'Top cop' led from the front

ON THE FRONTLINE: Tommy Thomson takes a thoughtful approach to an Alliance meatworks protest.
ON THE FRONTLINE: Tommy Thomson takes a thoughtful approach to an Alliance meatworks protest.

Tommy Thomson knew what it was like to feel a policeman's boot on his backside.

The fourth child of Magnus and Annie Thomson grew up in Mataura where the primary school was a quick dash from home and the children did not wear shoes - the soles on their feet withstanding stones, thistles and cold.

But by Gore High School age, young Tommy knew from experience that local constable James Lester Brazier was well-shod. Not that any formal complaints resulted: "Jim Brazier was God, and by God we knew and acknowledged the fact," he would later say.

That smalltown cop, however, appears to have put in a strong word for the just-occasionally errant boy, who himself joined the police himself in 1951. Asked his height and weight during his first interview, Thomson replied "Five foot nine and 10 stone 12". Strictly speaking he was at tad shorter, and 10 stone 2oz, wringing wet. But by happy co- incidence the misstatement co- incided exactly with the minimum requirements.

From training college he arrived in Dunedin and after five years was promoted to sergeant, despite mightily displeasing his examiner by insisting he would address his constables by their first names. He stuck to that approach; expecting discipline but not stiff formality.

After a further five years he had his first transfer to Invercargill, as a senior sergeant, and then in 1966 began a six-year stint in Christchurch becoming officer in charge of prosecutions, an armed offenders-squad member. He lead the scuba diving squad, the dog section and was a sports officer. An accomplished sportsman, he played senior rugby for Otago and the New Zealand Police, was a middle distance runner of some distinction, claiming a national junior mile title, and a pretty fair boxer.

He took charge of the train delivering the first decimal currency throughout the South Island - a journey made more dramatic by a theft of firearms beforehand, suggesting a possible train robbery attempt. Then three sharp explosions on departure from Port Chalmers had the policemen all grabbing their own firearms. It turned out a gang of railway workers had placed detonators on the track to warn any unscheduled rail traffic.

In 1972 Thomson was promoted to chief inspector and transferred to Greymouth as district commander. It was on the coast that he once arrived at a road block to find an armed man advancing. Thomson took a rifle and started walking towards the man, telling him to put down his weapon. The two kept approaching each other, showdown style, until they were about 7 metres apart. Another few paces, Thomson knew, and he would have to put a shot in the man's leg.

Then the guy stopped. He later told Thomson he realised this policeman really was prepared to shoot: "I could tell from your voice".

West Coast life further fuelled Thomson's delight of the outdoors - whitebaiting, tuna fishing, diving, deerstalking, goat shooting, possum hunting and goldmining.

He also licensed the first live capture-net gun for the early feral deer capture programme. The decision drew heat from head office but was crucial for the insurance industry covering the helicopter activity that was, in turn, so important to the development of deer farming.

It was unusual for a policeman to serve his entire career in the South Island and still rise to the rank of superintendent, but Thomson managed it. In 1977 he was promoted and posted to the job of district commander in charge of the Invercargill police district.

Sitting behind a desk dealing with paper work was one of the prices paid for promotion but he never gave up a chance to get back to "real" police work. In June 1985, alerted to an armed-offender emergency in Gore, Thomson was on the road in minutes, completing one of the quickest Invercargill to Gore trips on record, burning the brakes out of his car on the way.

For his work in the floods of 1978 and 1984 he was awarded an MBE, which he referred to as "Many Blokes Efforts" - an award that is given to the boss "when you can't give one to all the staff who did the work".

He retired in 1987, a popular figure after 36 years on the force.

Living with his wife, Joan, at Marjorie St Invercargill he remained active, playing bowls, fishing, duckshooting and "generally trying to keep active" - including competing with his son Tom in the two-day Coast to Coast in 1993.

He crashed off his bike in the event, was badly scraped and bloodied but still came in grinning from ear to ear and demanding his can of Speight's from a seriously concerned organiser Robin Judkins, who told Tom that his dad had put in a seriously gutsy effort.

"Well, he was a seriously good athlete in his day," Tom replied.

"Hell's teeth," replied Judkins, "He's still a seriously good athlete and don't you bloody forget it".

Joan died three years ago. Thomson is survived by son Tom, sisters Gay English and Jan Edge, eight grandchildren and six great- grandchildren.

The Southland Times