‘Old school’ boy in blue moves on

Retiring, but not shy: Chris Blackford

Queenstown’s longest-serving and most well-known policeman – that Kiwi with a Pommy accent – retired on Friday after 42 years’ service. Senior constable Chris Blackford discusses his colourful career with Philip Chandler

Early this year, an elderly Peruvian flying into Queenstown fails to declare that he’s brought in seeds and plant materials from Australia.

Instead of locking him up, airport cop Chris Blackford lets him and his wife stay in their pre-booked luxury hotel before flying out the next day.

“I’m required to detain him but I wouldn’t do it,” Blackford says.

“Technically I failed to comply with the law but I slept well.”

A self-confessed ‘old school’ cop, Blackford retires tomorrow after 42 years in uniform – the last 34 in Queenstown – before turning 65 next week.

Though there’s no retirement age, he says there’s a perception – “wrongly or rightly, but probably rightly” – that the police hierarchy don’t want older constables.

That’s because they’re at the top of the salary band, those positions don’t make money and they can be outspoken when things aren’t right.

Blackford: “The classic example is the Peruvian man that I wouldn’t arrest.”

It’s an example, too, that proves that despite his reputation, especially in his early years, for a brusque manner, Blackford actually has a heart of gold.

Younger days: All dressed up
Younger days: All dressed up

Before becoming a policeman, he was a junior non-commissioned officer in the British Army, a New Zealand traffic cop and even briefly worked as a spy.

Despite an English, or specifically a Lancashire accent, Blackford was born in Devonport, Auckland – his mum’s grandfather was Dannevirke’s first chemist.

At about five, though, his English father dragged his family to England to pursue a business oppor-tunity.

Blackford says he hated school – “I was a bad scholar” – and left at 15 to join the army.

“Typical of the British Army, they put me in a military school but I excelled because it was a lot more practical and you were treated more like an adult.”

On graduation, he served in West Germany, Northern Ireland and Canada and was even a military freefall parachute school trainee instructor.

His father, however, purchased his discharge so he could work in his hotel – “but I didn’t like it”.

Blackford had already met his future wife Yvonne, in the army, and a week after marrying her, brought her to New Zealand in 1974.

He applied to join both the police and the former Ministry of Transport’s traffic patrol.

He chose the MoT as the pay and the roster system were better and the training time was shorter.

He then spent eight years as an Auckland motorway patrol officer, interspersed with a stint in Wellington working for the Security Intelligence Service.

When a promised job as an SIS field officer in Auckland didn’t materialise, he went back to the MoT.

Long-serving: At the council table
Long-serving: At the council table

Then in 1982 he got a job in Queenstown – for about the first six years, he was the resort’s sole traffic cop.

“The drink-driving was just ridiculous, sometimes I processed five people in a night.”

In 1992 he became a policeman after all, after the two services merged.

Asked how he coped as a cop in a small town, Blackford says “you’ve got to be firm but fair – my philosophy was that everyone deserved a warning”.

He wore up to 17 hats at a time, including inquests, firearms, diversions, iwi liaison and media.

Blackford recalls giving out about 3000 diversions to first-time offenders, who paid “just in excess of $1 million” to local charities to stay out of court, and also arranged about $800,000 in victim reparations.

“Then the police got all silly about it,” he says.

Now diversion money goes into national causes apart from one local charity. In his inquest role, Blackford’s befriended many overseas families who’ve lost family members in the Queenstown Lakes area.

He has even stayed with some of them while on holiday.

“Nobody should leave Queenstown without realising that nothing more could have been done for them by the police.”

Blackford, who also served 18 years on the local council, says he leaves the police with no regrets.

“Being a policeman in my day – because I do think it’s different today – was a brilliant job.”