Local Folk - Bernie Watt

With his distinctive bushy moustache, Snr Constable Bernie Watt has been a familiar face around local schools since 1992. A former teacher, he slotted seamlessly into the role of providing educational instruction to colleges and primary schools. Just prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, Bernie retired from Police, at the age of 66, and has gone back to teaching part time. He spoke with Terry Moore.

My life has been around schools one way or the other, originally as a teacher but then delivering traffic safety and life skills courses in local colleges and Primaries. The courses were around traffic safety, personal safety, drug awareness, crime prevention and domestic violence. I covered 24 schools and loved the job – the rapport you build up with school communities was especially valuable. Over time you develop an extended circle, and a lot of trust that allows a lot of things to unfold. People bounce things off you as a Police officer and person they trust and I became a sounding board for people’s issues or concerns whether of a personal or professional nature. It got to the stage where I’d been in the job so long, I was teaching the children of some of my original students.

The life skills programmes I presented are timeless, but as the area has grown domestic violence awareness, drug education and internet safety have become more and more crucial. In social media there is an alternative reality being presented and sometimes kids have difficulties telling the difference between that and real life. Being honest when relating to young people is the key and it helps that I personally try to live by those strong principles and values, as a Christian. A lot of support is offered through schools, such as the Breakfast in Schools and Kids Can programmes, and my view is that these are admirable, but short-term fixes. The danger is that those things, especially once they are funded and become the accepted norm, replace dealing with the essential problems. If you stop offering those things, some kids go hungry, but first principles should be around dealing with issues so that families can function effectively. I believe kids ideally need a mum and dad, male and female, in a loving relationship. That’s not to say that people who are in a different situation should be judged. I would never do that, but I think policies should be around supporting families to keep the family unit strong – that means a strong nation. When you abandon those principles around family structure, when they cease to be top-of-mind, it can put kids in a difficult position.

Because my work in schools has primarily been day shifts, I have been able to maintain a balance with family life, recreation (I am a keen runner) and work. I am an active and involved parent and now have six grandkids too. My work covered schools from Gulf Harbour to Mangawhai and included liaising with Auckland Transport over things such as safe locations for bus stops or crossings. In 2012, the Loves Me Not domestic violence prevention programme was brought in as a trial nationwide. In Rodney, I led the introduction of it at Mahurangi College and we are gradually getting it introduced at local colleges. It is a labour-intensive course, taken by three people – Police, a representative of a community organisation like Women’s Refuge or Public Health, and a teacher.

At first, I took an arts degree at university, then switched to education. After teaching for five years, I worked for the Ministry of Transport in a specialist role providing traffic instruction in schools. When the merger happened in 1992 between Police and Traffic, I was working with companies on crash rates. That led to coming out of uniform for four years to work on delivering driver training programmes to businesses but eventually I went back into Police and was on motorway patrol. When I took on an education role based at Takapuna station, it meant working in a lot of Rodney and Hibiscus Coast schools, so I came to see the Snr Sgt of the day, John Ponsford, who has since passed, and was moved up here officially in 1994. And I’ve been here ever since.

History was part of my degree and it can provide context for things that are happening today. I look at all the [Black Lives Matter] protests happening now in New Zealand and around the world and think we should focus more on what unites us, not what divides us. Once we start waving placquards about, we stop talking to each other. We shout down each other’s views and the wedge between us gets wider and forces people into extreme positions, rather than moderating our opinions through facts, education and rational debate. You cannot demonise people based on their religion, political beliefs or the colour of their skin. My experience is that this is also the case within Police. The vast majority look at people as people, and deal with the facts of the case at hand, not the race or gender of those involved. In the same vein, I don’t believe in quotas in Police recruitment. We should pay for competence – that is what matters most. Of course the other issue of the moment is about arming Police. Ultimately I believe that New Zealand’s Police force will be armed as a matter of course because they will have to be, for their own protection. That’s just the sad fact.

I have loved my job, but you get a sense of when it’s appropriate to go. I want to travel, spend more time with my grandkids and go running more often. I am also teaching part time at Orewa North, which is a lovely school with great staff and kids. The hallmark for me, when I look back at my career, is the great people I’ve worked with. They’ve been outstanding.

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