Senior Constable Russell Rawiri is about to hand over his police badge and retire on July 27. Reporter Kristin Edge talks to the respected officer who joined the Ministry of Transport then worked as a police officer having served one Northland town for his entire policing career.
Senior Constable Russell Rawiri is known as "The Sheriff".
A couple of generations of school children have called him uncle.
Call him what you like, Rawiri has been a part of the Hikurangi landscape for decades and is well known and respected in the community.
And while he may not have stuck to strict police procedures, he has effectively solved thousands of crimes and helped thousands of people during stressful and tragic times in his rural patch, thanks to his personal approach to enforcing the law.
It's an enforcement career that's spanned more than four decades — 13 years with the Ministry of Transport and the balance on the thin blue line with the New Zealand police.
With the heat pump blasting, it doesn't take long to warm the Hikurangi station on Valley Rd. It's a compact operation - a kitchen, toilet and two desks make up the layout.
It's been the nerve centre for Rawiri for the past 28 years.
The 64-year-old grandfather of two has decided it's time to call it a day and shut the station door on his 41-year career.
"I want to be around a bit more for my grandsons. I want to try to live a less busy life. It probably won't happen but I'll give it a go," Rawiri laughs and swings back in the office chair.
"My family has had to put up with a lot over the years and without their support I probably would have left the job years ago."
His plan was to spend five years in the two-man station and then move to the South Island to a sole charge station.
"It never happened mainly because the family didn't want to move and the community didn't want me to leave. I have no regrets it's been great."
"You don't realise the length of time you've been in a place when you're busy helping out and being really involved in the community."
Rawiri was born in Rawene and raised in Waimamauku in the Hokianga, where he spent his first five years growing up on his parent's dairy farm.
The family moved south to Manurewa in Auckland where he started his schooling.
Manurewa Primary School was followed by senior years at St Stephen's, a Maori boys' boarding school, also known by its Maori name Tipene.
You get the feeling Rawiri didn't care much for school work and books. He finished school aged 15 and got a job n the menswear department of Farmers.
He had his eye on a police career but it was his eyes that didn't come up to scratch.
He discovered he needed glasses but measured up in the physical aspect for the job - back in the days when recruits had to be a certain height and chest measurement.
But his interest in enforcing the law was sparked one night when a rugby team member turned up to training on a Ministry of Transport (MoT) motorbike.
"He talked me into it and of course I loved motorbikes."
While most of his family were in the forces he wanted to be independent of whanau and go his own way.
Rawiri passed the entry tests but had to wait a few months before being able to complete the training course. So, in the meantime, he left his day job at Farmers and joined the army as a territorial in the transport division to keep up his fitness and gain a few extra skills.
That's where he learnt how to drive truck and tractors and got an HT licence at Waiouru and Burnham military camps.
Finally in 1979 he was sent to Trentham to complete the MoT college with 17 others for tree months learning about all things traffic related.
"I thoroughly enjoyed it. Learning about the law really fascinated me as a young man. And then riding a motorbike ... you could speed and it was legal because you had red and blue lights," Rawiri says with a cheeky laugh.
"But don't write that."
It's a phrase he says regularly throughout the interview as he recounts various different stories and incidents from over the years.
He said in those days the MoT was more about educating drivers rather than enforcement and it was in his nature to help people.
"I loved it and really got into it."
At the age of 19 and qualified he was sent to Auckland and was stationed at Papatoetoe and Mangere.
"I was given a motorbike and a ticket book and told to get out there and know my area. I got paid to do the job which was actually my dream job."
After a couple of years cutting his teeth he was transferred to the motorways team "the elite of motorcycling police".
On the motorbike "his patch" ranged from the Harbour Bridge to the Bombay Hills. Even back then it was a busy section of highway and that's where he encountered and dealt with road fatalities.
The first was a sports car that went under a truck trailer, decapitating the car's driver.
"That will never leave my mind."
It was the MoT officer's job to survey the scene and complete the paperwork and police did the official side of things including informing the family.
Rawiri says now he would rather attend a fatal crash rather than a sudden death callout, especially those involving children.
"With a fatal crash it's there. It's happened, you know what's going on. With a sudden death it's much more personal. It's more personal with the families. You are never really trained to deal with the emotional side of things but we are offered counselling if we want it and that's quite good."
In another less tragic incident in Auckland it involved a 22 car pile up for which Rawiri issued 21 tickets as all but the first the motorist were not following at the correct distance.
Another memory that brings a smile to Rawiri's face was patrolling on the Auckland Harbour Bridge when tolls were operating.
On night shifts a quick once over of the approach on either side of the toll booths sometimes yielded $100 in dropped coins, all of which was handed over to the bridge traffic officers.
It was 1983 when Rawiri transferred to Whangārei and continued to work for the MoT until the "police takeover", as he describes it, in 1992.
It meant a three-month stint at Police College for the MoT staff and for Rawiri the realisation of a dream.
"I enjoyed it. It was something I always wanted to be was work as a police officer."
By then infamous Hikurangi officer Doug Te Paa was retiring and Rawiri slipped into the police station along with the other recently appointed copper Gavin Benney.
"Gavin suggested I put a desk in the station and that's how we started working together. I learnt a whole lot from Gavin. He helped me and guided me through my career."
On the police website regarding the two-man station at Hikurangi it says: "Open hours: No set hours."
And that is the reality of policing in one of Northland's rural stations — the call for help can come any time during the night and day.
The emergencies ranged from burglaries, assaults, aggravated robberies, kidnapping, to drugs, water rescues and flooding.
