Former country cop Gavin Benney talks to Andrew Laxon about policing in shorts and Jandals, getting ambushed by colleagues and how the job isn’t fun any more

Gavin Benney has always liked to do things his own way, rules or no rules. When a beach house on his Northland patch was burgled, he knew the thief was a local man who had moved to Tapu, 19km north of Thames.

"I rang the Thames police and asked them to try and find this guy and it was just too hard for them," says Benney.

"So I drove down there, went to this guy's house, knocked on his door - no search warrant, nothing. He opens the door, couldn't believe it, didn't know how I'd found him. Got the stolen gear, which he had in the house, and took him to the Thames police and locked him up.

"And I did get in a little bit of shit for that because I didn't get permission. But if I'd asked for permission to go, they'd say no. You'd send it to Thames, some cop would get it, they would sit on it ... And the cops are busy, but to me that's the important stuff to go and do."

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Benney made a habit of doing this in his 24 years as a rural cop based in Hikurangi, a town of about 1400 people, 17km north of Whangarei.

In 2010 he got a call from a man whose boat had been stolen from Whananaki 12 years earlier. The owner said the boat had turned up on Trade Me in an auction. Benney located the advertiser north of Kaikohe but found the local police "unhelpful", so he drove north with the original owner and reunited him with his boat. He got an official bollocking for that too, he says. Another time he and a dairy farmer tracked down stolen stock outside his area without notifying local police. He got a search warrant but got told off again.

Now the 52-year-old has broken ranks in a book, Country Cop 24/7: The Life and Times of a Rural Cop, with local writer Catherine Ballard.

He maintains Ballard nudged him into doing it but once he started, he couldn't help combining good yarns with some heartfelt reflection on how his brand of old school, bend-the-rules policing is fast disappearing.

Benney was a sports-mad kid from Paeroa who left school in 1980 and joined the police a couple of years later looking for excitement. At his first posting in Whangarei, new recruits were sent to the mortuary where a "corpse" played by an older cop would suddenly come to life.

As he admits in the book, "Excessive drinking was the norm and we would all look after each other so nobody got into trouble." One night after a rugby win, he turned up drunk for his shift so his sergeant told him to walk the beat. His colleagues picked him up about an hour later, asleep in full uniform in the gutter outside a night club, and threw him in the back seat of the patrol car for the night.

In 1989 Benney took a sole charge posting in Hikurangi, covering a large rural area from Pipiwai to the east coast and from Bland Bay in the north to Ngunguru in the south. The town was run down from years of bad economic news - closures and a State Highway 1 bypass. The bakery owners, fed up with break-ins every weekend, just left the door unlocked.

Benney says he tackled the problems with relish, following up every lead and using informants to disrupt the local gang and drug scene.

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He is proud of the crime statistics that show he solved between 60 and 65 per cent of all reported crime, compared with the 50 per cent average for all New Zealand, and 50 per cent of burglaries, compared with only 10 per cent nationally.

He once organised a town meeting and proposed that the family involved in a spate of graffiti attacks should be banned from every shop in Hikurangi and the pub. He says the meeting backed him unanimously but some shopkeepers back-pedalled when the national media got hold of the story. When he met both the boys years later, they apologised for their behaviour and credited his approach as a factor in their decision to get out of crime.

On the main street in Hikurangi, locals speak warmly of Benney and his colleague, former Ministry of Transport traffic cop Russell Rawiri, who is still there. "He and Russell were a great team," says longtime resident Annette Vendt. "Hikurangi went through a bad patch and when they came here, it picked up. Definitely they had a big impact."

Shayn Rouse, who has run the motorcycle repair shop for 17 years, says he's a fair kind of guy, although you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of him. Some of the kids in town don't think much of him either, "but only because they've been caught".

In fact, even some of the villains rate him. The book's foreword, by an anonymous local drug dealer and small-time thief, calls him "hard but fair". It describes Benney walking into a room of "pretty serious crims" in his customary policing uniform - shorts, T-shirt and Jandals - and being treated with respect, partly because most of them played rugby with him.

This approach may have endeared Benney to locals but not to some of his bosses. Benney says he had regular run-ins over his slack dress code, using the police-issue 4WD for crayfishing trips with his friend Roger Ballard, the author's husband, while he was on call, and often not answering his phone immediately because he was busy playing tennis or hockey.

