When work was a riot…

When work was a riot…

When the phone buzzed in Dick Armstrong’s pocket during the speeches at his leaving do, he handed it to his son Scott to turn off.

“We might be in the ….,” suggested Scott, a Detective Senior Sergeant in Auckland, as he handed it back. The name on the missed call was that of Police Commissioner Mike Bush.

“I called him back and he said ‘You’re a hard man to catch’,” says Dick, who retired this month after 47 years with Police, in constabulary and general employee roles.

“He thanked me for my length of service and contribution to NZ Police, which was really nice – especially after I’d cut him off.”

Dick was an engineer by trade, building ships’ turbines on Tyneside, before coming to New Zealand with his wife Joyce in the 1960s.

They lived in Rotorua, where Dick worked at the Wairākei power station, but after the birth of their first child they returned to the UK.

In 1965 he joined the Metropolitan Police, where his duties included providing a motorcycle escort for the van carrying the Kray twins from Wandsworth Prison to the Old Bailey during their trial.  

In 1972 they came back to New Zealand. Dick was again an engineer, living in Tokoroa, when he was persuaded to continue policing. He served in Tokoroa for eight years before transferring to Auckland, where he specialised in youth work. He was promoted to sergeant in 1983.

In this role he found himself at the centre of a cornerstone moment of New Zealand history.

dick car

The Queen Street riot.

On 6 December 1984 Dick was in charge of a small group of inexperienced constables when a free concert in Aotea Square erupted into violence – the notorious Queen Street riot.

“New Zealand was stunned – a bit like with Christchurch now,” he says. “We’d never seen anything like this before and fortunately we’ve never seen anything like it again.”

Dick and his 10 constables held a skirmish line for hours, with colleagues unable to reach them, surrounded by a drunken, bottle-throwing mob.

“It was chaos,” he says. “There were more than 10,000 people crammed into Aotea Square.

“The mob were throwing beer bottles and cans, climbing on to roofs and urinating on people. I called for back-up then we went down to do what we could - but the back-up couldn’t get in.”

A group of Navy personnel offered to help and were asked to close part of Queen Street. Māori Warden Hine Grindlay famously tried to calm things, leading an impromptu peace march.

“She came to me and said ‘Come on, I’m with you’ and linked arms with me and the cops and others and started up the street.

“She absolutely berated the crowd for their disgusting behaviour and for picking on a few cops who were doing their job. She really let fly and obviously struck a chord because some of them started to back off.”

When Dick’s sections were eventually able to get to Auckland Central, where ambulances were waiting, eight of the 11 needed treatment. But there was still work to do and Dick was asked to go in again.

“I looked at them and said ‘It’s a voluntary thing fellas – you’ve been injured and can stand down if you want’.

“All 10 of them linked up and I marched them back down. They were kids with less than 12 months’ experience – it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

The drama continued at the subsequent Commission of Inquiry, when a panel member suggested Dick and his team started the riot. “I’m afraid I forgot myself and said ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking!

dick mway

Motorway Support Officer

Armstrong.

“The Lord Chief Justice said to me ‘It’s perfectly all right, Sergeant – just because people have said it doesn’t mean it’s true’.”

Dick later served out of Henderson, and the North Shore, before compulsory retirement at the age of 55 in 1995.

He continued as an Authorised Officer and for many years served as a motorway support officer, helping keep the motorway network moving by helping stranded motorists – “the best public relations Police could have”.

His other roles included running watchhouses and helping on front counters, but he decided, at the age of 79, that it was time to go.

Dick says fishing, travel and family time now figure in his plans.

Commissioner Bush says Dick has provided a great example to the other officers who have served with him.

“To serve for 47 years – more if you count his overseas service – is an awesome achievement,” he says.

“Dick has made a great contribution to Police and to our communities and we wish him all the very best for his retirement.”