Earthquakes, fire, floods, snowstorms, terrorism – former Canterbury District Commander John Price is no stranger to major disasters.
This month he left Police for a full-time emergency management role – but his 35-year career was about much more than crisis.
“I think policing is a relatively simple science - it’s all about people,” he says.
“Key is treating people with dignity and respect, knowing people are human and make mistakes. Mostly it’s because of their background or what they’ve been exposed to, not who they are.”
John was a teacher in Nelson in 1987 when he achieved his ambition to join Police, inspired by an upbringing which placed importance on service and humanity.
JP, the early years. A recruit in 1988; on a Youth Aid course (1989); final parade outside the old Wellington Central (1991); CIB selection course (1992), and qual course (1993).
He was posted to Wellington where, after general duties, he went into Youth Aid. It aligned with his education background and he loved the prevention methodology - “where else do 84 percent of the people we deal with not come to our notice again?”
Central, he says, were whānau and ensuring youth had belief in themselves.
His first steps in CIB were with the Child Protection Team. He led the investigation into abuse allegations involving children at the Wellington Hospital Childcare Centre. It was the district’s largest child abuse case and resulted in a conviction.
Being father to three young children gave him personal motivation and empathy.
He moved through Wellington CIB squads then, as a detective sergeant, went into Criminal Intelligence. After 9/11 he was involved in Operation Links, policing threats around Tiger Woods’ presence at the NZ Open at Paraparaumu.
He was also OC Specialist Search Group when post-9/11 activities involved locking down Parliament and its grounds: “I saw and went places you wouldn’t do in normal policing and had exposure to national security and terrorism.”
Former Operation Austin investigator John in 2015 with recruit wing patron Louise Nicholas, whose story made her a central figure in the inquiry.
John was working in Kapiti Mana when a call from Assistant Commissioner Nick Perry invited him to join a team investigating allegations against police officers.
This became Operation Austin, a central moment in Police history. What John thought would be a few weeks’ work became a years-long inquiry requiring a move to Rotorua, leaving family in Wellington.
It was a difficult investigation, striking at the heart of what Police stands for, and caused him to question his future in Police.
“When you’ve been exposed to a lot of negativity in an organisation you’re proud of, it’s OK to question.
“You’ve seen the worst of behaviour but also the goodness and strength of victims, which makes you appreciate how important it is to be there to serve and protect those who are vulnerable and give them strength for their voice to be heard.”
After nearly 20 years in Police, John deployed to his home district at inspector rank, as Canterbury District Policing Development Manager.
Around this time came the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami. John went to Phuket as commander of the ante-mortem phase of the Disaster Victim Identification operation. In this rotation, the teams identified and returned around 450 victims to loved ones.
With more than 20 nations represented in the ante-mortem teams, it underlined the need to understand the ‘why’ to create a positive focus, despite language issues.
“It embedded in me the importance of getting the cause right and ensuring the team knew they belonged to something greater than themselves.”
Back in Canterbury, John’s role gave him a broad view of policing. “It taught me the importance of really strong partnerships across government, iwi, NGOs and the community.”
Those partnerships proved their worth in September 2010 when an earthquake struck near Darfield.
“I think the whole country saw it as a near miss. It should have been considered not only that but an early signal of what was coming next as our country is vulnerable to the destructive power of nature.”
'This was our hometown. It was personal.' Marking the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, with Commissioner Coster, former Superintendent Andy McGregor and Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha.
John notes that our interview is taking place on the 12th anniversary of what came next.
When the February earthquake struck, then-District Commander Dave Cliff and other local emergency services leaders were in Wellington - at a conference about Darfield - and unable to return quickly.
John established an ops centre next to South Comms, where communicators kept taking calls as aftershocks rattled Christchurch Central. He remains in awe of Police staff, working with customary strength, courage and resilience.