Most of the time, he says, his high success rate got him off the hook. But his tendency to waive the rulebook in the interests of what he saw as wider justice kept landing him in hot water.

Once an elderly farmer with no previous convictions pointed a gun at some pig hunters who he thought were rustling his sheep. "I recommended that he not go through the court system," says Benney. "I was just shot down with that and they ended up prosecuting." The farmer was convicted and lost his firearms licence for two years.

A few months before he quit, Benney made another controversial call not to charge a man who had been fighting with his brother. He thought he could persuade the two to sort out their problems.

He was overruled again and called in for a meeting with the new inspector, where he continued to defend his decision vigorously. He got a counselling session for that and a note on his personal file.

Yes, he says, it affected his decision to go. "Afterwards I remember saying to her; 'Your police is not my police'." The last straw came when his fellow officers unsuccessfully set a trap to catch him drink-driving.

Benney says he was tipped off that his colleagues were waiting to catch him at a breathtesting checkpoint. He says although he had not been drinking, he and another police officer took a back road instead and listened to the police radio.

"We heard them say; 'We've missed him, he's gone.' Then I could hear them looking for me."

He says some police officers seemed to think that he was regularly drink-driving in his police car after the social hockey games.

Asked if it was true, he replies; "No, not at all. Did I years and years ago? Yes. But I haven't for years and won't - and didn't. Because I knew the rules."

In the book Benney calls the alleged sting "petty and potentially damaging behaviour" by fellow officers who were jealous of the way he did his job. Pressed in the interview, he admits the checkpoint team were doing their job and he had no cause for complaint.

What seems to hurt him most is realising that you can no longer depend on your police mates.

He goes back to the time he turned up for work as a young cop so drunk that he passed out in the gutter. "If I was working and someone came in in that state, you'd look after them, take them home. Somebody else now would report them, maybe. I understand that ... I'm not saying it's wrong, it's just different."

He thinks that he and other officers were probably targeted because they were good friends with former police recruitment officer and fellow sports fanatic Ross Kneebone, who was convicted of drink-driving in 2010 after recording an alcohol level of 733 micrograms per litre of breath (the legal limit is 400mcg). Benney is now a part-owner of a Whangarei pub with Kneebone and ex-All Black Ian Dunn.

In August 2013 his 19-year-old son Kurt, a promising rugby player who had also wanted to join the police force, was convicted of drink-driving.

Benney wrote a reference for him in court, which he knew he was not allowed to do but went ahead anyway.

He says he saw a different side to the court system and the experience probably hastened his decision to leave.

Benney doesn't want to sound like he's grumbling. He's semi-retired with a generous police pension and the chance to travel the world with his partner, Maria.

He thinks police these days are better trained, better equipped - he would like to see them armed fulltime - and safer. But he believes they have lost touch with the community, due to cost-cutting such as station closures and relying on inexperienced front-line staff, as well as policies such as traffic-ticket quotas, which alienate the public.

Or as he told his bosses at his farewell speech: "The job's not fun any more".

Better work stories

Gavin Benney had regular run-ins with his bosses over his use of the police-issue 4WD for crayfishing trips.
Gavin Benney had regular run-ins with his bosses over his use of the police-issue 4WD for crayfishing trips.

In Whangarei in the 1980s ...

"Once, when a suspected thief was arrested but refused to admit his guilt, I dressed up in old civvy clothes and pretended to sleep in a holding cell. The arrested burglar was put in with me and believing me to be a fellow crook admitted his guilt to me."

Stopping a police car chase from Auckland to Whangarei ...

"We pulled over and collected some large rocks. As the truck careered towards us I stood in the middle of the road, hurled my largest rock and leapt sideways out of the way as it smashed into the windscreen, bringing the truck to a full stop. We dragged the screaming driver out, giving him a pretty rough handling. It wasn't until later we discovered that after smashing the windscreen, the rock had dislocated his shoulder."

Searching the property of a notorious drug dealer ...

"He was known to have a particularly vicious pitbull dog. One of the older cops said that he would sort out the dog. We went to the house where the dog came to the gate menacingly. The old timer pulled his .38 pistol and shot the dog. We were all stunned but the problem was solved. The drug dealer was not so impressed."

Country Cop 24/7 - Life and Times of a Rural Cop, Mary Egan Publishers, RRP $34.