Thursday, 17 June 2021 - 2:24pm

Getting back on the highway

4 min read

News article photos (1 items)

Senior Constable Johnny McGrail, in uniform, standing in front of a Police motorbike in a garage with police cars behind him.

“It is such a privilege to be on the frontline. When you go through a life-changing experience like I have and you get a second chance, you make the most of it.”

Senior Constable Johnny McGrail is one of the country’s longer-serving Road Policing motorcycle patrol officers. It is a job he has done for many years and still enjoys.

Last year, a horrific collision brought Johnny to a grinding halt and cast a shadow over his future in Police.

On a Sunday afternoon in July 2020, while he was on duty, a car accelerated onto the wrong side of the road and collided head on with his Police patrol bike.

An x-ray of Johnny's broken leg.

Johnny was thrown over the handlebars of the bike and landed on the road. He was coherent enough to call in the accident and indicated that he had a severely broken leg.

He was absolutely gutted that the motorbike was written off.

While motorcycles and equipment are replaceable, people are not. District Commander Superintendent Corrie Parnell reassured Johnny that we’d get a new motorcycle and replace the laser equipment that was damaged in the accident – he just needed to focus on his recovery.

Eleven months on, Johnny "Highway" McGrail is keeping Wellington’s roads safe on a brand-new, lighter and faster, Yamaha Police patrol motorcycle.

“People keep saying to me ‘you’re not getting back on your motorcycle, are you?’ Well, to that I say if you fall off your horse, dust yourself off, and get back on that horse.

“It’s so good to be back on the frontline. One of my first good wins was interacting with this young fella who was constantly riding his motorcycle loudly at excessive speeds around a quiet suburban neighbourhood.

"Once we worked out who it was, I visited him and his family and spoke to them at length about his unacceptable behaviour and the impact it was having on neighbours in the community. I’m getting back into the groove of prevention work and that’s the stuff I like.”

Between the accident and where Johnny is today was a long road to recovery.

“You sometimes wonder if you’ll ever get back. To staff who may have been in a similar situation I would say stay positive and work diligently on your rehab but be sensible and take your time.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel. Use the support available because it makes a huge difference.”

After the accident, the whole whānau, including the wider Police family, turned up to show their support. This set Johnny up well for the tough days ahead and kept him motivated to get back to work.

“I had excellent support from everyone from Assistant Commissioner Sandra Venables and Superintendent Corrie Parnell, to current and retired cops and the Police Association. I thought about how lucky I am to be in Police – it’s something we often take for granted."

After surgery and three weeks in hospital came months of incremental progress, first in a wheelchair, then months spent on crutches with his leg in a moonboot. Though progress was very slow, with each step Johnny was getting better. He missed his regular runs and raising his Police foster dog.

The constant stream of well-wishers sending texts, phone calls – picking Johnny up and taking him out for coffee really helped.

“My wife and kids, more than anyone, had to take up the slack," says Johnny. "I have six kids and couldn’t take them to sport or be there for them in the same way I used to. Not only that, they had to wait on me hand and foot. They were awesome!”

Along with the physical healing process, looking after his own mental wellbeing was a priority. The restorative justice process Johnny went through with the young man who caused the head-on collision was an important part of this.

“It was good for my mental wellbeing and I would recommend partaking in the process. He was horrified at the realisation that it wasn’t just a vehicle he had hit but a police officer. It was a very moving and healing experience for the both of us.”

Coming through the other side, Johnny says he is more caring and sympathetic towards victims injured in serious crashes.

“I have a greater understanding of what they will be going through and the long road to recovery ahead for them.”

The other passion of Johnny’s in New Zealand Police is being part of the Specialist Search Group (SSG). Spending six months on light duties was frustrating and he wanted so badly to be out there helping the team.

“I love being part of a skilled and dedicated team, motivated on finding that crucial piece of evidence in a serious crime be it weapons, stolen property, firearms or drugs.”

His first day back on the squad, Johnny and SSG colleagues were in the Wairarapa searching for firearms hidden on a rural property.

“It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Using the tried and true old search principles, I located them hidden in the bush. It was a real buzz to get these illegal firearms out of circulation. I thought to myself, this is why I am in Police!"