Senior Constable Bruce Dow has seen and heard it all during his more than four decades of service with the police. This year marks 45 years since he joined the constabulary as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. Of those 45 years, 41 have been spent in Oamaru. Reporter Daniel Birchfield sits down with him to reflect on his long career.
Q: Did you always want to be a police officer when you were a young fellow?
Yes. Yes, I did. I had two uncles that were in the police. Constable George Dow, who ended up dying in Dunedin and has his name on a plaque on the wall at the Dunedin police station. My other uncle retired as district commander in Christchurch. He was chief superintendent, a rank that doesn’t exist any more. That kind of fuelled the enthusiasm. I left school at 17, did two years at Burnside freezing works in Dunedin, where I’m from. I counted down the years really and the minute I turned 19, I joined.
Q: Where did you go to police college and what was that experience like?
I went to Trentham. That doesn’t exist as a police college any more. It was three months and it was like being in the army, probably. The first half was really hard. They really put the pressure on you to see if you were going to make it and if you didn’t make it, you were out. I don’t think we lost anyone. In the second half, things slackened off. I graduated and went to Dunedin, and spent about three years there. I relieved at country stations like Balclutha, Milton and Mosgiel. I moved to Oamaru in 1977 and I’ve relieved all around here, including Wanaka, Ranfurly, Palmerston, Waikouaiti, Hampden, Duntroon (now closed), Kurow and Omarama. I’ve been around a bit.
Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in policing over your 45 years?
Wanganui was a big change, the Wanganui computer system. When police introduced Wanganui, we used typewriters. The Wanganui changed the whole way of thinking in the police and it was the best thing since sliced bread at the time because it gave us almost real-time information. Moving police communications to Christchurch was initially thought to be bad but in fact it was a good idea. The next-biggest change would be mobile phones. So much is done on that now and I hardly ever use the radio. It’s all done on the phone .. any routine stuff should be done on there. Forms, documents, tickets, time sheets are all being done on the phone. Does it make the job easier? I suppose, overall, yes, but it can be frustrating when you don’t get service.
Q: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
It’s the old story, I suppose – it’s the people. Some are good and some are bad. Of the 100 vehicles I stopped over the Christmas period, not one caused me an issue. Two women almost got down on their knees and pleaded for me not to give them a ticket, which I was never going to do. One blamed stomach cramps . that didn’t make her speed. Their speed was 130kmh-plus. I don’t care who you are, you’re still going to get a ticket. It’s about the initial approach when you’re talking to people .. but it doesn’t always work. No-one likes getting a ticket. You’re never going to please everyone in this job. You’ll please some, but annoy the heck out of others.
Q: What are some of the most difficult situations you’ve had to deal with?
There was the sudden death of an infant at the hospital up on the hill years ago. We had to go up there and deal with the death. The baby was still in the ward and in the bed, and the mother and father were still there. My job was to pick that baby up, carrying it past the parents into the mortuary. That family have probably never forgotten that .. but how traumatic it would have been for them? Another goes back further. It was on a Sunday afternoon in Dunedin and there was a fatal crash, a motorcyclist. I didn’t know anything about it and the family, including parents, came in and said they wanted to see the body. I talked to the boss and he said the body was a mess, don’t let them in. I said to them, we suggest you wait until the funeral directors look at him. They said they still wanted to see him. I went back to the boss’ office and he said if they want to see him, let them in. We drove around to the mortuary and I went in, pulled back the sheet and had a look. I was only a young cop then and I thought, ‘What am I going to do here?’ I got a whole lot of towels, wet them and gave him a face wash. I did what I could. I took the body to the viewing room, pulled the sheet back and they lost it. I thought, ‘Why didn’t you take my advice?’ That’s probably one of the last memories, seeing their son in that state. The last thing would be the four that were killed in the train crash at MacDonald’s Rd, just by Seven Mile Rd. I’ve never forgotten that.
Q: What are you most proud of and are there any specific highlights?
I guess every time you get recognised for your seven years’ service is nice. I don’t make a big deal out of it, though. I got presented with an award by the Waitaki District Council for 30 years’ service. That was out of the blue so that would be a highlight. In terms of police work, one high was seeing four arrested and going to prison for kidnapping that lovely wee girl, Gloria Kong. She and her family went through hell because of them. That case was a major for Oamaru [police].
Q: Is there any one thing that’s kept you in the job so long?
Deep down .. it’s a good job. Like any other job, it’s got its issues but overall it’s a job I’d recommend to anyone, even young kids. It’s got variety. A call could come in now and anything could be happening. It happens all the time and you just don’t know what you’re going to be doing next. You can self-initiate too … that’s another good thing about it.
Q: Have you ever thought about retirement?
I knew that was coming! It’s going to happen one day, isn’t it? I’m not at retirement age – I’m 64 – but when I reach that, I’ll start to think about it. I saw the other day the oldest sworn cop in New Zealand is 77. I won’t be working when I’m 77. You can’t work forever – you’ve got to try and work out a balance along the line in regards to when you should go and when you shouldn’t.