath of allegiance to the police force at a public function and receive their own Bible signed by the Commissioner of Police - significant symbolism in such a religious country.

Marshall says that ceremony - his last public duty before taking on New Zealand's top job - will signify "a moving forward of this organisation".

Irrespective of whether he can say the same thing after his tenure at the helm of New Zealand police, we can expect to see and hear more of him as Police Commissioner than is usual.

Peter Marshall, 58

* About to: become Police Commissioner (April)

* Currently: Police Commissioner of the Solomon Islands

* Veteran career: 38 years as a policeman

* Unusual fact: held off a home invasion by machete-wielding robbers using a cool head and "my steel ceremonial sword".

* Looking forward to: fronting up, policing the Rugby World Cup, becoming a grandfather

* Predecessors: Howard Broad, not seen by rank and file as a cop's cop. Rob Robinson, tenure blighted by Clint Rickards scandal. Peter Doone, dogged by controversy after his partner was not tested for possible drink-driving

- Additional reporting by Jared Savage and Edward Gay

- NZ Herald

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