Gurpreet Arora’s says his medals did not come to him on a platter, including his 14-year long service medal from the NZ Police in 2020. Photo / Supplied
Gurpreet Arora had always wanted to be a police officer, but failed on his first try in India. And his second, and third.
He had sat the entrance exams for the air force, navy, and army, and failed them all. India was a huge country, and the competition too stiff for a fresh-faced 18-year-old out of high school.
His childhood dream only came true in New Zealand years later, thanks in part to his mother’s encouragement.
Today, the 39-year-old sergeant at Counties Manukau District Police was made Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the police and ethnic communities, one of a handful of Asian New Zealanders on the Queen’s birthday honours list.
Arora says he’s honoured and privileged for the recognition, which he credits to his community, the New Zealand police, and his family.
“There was a lot of support from my colleagues but I’ve had to prove myself at every level,” he said,
“It wasn’t given to me on a platter.”
Born in the industrial town of Ludiana in Punjab, India, Arora says his uniform dream was the result of watching “too many cop programmes”.
When the childhood dream failed in India, he switched to computer studies, which took him to New Zealand in 2001 as an international student.
“I completed my studies (in business computing) but my heart was never into it… My mother motivated me to join the police and that’s how the journey started.”
Learning to swim was the biggest challenge of becoming a policeman in New Zealand, he says.
“Coming from the Indian subcontinent, swimming is not something you specialise in… but I’m grateful that I did. I was 23 at the time.”
He put on a police uniform in 2006, the first ethnic minority police officer to be deployed operationally in Christchurch at the time.
His uniform dream fulfilled, his raison d’etre as policeman shifted.
“It was about how can I make use of my cultural and language capabilities to help the community.”
His track record includes setting up Operation Dukan in 2009. “Dukan is another word for shop in the Indian language,” Arora says.
At the time, dairies and liquor stores run by South Asians were facing a surge in robberies, so the operation sent police officers who could speak the languages of store owners to hear them out and offer crime prevention advice. Over the years, the project was relaunched and expanded to two other Auckland police districts, most recently in 2017.
“If you are passionate about resolving (community issues), you need to go the extra mile to come up with plans, initiatives, strategic thinking to address them,” he said.
Taking new ideas to a manager requires proving to him or her that you can pull it off, he says.
“I pushed myself very hard, to look at bigger things, bigger initiatives for the community.”
Arora’s 15 years in the force has made him a key contact point for South Asian communities in Auckland. His current role in the Counties Manukau District is in family harm prevention – as liaison officer for a project called Gandhi Nivas, an early intervention facility for male perpetrators of domestic violence.
Also on the Queen’s birthday honours list this year are Mila Kim Oh for contributions to New Zealand-Korea relations, Gordon Wu for services to the Chinese community, Sameer Handa for New Zealand-India relations, and Iqbal Manzoor Haque for his work in education governance.
Asked about barriers to entry and progression in the workplace for migrants in New Zealand, he said he chose not to dwell on that “too much”.
“I’ve always told myself, let your work speak for you, rather than worrying about other things.”
When Arora joined the police force, there were only a handful of ethnic minority officers in the organisation.
He says there is a pervasive mindset, especially amongst South Asian parents, that police are corrupt and should not be contacted, and that police work is dangerous.
“It’s about changing those mindsets and encouraging young ones to join… especially ethnic (minority) females, we need more of them to represent the NZ police.”
“I want them to know, please come forward and join. I and my colleagues will be here to support you.”