“Unlike Phuket, this was our hometown. It was personal. I feel so much for our colleagues in Eastern District [after Cyclone Gabrielle] – it’s their homes, their families, their lives.”
Many lessons were learned – including the importance of checking on family. “If you know they’re safe, you can focus. Clarity of mind in decision-making is critical, along with setting the intent, clear purpose and mission, the key tasks and the end state.”
The next chapter took John back to Wellington, first as Kapiti Mana Area Commander, then from late 2012 to The Royal New Zealand Police College as National Manager Training and Development.
“It brought together two careers – teaching and policing. It was the perfect role for me. It was the most positive place and I loved it.”
He relished the opportunity to influence Police culture and the careers of new and serving staff, to ensure people were excited about policing and safe, physically and mentally.
He led alignment of the college’s schools to areas of practical policing. He introduced CFIT initial training and the Career Progression Framework. At a bricks-and-mortar level, he oversaw work to earthquake-strengthen the buildings.
Culturally, he saw the college as ahi kaa - the home fires where our people can recharge.
He might have stayed longer but in June 2015 came the opportunity to return to Canterbury as District Commander.
“The call was very strong because there was unfinished business. To be part of the recovery and rebuild of my hometown was a calling, not a job.”
Scars from the earthquake manifested in mental health issues including a raised suicide rate. Then came the 2016 North Canterbury/Kaikoura earthquake, and 2017 Port Hills fires, on top of the ‘usual’ trauma of homicides and other critical incidents.
“Most districts experience these things but these repeated events ripped the scab off our community’s wellbeing. We were never able to get back to a ‘normal’ state.
“There was a serious and cumulative impact on the community and our people and their whānau which needed a strategic and human approach to wellbeing.”
In the afternath of the 15 March attacks, welcoming the then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to Christchurch, left, and fronting the media.
Building partnerships, says John, is like banking – you make deposits in the form of your relationships, then when you need to draw on your savings you have resources available.
This was never truer than after the attacks of 15 March 2019, when Police was lead agency. “We had 18 agencies in the DCC and EOC, and everyone was open and willing to share information and tasks. They knew and trusted what we were doing.”
John knew the Islamic community well but had to balance his personal feelings with the need to ensure the right mission, priorities and structures were in place and that everyone understood their role and the desired end state.
“Structure and priorities become important, and the mission becomes critical; people knowing what their purpose is and operating a high-trust model.
“Our people are very capable and skilled – give them the broad requirement and they will fill in the phase components.
“It tested me personally and professionally but, again, we had amazing people who stepped up and into danger with great courage and strength.
“On that day all police were heroes, every role they fulfilled. It makes me so proud to have been part of it.”
Despite all the challenges, John wants Canterbury to be known as more than a ‘crisis district’.
“We’ve got to fixate on the positive. I want it to be known as a high-performing and trusted Police district where people care for their community and provide the very best service, innovation, and strong partnerships.”
He says the time is right to let someone else step up. “I was only a guardian of the role and I hope I have left the district and community in a better state.”
And it's goodbye from me. Friends, family, colleagues and community members joined John for his farewell in his home city.
John was humbled by the hundreds of people who turned up to his farewell in Christchurch, and the hundreds who emailed and texted.
“I want to thank everyone for their kindness as I enter a new and exciting career.”
That career – Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Emergency Management for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) – satisfies his sense of service and desire to protect people who cannot protect themselves.
At NEMA’s HQ, John will be just metres from the old Wellington Central, where it all started.
Since those days he has been known for his adherence to Peelian principles – “still a very good foundation” – and a leadership style which prioritises staff welfare and the need to ensure everyone knows their ‘why’.
“Our people are stunning. I’ve never seen policing as a job, I see it as a vocation because you give so much for something greater than yourself - the community.
“We’re the few selected to serve the many. It’s an honour to be part of the few.”
His last word is about his family – “my rock, my soul and my aroha. Loving them has always been my most important duty, greatest service and greatest reward.”