Over and out: Deputy Commissioner retires, recalls high-profile cases

One of his cases as Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement was the infamous 1080 poison threat. Photo:...
One of his cases as Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement was the infamous 1080 poison threat. Photo: NZME / NZ Herald
After 42 years in policing, there isn't much Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement hadn't seen, heard, attended or dealt with.

But nothing prepared the top cop for the March 15 terror attack.

And he says the reality is gun violence will be one of the biggest challenges for police going forward.

Clement spoke to the Herald about the new reality for the front line, and reflected on his career after officially retiring last week.

When he joined police in 1978 he never imagined his career trajectory would take him to the second highest rank in the country - or that he would spend his final days amid the fallout of the tragic shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt.

Senior journalist Anna Leask reports.

He is the man connected to - if not the face of - some of the biggest and most important police cases and incidents in modern New Zealand.

The high profile murder of Timaru woman Lisa Blakie and arrest of her killer Timothy Taylor.

Operation Austin -the landmark investigation into historical sexual allegations against former and serving police officers by Louise Nicholas.

The 2014 threat to contaminate infant formula and other formula in an apparent protest over the use of 1080 poison in pest control.

The escape bid of murderer and child sex offender Philip John Smith who fled New Zealand while on temporary leave from prison.

As an Assistant Commissioner Mike Clement headed the investigation into the escape of murderer...
As an Assistant Commissioner Mike Clement headed the investigation into the escape of murderer and child abuser Phillip John Smith from prison. Photo: NZME / NZ Herald
The 2019 Christchurch terror attack and the firearms buyback scheme that followed.

The fatal eruption at White Island months later.

The police response to Covid-19.

Undercover operations and investigations - a countless number both here and overseas.

But these cases are just the tip of the iceberg in Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement's career which spanned exactly 42 years, five months and five days when he was farewelled formally last week.

A couple of months back Clement was a frontrunner to replace retiring Commissioner Mike Bush.

But now he is ready to leave his epaulets in the draw and see what lies beyond the front line.

Andrew Coster was the man chosen for the job and Clement said after being in a deputy role for more than five years it was time for him to make a move.

"In reality, when I joined the place, I was supposed to be retired at 55 just because of the superannuation arrangements," he said.

"I'm now 60 years old and it feels like 42 years in police is long enough.

"So I just think all of the dots join up and I've made the decision and I'm very, very happy with it."

Mike Clement soon after his appointment as Western Bay of Plenty Area Commander. Photo: NZME / NZ...
Mike Clement soon after his appointment as Western Bay of Plenty Area Commander. Photo: NZME / NZ herald
There's certainly no air of disappointment or bitterness when it comes to Clement's reason for leaving.

He speaks about police with fondness, with pride and with a firm belief that the organisation is good and will only get better.

Things have come a long way since a then 17-year-old Clement decided to join police.

Born and raised in Mid Canterbury - he's very quick to specify that he's not just a Cantabrian but of good Mayfield stock - he joined police in Ashburton and headed off to training college, then based in Trentham.

After graduation he was sent back to Christchurch, spending two years on the beat before joining the CIB as a detective.

Investigative policing was Clement's dream and remains a firm favourite for him when he looks back on all he has done.

His most memorable case from the time was Operation Porta - the murder of Lisa Blakie whose body was found on Waitangi Day 2000, weighted down by a boulder in the river near Arthur's Pass.

Timothy Taylor was convicted and jailed for life and has been denied parole a handful of times since he became eligible.

While some, including Blakie's father Doug, believe Taylor is not the man wholly responsible for the crime, Clement is steadfast.

"Taylor emerged as the suspect early on, but it was complex because hitchhiker murders are notoriously difficult to crack.

"And so while we had Taylor in our sites for a long, long time, it was a lot of complexity involved with regard to the twists and turns of their investigation - and some play out to this day, actually, but I'm 100 per cent convinced that the right man is in jail."

Clement had a particular interest in organised crime, gangs and drugs and notched up 22 years investigating the underbelly of the Garden City before his career moved him back up the country.

