When Greg O'Connor emerged from the criminal underworld, he came home to the West Coast to recover. More than 30 years later he still sees the Coast as his salvation.

The 58-year-old stands down this week as national president of the Police Association. He's held the job for a record 21 years.

Most Buller people know something about him - he grew up with eight siblings on the Waimangaroa dairy farm of his parents, Kath and Eamon, went off to join the police force, worked undercover, became the voice of the police.

Greg O'Connor with Michael Busch back in 1990, who pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder. Right: detective Rangi Nichols. Photo / File
Greg O'Connor with Michael Busch back in 1990, who pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder. Right: detective Rangi Nichols. Photo / File

They might not know what being a West Coaster means to him.

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He said he didn't know himself until he emerged from 18 months' undercover in the drug and gang scene in the North Island.

"I was living with crooks and got to like them and got to see that the world wasn't black and white, it was very grey."

He returned home "a confused 24-year-old" and he tried to get a game with his old rugby club, United.

"But I was too unfit. I was smoking 40 cigarettes a day, I hadn't been living a very healthy lifestyle.

"United were on top of their game at the time and Joe Syron wouldn't give me a game - I remember throwing up in the training."

He managed to get some game time with the Ngakawau team, which was on a winning streak.

For the next three months he relied on rugby, possum trapping and the West Coast to help sort out his head. He said he discovered what few understood - that the real danger of working undercover wasn't getting done over, but forgetting who you were.

"That was what that coming back to the West Coast for three months [did] - that re-established my identity."

He never forgot what he learned on the other side of the law, particularly about "the insidious nature of gangs".

"The nature of the beast is bad ... it makes me laugh when I see people almost romanticising them."

Nor did he forget what it was like busting people who had become his friends.

He also remembers the many intelligent people he encountered in the criminal fraternity.

"If you could harness some of that energy ... But they were just people who had stepped off the mainstream and it's hard to get back on once you were off."

O'Connor making their submissions on cannabis to the Health Committee at Parliament in 2001. Photo / File
O'Connor making their submissions on cannabis to the Health Committee at Parliament in 2001. Photo / File

Career advantage

He has no doubt coming from the West Coast has helped his career.

"I think you start off with a great advantage of stepping into the world and seeing things that people who are in that world don't often see ...

"We see Christchurch, we see Wellington, we see Auckland ... If you're brought up in those places you don't, you only see your own city."

He regards his main achievement as raising the Police Association's credibility.

"When we do speak, people appreciate that we've done our research, that we come from a well-informed position."

The 2000 Waitara tragedy, in which a constable fatally shot Steven Wallace, made him realise why police officers needed advocacy.

"This officer did the right thing, he did what was expected of him, and yet was pilloried - never able to sleep in his bed again."

In any organisation, it was often the "people at the bottom" who took the flak, O'Connor said.

"Where are the people standing up for them? Where are their bosses? It's systems that often let people down and yet the individual at the end often wears it."

He denied that the association's default position was sticking up for police, regardless of what they had done.

"We're not about keeping anyone in the police who shouldn't be here, we're about making sure people are fairly treated."

O'Connor said the big problem facing police was chronic understaffing.

"That's not just about police, that's about the public. Nothing stresses police officers out more than not giving service to the public."

Methamphetamine and organised crime were rife.

"Places like Westport have got a meth problem. The last time I was home the people I talked to were telling me there's meth around on the West Coast, there's gangs."

The proliferation of firearms in the criminal community was out of control and would result in arming of police if things didn't improve.

He revealed that the association had worked behind the scenes to help keep jobs during the recent West Coast police review.

"It could have been a lot worse for Westport. Keeping the community cop in Westport was a big win."

Greg O'Connor in 2009. Photo / File
Greg O'Connor in 2009. Photo / File

Time to go

O'Connor said it was time for him to step down.

"You have to finish these jobs sometimes and it's good to go out on top. It's good to go out on my own terms."

He also chaired the International Council of Police Representative Associations, representing 1.5 million officers from more than 30 countries, for eight years. Resigning from the association had been particularly difficult, he said.

"I really enjoyed that, and doing a job no-one else in the world was doing, understanding what's happening in the policing environment."

Asked if he planned to go into politics (his cousin Damien is West Coast-Tasman MP) he responded:

"Yes, I'm just waiting a call-up from the Americans - go and replace Don Trump at the last minute. Paul Ryan's got my number."

O'Connor and his wife Desley have three children Isaac, 26, Michael, 23, who is severely disabled, and Eve, 18. They live in Wellington, but the West Coast would always be home, he said.

"Maori have got that great word turangawaewae - where your soul rests ... My soul rests down whitebaiting on the Waimang River, or at the back of Britannia."

Chris Cahill was elected as O'Connor's successor as president for a three-year term.

- Westport News