Rawiri remembers the Hika community when he first started with Benney, describing it as "not all that great".
"We started policing with an iron fist and started tidying up the town ... there were a few characters but being a small community we got to know everybody so it wasn't hard to investigate local crimes and local crims as we knew their MO - modus operandi.
"You knew who could have done it. We would go and talk to people and because we had a rapport with the locals we didn't have to work too hard to solve incidents."
Rawiri reckons he and Benney were the "Dynamic Duo" and continuously achieved high crime resolution rates in one of the biggest areas covered by two cops in Northland.
He said building trusted relationships within the rural community was the difference between policing rurally and working in a bigger city.
"In the city you don't see people on a daily basis, here you do. I think Gavin and I built trust with people and so they had trust in us as people and as police. There aren't too many cops who can ring people up and tell them to turn up at the station to sort things out before they ended up in court and they actually fronted up."
Rawiri and his partner in crime Benney, also know as "Sarge", walked the beat together for 23 years and never had a cross word between them.
Their tenure must almost certainly be a record in Northland if not New Zealand for the longest policing duo in a two-man station.
Rawiri says he was the good cop while Benney was certainly the bad cop.
It's a summary Benney had no hesitation in saying was a true and accurate record.
"We pushed the boundaries there ... it's what we did. It developed so he was the good cop and I was the bad cop. We knew our roles and we knew that we would be there for each other. We never had a cross word," Benney says.
"Russell was really reliable. When you needed him he was there and he was someone I could always trust."
"We got in the shit some times over one or two things but if you get in trouble with the bosses it means you are doing your job."
Benney was on the same page when it came to community links.
"If you treat people well, which I think we both did, you reap the benefits later on when you need help ... we had the respect of the community."
But Rawiri says what has become concerning over the years has been the arrival of methamphetamine.
"Methamphetamine is a bad, bad, thing and causes serious harm to people and their families. It seems to me the jobs we get called to these days there is more violence. I try and get help for people in these situations."
He said while the "blue shirt" still commanded respect police over the years had been equipped with more and more weapons to defend themselves.
"When I joined the MoT we had handcuffs and a wooden baton and that was it. These days we have stab-resistant vests, pepper spray, Tasers and access to firearms. That, to me, says there is a lot of violence not just towards police but more violence in the community than back in the day which is a concern."
Rawiri has not just policed in the town of 1400 residents, but has woven himself into the fabric of the community for his contribution to the wellbeing of the people of Hikurangi.
In 2018 he received a Civic Honour Award, the highest honour Whangārei District Council can bestow on its citizens.
At the time Civic Honours Committee chairwoman councillor Crichton Christie said recipients had done "more in a lifetime than could ever realistically be expected".
It was noted Rawiri was the major force behind the introduction of the marae drivers' licensing programme, over-70s driver testing in Hikurangi and established Rural and Neighbourhood Watch groups.
In fact, helping people get their licences and get behind the wheel legally was one of his proudest achievements.
"Coming to Whangārei there were a lot of illiterate people who didn't have a licence. I set up a system in the office to sit down with them read them the questions and help them write the answers. They knew what they were doing and passed. Paddy Whiu, a cop up north, started up marae testing and I did it out of the War Memorial Hall and a lot of people got their licenses."
The establishment of Neighbourhood Watch groups gave the Hikurangi police more eyes and ears when it came to detecting crimes.
"Our area is so big we need as many people out there helping as we can get. With the locals they see what is going on and take down rego numbers and we check it out and it' been working really well."
Rawiri was a member of the Hikurangi Volunteer Fire Service for nine years and created a Fire Police Unit to assist the fire brigade with traffic and crowd control.
He was an original member of the Waro Lake Project group — taking leave from work to drive a truck carting fill from the quarry to the lake for the track and parking area.
Rawiri has a close relationship with Hikurangi Primary School, provided tae kwon do lessons for the community, and was vice-chairman of the Hikurangi RSA.
He attends meetings of community groups, including the Hikurangi Business Association to provide information about making Hikurangi a safer place and was also a respected member of the Hikurangi Friendship House Charitable Trust.
But it was in 2014 that a routine police Physical Competency Test - also known as a PCT which puts officers through an obstacle course to see if they are up to the physical demands of the job - that gave him a clue that all was not good with his heart.
"I'd never failed a PCT in my career but I did that day. The instructor cam over and told me it looked like I was having a heart attack."
Of course, Rawiri didn't think that was the case but a trip to the doctor found something indeed was not right with his ticker. In Auckland an angiogram detected blocked arteries which required surgery. There were six blocked arteries.
"It scared the shit out of me. Obviously I'd had too much of the good life and it really made me take a good look at my life."
After recuperating he was back on the beat but came to the conclusion it was time to look beyond the job.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed my career, the guys I have met over the years including the bosses and the community."
And Rawiri is quick to credit his wife of 44 years Dianne for her help during his policing career.
"She's had to answer the door when I'm not around ... she's put up with a lot and is well known in the community. My family has had to put up with a lot and if it wasn't for them I probably would have left the job years ago."
So what now?
Rawiri, a keen motorcyclist and president of the Red Knights International Fire Fighting Motorcycle Club Northland chapter, has travelled as far south as Bluff but has never ventured outside New Zealand.
So he reckons when Covid is done and borders open again international travel will be on the cards. In the meantime, some rest and relaxation might be on the cards.
However, given Rawiri's drive and commitment to the community don't be surprised if you see this sheriff pop up as a volunteer at a local police station.
And the last word: "I've loved it and it's been a great job being a rural cop."