Police Remembrance Day in NZ

We talk to the mother of one of the 32 police officers killed in the line of duty.

Friday September 29 marks Police Remembrance Day in New Zealand, where we honour the lives of the police officers who’ve been killed in the line of duty.

In Margaret McKibbin’s garden there is a fish pond she created to remember her son Glenn. It reminds her of their camping holidays by Lakes Tutira and Waikaremoana – times when they were at their closest.

There used to be a swimming pool near the fish pond – a pool that Glenn and his brothers, Scott and Craig, used frequently when they were growing up at the Napier home where Margaret, 71, has lived since her boys were small. The three brothers were full of mischief and Margaret remembers many occasions when she and members of her family were picked up by the boys and thrown into the pool fully clothed.

Margaret raised Glenn, Scott and Craig in the home after her marriage ended (when Glenn, the eldest, was about 13) and it’s clear from her stories that she did a fine job of it. There were frequently teenagers in sleeping bags strewn over her lounge floor.

She had a rule – if they were going to have a few beers, she kept hold of their car keys and decided whether or not they could drive home. Hearing these stories only highlights the tragedy of raising three teenage boys safely only to have one taken away at the age of 25.

It’s 21 years since her son Glenn, a police constable, was killed during a routine checkpoint on a Sunday morning, but the hurt is still raw.

“That is where I do get angry,” Margaret says, sipping from a cup printed with a picture of two of her grandchildren. “Because there is so much he is missing out on in the family – Craig was the first one to go to varsity and there is so much that the [grand] kids are doing, and just being part of things like Christmas gatherings.”

But despite being gone, she says Glenn is intrinsically woven into the fabric of their family. She sees him in the face of his son Damon, 23 this month, who was not yet two when Glenn was killed.

He had always talked about joining the police

“As Damon has got older I can see a lot of Glenn in him – the way he gets this little shy smile, and some of his mannerisms. When he was younger I thought he looked like [his mum] but as he has got older there have been times where I have gone, ‘You are your father to a tee.'”

Photographs of Glenn hang among the many family photos in Margaret’s house and Scott and Craig’s children are well aware of who their Uncle Glenn was.

“It is nothing for the boys to turn around and say something like, ‘Glenn would tell you weren’t doing that right!’ He is still a part of the family.”

When Glenn decided to become a policeman, he came to Margaret to ask for her blessing. He had always been around the police force – his father Des was a police dog handler.

“He had always talked about joining the police, I think because he lived the life that his father lived,” Margaret says.

“He was aware of what was involved in being a policeman and he said he wanted to become a dog handler.

“By the same token, he would have made a brilliant male nurse because of his compassion and understanding with people,” she adds.

“When he came to me when he decided to join, I said, ‘Is it what you really want to do?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have thought about it and I really want to and would you mind?’

“I said, ‘Look mate, if that’s what you want to do, I will back you all the way. Just be sure you are doing it for the right reasons.’ He was about 20.

“He absolutely thrived on it,” she says of Glenn being a policeman.

He became a popular member of the force, “because he was quiet and quite thoughtful, but for all that there was still that mischief side of him”.

Glenn was fatally shot from a passing vehicle while doing a routine police check.

Margaret remembers April 21, 1996 “as clear as day”.

A Scout leader for 35 years, she was at home preparing a chicken casserole for a Scout pot-luck dinner before planning to go out with Glenn and Damon.

The knock at the door

“We were particularly close. The day before he got killed he came into my work with little Damon. We had old printers in those days and Damon was playing with one and I said, ‘That kid needs to go for a bloody good walk on the beach and get a ball and kick it around.’ He said, ‘Mum, I finish work at 1pm tomorrow – I’ll get Damon, bring him over and we will take him to the beach.”

They never did get to go on that walk. Instead, there was a knock on the door and Margaret and her partner Dennis were taken to the hospital. Glenn was already dead. It speaks volumes of Margaret’s empathy that when she remembers this day she feels guilty for asking the policewoman too many questions.

“I felt so guilty afterwards because I know at that stage she would have known he had died, but it wasn’t her job to tell me. I kept asking her questions because I wanted to know, and all the messages were coming over the radio because they were looking for the guy – that was really not nice.”

Margaret had to go straight into survival mode though – her first job was finding her other two sons.

“It was terrible – Scott was actually on his way out to where Glenn and his partner Liz were living in Hastings, because Glenn should have come off shift about one o’clock… Scott was on his way over to tell Glenn that he was going to be an uncle. Scott was having his first baby.”