A powhiri welcome for Mike Clement and his family after they moved to Tauranga for his new...
A powhiri welcome for Mike Clement and his family after they moved to Tauranga for his new position in 2007. Photo: NZME / NZ Herald
In 2004 the then-Detective Senior Sergeant in Christchurch was seconded to Wellington to work on Operation Austin.

"Operation Austin clearly was significant for the police and for me, personally, and for those that worked in the investigation," he recalled.

"You know, it was wasn't a proud moment as far as policing was concerned - but it was an important moment that caused us to reflect on a culture that we weren't and never have been proud of.

"Louise Nicholas courage was critical, and to this day remains critical - I'm full of admiration for people like Louise who stepped forward dedicated her adult life to bringing about change."

Austin was supposed to be an eight week stint but Clement remained in the capital and was promoted to Detective Inspector in charge of the recently formed Crime Monitoring Centre.

Tauranga called him in 2007 - a big change for the Clement family when he took on the role of Western Bay of Plenty Area Commander.

The Auckland City District came next in Clement's leadership journey, before he headed back to Wellington again.

Since 2014 Clement has been not just the second in command for police, but the man in charge of national operations.

"I call my career organic and the sense that I just took the steps as they opened," he said.

"I think there's always got to be a 'why' - what drives you? What motivates you?

"That's what gets you out of bed in the morning."

The people - both ordinary New Zealander's he's been tasked with serving and protecting, and the thousands of officers he's worked with over the years - were Clement's biggest motivator.

So when asked what the career highs and lows were it was no surprise his answer was based on the people.

Being able to investigate and be part of a "high calibre" police force was the former, and knowing that to have that force required the creation of victims, the latter.

"I think for the same reasons that there are highs, there are lows because there are victims," he said.

"They are highs in the sense that incredibly passionate and dedicated and skilled people pour themselves into getting to the truth of the matter.

"But they do that because at the core of it there was a victim and a victim's family.

"So, with Lisa Blakie, she was murdered but there are so many people around Lisa, who are also victims of the (murderer's) abhorrent behaviour- and that's what drives people in police.

"Operation Deans on the 15th of March - the number of victims directly impacted, the number of communities impacted for not only for that period of time immediately after the event but it just goes on and on… those people will have lost the 51 forever and won't be a day in their lives where they won't think about it.

"White Island was a really tragic event… and you can look through many lenses - the victims, the lens of the families who are directly impacted, the helicopter pilots who went to rescue the people.

"I'm just completely blown away by the quality of our investigations and the passion that our people bring - and the next generation that is coming through, they're equally passionate."

March 15 likely had the biggest impact on Clement, due to the sheer scale of the mass murder and the unprecedented circumstances.

"It's probably hard to go past the 15th of March… because it seems so out of kilter with New Zealand and New Zealand values and the way we roll as a country," he said.

"It was completely abhorrent… 51 people were slaughtered by that person in a way that I guess for us was such a step away from what we recognise… that day brought reality to New Zealand, unfortunately and we'll be changed forever more as a consequence of that.

"We'll always be on the lookout, we'll always trust a little less, we'll always be beating ourselves up with regard to 'should we have been able to prevent it.

"And the reason for that is because 51 people are no longer with us and dozens were maimed… that will always be defining in terms of my career and that it happened on our watch.

"The reality is that was an awakening for New Zealand, regrettably, and while we did pull together fantastically as a country,... it doesn't take away the pain of what happened."

Clement has seen his fair share of pain on the job - usually victims and their families faced with the unfathomable and inexcusable.

But in his final days as Deputy Commissioner when, arguably, he was hoping for a wind down and quiet exit, he was thrust back into the fray when Constable Matthew Hunt was gunned down in Massey, West Auckland.

Clement was in Auckland on the day - he lives here with his wife and kids and has been commuting to Police National Headquarters and when he learned of the shooting he cancelled all plans and went straight out west.

Just before 10.30am Hunt and his partner had attempted a routine traffic stop.

