In the concrete belly of Tauranga Police Station, the face of top traffic cop Ian Campion flashes blue, red, blue, red, then white.

He sits calm and relaxed in a stationary patrol car as a photographer attempts to capture the right moment between bursts of light.

Campion - champion of road safety in the Western Bay of Plenty - is stepping down from his role as Senior Sergeant in charge of road policing. It's a role he has held for 13 of his 42-year career. This photoshoot is likely to be among his last in the driver's seat of a patrol car. But while bantering with the photographer, he appears far from sad.

The 60-something-year-old is preparing to spend 12 months deployed in an advisory role on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. It will be his third posting there. What happens after is a matter of "watch this space" but he won't be returning to this job.


"I will have some serious decisions to make towards the end of my time in Bougainville," he says with a wry grin.

Dressed in standard police uniform, high-vis vest and Senior Sergeant's hat, Campion's tall frame makes easy work of the stairs up to the station's first level.

In an interview room previously used to address media in an Ohauiti murder case, Campion sits alert and friendly, offering boundless energy in an otherwise nondescript environment.

For all the tragedy Campion has been witness to he smiles and laughs, a lot.

"This job has been good to me," he says.

"Over my many decades in the job I've never had a day where I didn't want to get out of bed and go to work."

Campion joined the Ministry of Transport in 1975 before his first posting in Tokoroa in 1982. He returned to the New Zealand Police College as an instructor before moving to Rotorua in 1987, taking a break to open a Muffin Break store for two years and returning to the police with a posting in Auckland Central in 1997. He arrived in Tauranga in 2004.

"That's what I love about this job, is the variety and the people - that's what really makes me tick."

But the quiet freedom of hunting and camping offers Campion the ying to his professional yang.

"I love being out in the bush. I love the solitude it offers."

Campion drives a Toyota Hilux and is a member of the New Zealand Deer Stalker's Association. He confesses he has a few secret spots, "and some not-so-secret spots".

"My friends would say I'm taking my rifle for a walk. But what they mean is I don't often come home with anything," he says, laughing at his own apparent failings.

Campion credits his circle of friends for helping him cope with the pressures of the job.

"They make sure I actually get out and do the things I enjoy. They make sure the job doesn't get on top of me."

Senior Sergeant Ian Campion signs off from his role as head of Western Bay of Plenty road policing, after 13 years in the role. Photo/John Borren
Senior Sergeant Ian Campion signs off from his role as head of Western Bay of Plenty road policing, after 13 years in the role. Photo/John Borren

Wife Deirdre also offers Campion safe solace away from the countless horrors most of the community is protected from. Privately singing in the truck to Pavarotti or catching up with his two adult sons - one in Auckland, the other in Hastings - are other ways he unwinds.

Campion is careful and reluctant with his words when he says: "I've had a few scary moments in my career."

These include being threatened at gunpoint at Waihi Beach, diffusing a drug and alcohol-fuelled street brawl and being involved in a serious crash while driving a patrol car a few years back.

"I wasn't at fault by the way," he quickly says of the crash before ripping into a hearty belly-laugh, having realised the awkward implications of if he was to blame.

"It's pretty slack really," he jokes of his scary-incident resume.

But Campion's incidents pale in comparison to his first few years as a police officer in Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe).

Campion was brought up in Malawi, hanging out in villages and listening to bands play with handmade instruments. When he reached 17 he applied to join the British South African Police in Rhodesia.

"That was my first real job. I started as a cadet and left when I was 21. It was a great job as a young person."

The police force provided cadets with accommodation. Campion only had to worry about feeding himself and avoiding the terrorists.

"I worked for the last 12 months in the Zambezi Valley in ... I guess you could call it intelligence gathering."

The Zambezi Valley became a popular spot among terrorists who would use it to travel through. During their journeys, they would terrorise villages within the valley and demand shelter and food from the locals. If locals did not play ball, blood was shed.

"They would maim the locals," Campion says in a clipped tone, matter-of-fact.

"Part of our job was to teach people in the villages not to risk their people being hurt. We would tell them 'If these people demand to be fed and watered, then provide that so your people are kept safe. And in time, if you provide information on them to us, we will ensure security services will support you'."

