Colleagues of Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was killed in the line of duty, have described the officer as a close friend who was part of the “police family”.
Pc Paul Reading, of the Metropolitan Police, said the 54-year-old was well loved by all and even criminals liked him.
“Everyone liked him, even people he arrested,” he said.
Sgt Ratana was shot at Croydon Custody Centre in south London in the early hours of Friday September 25 as he prepared to search a handcuffed suspect.
Pc Reading had known Sgt Ratana, who was born in New Zealand, since 2008 when both were based at Harrow Road.
In a touching tribute to his “gentle giant” friend, he said the officer would regularly visit the station while off duty because he “always wanted to be around his police family”.
“He was a real approachable man, he looked after his team,” he said.
“He was your typical, big, strong Kiwi rugby player and he was so proud of his heritage.”
He said Sgt Ratana was dedicated to his job, adding: “He was your old-fashioned copper, very fair, very firm, and he would treat everyone like you would want your parents to be treated.”
Sergeant Gareth Starr, who worked with Sgt Ratana in Paddington Green in 2007 and later in custody, described his devastation at receiving a phone call telling him his colleague and family friend had been shot.
“It’s had a huge impact on everybody, even our own children that watch their parents go out to work every day thinking that that could be us,” he said.
Speaking about how Sgt Ratana’s death has affected the police force, he said: “It’s been very sombre.
“Matt appears a lot, whether we’re on social media reading the news, he didn’t ever leave us anyway and we’d often talk of Matt in the office where I’ve got colleagues who have worked with him over the years sharing stories, laughing.
“It’s had a huge impact, it’s dumbed down everything we do, without a shadow of a doubt.
“We’re just very sombre and very solemn, it’s just terribly sad.
“You don’t get two Matts.”
On Sgt Ratana’s personality, he said: “I’ll always remember his huge smile and his huge stature, and he always gave you a cuddle.”
As an officer who specialises in police safety, Sergeant Starr said it is “incredibly difficult” to keep officers safe.
“In the environment he (Sgt Ratana) was working in, it’s a dangerous environment, and we have to keep that at the forefront of our mind all the time.
“There are people out there who want to do us harm for the job that we do to protect others.
“Unfortunately Matt’s paid that price by no fault of his own, by being where he was, doing what he loved and doing it really well.”
Sergeant Chris Excell, a custody officer who worked alongside Sgt Ratana and had known him for 12 years, described him as a friend as well as a mentor.
When he heard the news of Sgt Ratana’s death, he said he was in disbelief, adding: “It doesn’t feel real yet, we all used to talk about him while he was still here.
“Matt was really good at being caring and compassionate, he was an exemplary officer.”
All three officers described how Sgt Ratana was a big foodie, with an infectious laugh, who would love to rugby-tackle his peers in the hallway of stations.
“I remember the last thing he said to me was ‘a rubbish day only lasts 24 hours’,” Sgt Excell added.
A minute’s silence took place across the Met at 11am on Friday, while Hackney police tweeted a picture of a vigil with candles and flowers that was held in honour of Sgt Ratana by officers on the night shift on Thursday.
Please nominate Matt Ratana for this years Unsung Hero Award at #sporty
— East Grinstead Rugby (@RugbyEGRFC) October 2, 2020
Described as a “remarkable rugby hero”, Sgt Ratana was also honoured by members of East Grinstead RFC based in West Sussex, where the officer was head coach.
The club laid a blue and white club wreath at Croydon Custody Centre on Wednesday, and will be flying their flag alongside the New Zealand flag and the All Blacks rugby team flag to honour Sgt Ratana’s Kiwi roots.
Club president Andy Poole said: “As a head coach for the last three seasons and a personal friend to me and so many others at the club, Matt was always bringing in new and exciting ideas and was a true role model, mentor and often father figure.
“A Kiwi with an infectious laugh, who loved to chat, making time for anyone who crossed his path.”
An inquest opened at Croydon Coroner’s Court on Thursday heard that Sgt Ratana had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest and died at St George’s Hospital in Tooting.
The suspect was first detained by police in Pollards Hill in south London at 1.30am last Friday, before being handcuffed and taken into custody on suspicion of the possession of ammunition and a class B drug.
The suspect, widely reported to be 23-year-old Louis De Zoysa, was also injured in the incident and remains critically ill in hospital.