It was more difficult in a pre-cellphone age to find their youngest, Craig, who was studying at Otago University.

Fear in the community

“We couldn’t find him, we looked everywhere and the police came to me and said, ‘Look, we need to release Glenn’s name because there are other cops and wives and friends that want to know who it is – they think it is one of their loved ones.’ But we couldn’t let Craig hear it over the radio. It was the weekend and he had been studying at the survey school.”

The McKibbins’ shock and grief was compounded by the knowledge that Glenn’s killer, Terence Thompson, 43, was still on the run. The Hawke’s Bay community was cloaked in fear for more than two months as police hunted for him. “We had police protection for a while because he had threatened to take out other cops as well,” says Margaret.

Nine weeks later, Thompson, a former soldier, was found living in an orchard in Havelock North. He was involved in a stand-off with police and shot dead.

The hunt was over. But not the heartbreak.

The past year has been a very difficult one for Margaret, a warm, down-to-earth woman with a wicked sense of humour. She lost her partner Dennis in August 2016 to cancer after nursing him for many months – and the grief of losing both Glenn and Dennis suddenly hit her.

In the months after Glenn’s death, “I just went straight into recovery mode to look after my other two boys,” she explains. “I never really ever grieved. Not as I understand grief now. So from that point of view it has really come and hit me in the backside.

“I hadn’t addressed Glenn being killed, and I hadn’t addressed their father leaving either – because as a mother you put on a stiff upper lip. That was the way I was brought up – you were there to make sure everything possible went right for the kids and you just put your own feelings to one side. Then you get to the stage when it is easier to keep it to one side and not actually deal with it.”

It’s important to keep talking about how we’re feeling

She is dealing with it now though, thanks to the help of group counselling with Cranford Hospice and the support of her Scouting community.

“After the passing of someone that has been in their care, Hospice provides group counselling once a week for eight weeks. There was a small group of us and we just talked through how we were feeling and the effect it was having on us. It may not be for everyone, but it was so brilliant to find out the stupid things I was doing, the others were doing too. It was just part of the grieving.

“It was really good and, in fact, we have kept meeting every three weeks or so for coffee and pot-luck dinners. The woman who was counselling us said, ‘When you get together, be mindful that you still need to talk about how you are feeling – not what your grandchildren are doing or the holiday you have been on.’ We have stuck to doing that and it really has helped.”

Scott now lives in Australia with his partner Conal – they have two daughters, Kayla, 20, and Paige, 16. Craig lives in Hamilton with his wife Debbie and their two children, Cooper, four, and Holly, two. Damon is studying geology at university.

The McKibbins are in touch with him regularly, as well as his mum Lizzie, who has since remarried and had another son. Many of them came together last year when Craig did a fundraising swim around the perimeter of Lake Waikaremoana (a distance of about 85km) in memory of his brother and to raise money for the local Flaxmere community, in which Glenn worked.

Despite her sadness, Margaret lights up when she talks about Glenn and her family. She hopes sharing her memories of him with The Australian Women’s Weekly will help her grieving process.

“We remember him in little ways all the time,” she says. “Like Waikaremoana – we used to go up there during the Christmas holidays and spend a couple of weeks camping, and we used to spend a lot of time at Lake Tutira too. When [her marriage ended], I still managed to tow the old caravan with a Princess car, which is front-wheel drive. It was a part of their lives that they enjoyed doing and I didn’t want to break that.”

The boys, she says, were close – protective of each other – and teased each other mercilessly. “When Glenn got himself a white Commodore car – the first car he had ever owned – he was so proud of it, no one was allowed to touch it and they had to wipe their feet before they got in. Not like the rugby days when everyone just piled into my car thank you very much!

“Craig and Scott leaned over the bonnet of his car doing the fingers, took a photo of it and got that printed on a T-shirt, then gave it to Glenn for Christmas. That is the sort of thing they did. Glenn had an impish, mischievous attitude. They were all like that – that’s why I have grey hair!” she says with a smile.

There are so many memories, which they keep alive in their stories of Glenn, but while talking there is one that particularly stands out.

“To remember him, I used to go and fish at Tutira,” says Margaret. “I can walk down a river and I feel closer to him. Glenn played the pipes and when we went up to the lake there would always be some pipe band competition coming up. To hear him play the pipes walking around the lakes – that was just so special.”

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