As Campion chased crims and negotiated with villagers, his parents who worked for the Malawi Government emigrated to New Zealand. At the end of the Campion's three-year contract, he joined them.

Campion's face softens when asked what rates as his number one career highlight.

"That was when I worked at the traffic college from 1982 to 1987 - going back a number of full moons now," he chuckles.

"I worked as an instructor and I absolutely loved that role. You saw baggy-arsed - actually that's a terrible term - these pimply faced, long-haired, unkempt people and you got to mould those recruits.

"You got to see their knowledge levels increase. You got to form those relationships. You were almost camp mother really. To see them grow is incredibly rewarding."

If there was a week or two "in between" recruits, there was a collective sadness among instructors left behind "because your ducklings had left", he says.

Campion's bright blue eyes become wistful.

"That was a really rewarding part of my career. I really enjoyed that."

In 2014's New Year's Honours, Campion was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to police and the community.

Despite the enthusiasm for Bougainville, Campion says the toughest part about stepping down will be leaving his team behind. Some have been with him for all of his 13 years and the vibe among the unit of 26 is much like a family, he says.

"Well, I like to think so. They might not think so. They might see me as more of a tyrannical father!"

"I would actually hope that they would see me as someone who has their back and that they can approach at any stage and that I'm all about the team. Really, it's all about the people."

Reducing the numbers of deaths and carnage on our roads has been Campion's biggest focus. For Campion, any drive around the Western Bay of Plenty is littered with memories of crashes from over the years.

"Yes, I remember those incidents. Not in a bad way but I still remember."

Senior Sergeant Ian Campion signs off from his role as head of Western Bay of Plenty road policing, after 13 years in the role. Photo/John Borren
Senior Sergeant Ian Campion signs off from his role as head of Western Bay of Plenty road policing, after 13 years in the role. Photo/John Borren

Campion admits there is a local highway he aims to avoid at all costs. He won't identify it though, to prevent his opinion becoming a political football at the expense of people's tragedies. His empathy for his community continues to those drivers sometimes at fault.

"I think you have to accept that people make mistakes. We are all human. It's about trying to get those mistakes to a point where when someone makes a mistake, the outcome is not going to be tragic."

The battle between logic and emotion was hard fought when it came to some of the Bay's worst crashes. Campion knows there's only so much he can do as a policeman, but it doesn't stop the dreadful feeling he could do more.

In 2016, there were 19 people killed on the roads in the Western Bay of Plenty.

"That was the worst result in over 10 years. In fact, it's the worst result since I've lived here," he says in genuine disbelief.

"Then you have 2013 when we had just six people killed on Bay roads. That was the best result in 30 years."

Campion says the region's rapidly growing population has meant more wheels on the roads and fewer chances of motorists getting away lucky with mistakes like crossing the centre line.

His mood changes slightly. He takes time before speaking again.

"My biggest regret is not being able to have prevented more of those crashes."

Campion pauses and looks up, blue eyes focused and clear.

"We do a lot of soul-searching about how we can do things that might have helped," he says.

"It does really affect us. But we just keep plodding on."

Campion confesses there would not be two days apart where the memories of some of the crashes weigh heavy on his mind.

"Dealing with the actual scene of the crash can be tough for staff, particularly if young people are involved. But actually, the hardest part is dealing with the people left behind - the next-of-kin, the family, the loved ones. That ... that takes ... a lot of effort, no effort isn't the right word. It takes a lot of emotion," he says.

"Dealing with family never gets any easier but it's what we do.

"The 'if' question, the 'if only', crops up quite a bit."

New Zealand Police operate a trauma support system for the likes of Campion and his team which he says is brilliant. But Campion also relies on things closer to home to help temper some normality to his less-than-normal job.

"I have a little place that I call my rock."

Campion's rock is not a physical rock but a private spot that allows him to sit, de-stress and "where I have some quiet time".

It's easy to wonder if Campion was thinking of his rock while sitting in his patrol car that morning, assaulted with flashing red, blue and white lights.

Quite possibly.

Ian Campion's roadtrip playlist

- Pavarotti, or other opera

- Queen, and Freddie Mercury

- Slade

- Rod Stewart

- Ronan Keating