The driver fled and crashed on Reynella Drive in Massey.

Seconds after the officers got out of their car to speak to the driver and passenger - a man advanced on them with a long barrelled firearm, shooting repeatedly

Both were struck multiple times and Hunt died soon after.

Within two hours police arrested the alleged shooter and set about finding the woman who was with him and reportedly helped him flee.

As Clement sat in on briefings, supporting his colleagues and working with them to try and located the offenders, it struck him that Hunt's close workmates were also all working - at cordons, raiding houses, doing the scene examination, notifying his family.

"That's incredibly hard," he said.

"They know Matthew well, and he's been killed and they knew this … but they did a professional job.

"So I guess they compartmentalise in a sense… that's the reality, they just got on with their jobs.

"But you could see them feeling it."

Clement said every officer who went to work every day knew there was a risk - and an ever increasing one - of being hurt or killed by an offender with a gun.

"It's a reality of what goes on out there.

"I said to the group that was assembled on that day Matthew died to 'look after yourselves - because each and every one of us deals with grief differently'.

"You can put up an exterior of steel sometimes or think that you are, the reality is it will be impacting.

"think that's one of the great things about New Zealand places - we're first and foremost a team. And we look out for each other."

He said the loss of Hunt would be felt hard, for a long time.

His was the first death of an officer on duty since 2011.

Clement said the police bosses felt the loss keenly as it was, ultimately, their job to recognise the risks, mitigate them and prevent tragedies.

"That's one of things that troubles you most… it troubles everyone in the organisation but the huge responsibility on your shoulders is to set the organisation up in a way that you can try and anticipate all of those eventualities to the extent that you can, and prepare your people in terms of training and equipment.

"It hurts the organisation, it hurts everybody and people are at a loss because - without going into the details of what happened to Matthew - you know those things could play out, relatively often across New Zealand regrettably.

"A lot of New Zealanders do believe that that's not true. But it's my job to know.

"The reality is when lots of people are running away from an event, we're running towards it. It's our job to do that. And that comes with risk.

"And so what happened to Matthew… could happen a lot.

"And we just hope that we've got ourselves positioned as an organisation and have trained and enabled our staff in a way that limits it significantly - but you can't mitigate all of the risk."

Clement said New Zealand was "blessed" to have police that were so dedicated and, by and large, committed, dedicated and professional.

"I mean, not everybody will nod their heads when they hear me say that - but I think New Zealanders should feel blessed about the type of organisation they have.

"Can we be better? Absolutely. Do we recognise the need to push ourselves hard? Yes, we do.

"I can say, from being a member of the senior police executive, that we constantly test ourselves about what type of organisation that we have to try and form up to be the best that we can be.

As he ends his final day of duties - media interviews in a room at the North Shore Policing Centre where he now has to wear a visitor pass like every other civilian, Clement reflects on a life well lived in that familiar blue uniform.

"I guess that I've just tried to be the best I can be," he said.

"I'm going to retire from this own place as a Deputy Commissioner having had all of the opportunity that I've had.

"I've travelled to Jamaica and the Solomon Islands where we conducted a homicide investigation, I've been out in the Pacific and I have been across a lot of New Zealand in terms of various roles.

"It's been a pretty full and rich period of time, so I'm proud of that."

Clement's final words of wisdom go to the next generation of cop - the newbies, the wannabes and the kids out there dreaming of doing what he has done.

"I think we can be proud of this New Zealand pleasing organisation that we have - so I'd say go for it. Go for it and pour yourself into it.

"There are so many opportunities in police and we have wonderful people who want to join police.

"I think that they should just follow the dreams. Play what's in front of them… you can just enjoy the moment and see where it takes you."







Local trusted journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Star Media journalists and photographers continue to report local stories that matter everyday - yours.

For more than 152 years our journalists have provided Cantabrians with local news that can be trusted. It’s more important now than ever to keep Cantabrians connected.

As our advertising has fallen during the pandemic, support from you our reader is crucial.

You can help us continue to provide local news you can trust simply by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter