A VETERAN police sergeant shot dead by a handcuffed suspect was last night hailed as a “true gent” and a “big friendly bear”.
Matt Ratana, 54 – who was months from retirement – was blasted in the chest by a gunman who also tried to kill two other officers as he was released from a holding cage in Croydon, South London.
The suspect, 23, pulled the revolver from his trousers while cuffed behind his back and fired at Sgt Ratana before two other cops jumped on him.
The gunman blazed off more shots, five in all, in a fierce struggle in the corridor at 2.15am.
One hit himself in the neck, leaving him critical and under armed guard in hospital last night.
Medics performed open heart surgery on Sgt Ratana at the custody centre in Croydon, South London.
He was airlifted to hospital but later pronounced dead.
It is believed that special constables failed to find the gun when they had earlier detained him on suspicion of possessing drugs and ammunition.
Desperate colleagues battled to save the stricken officer’s life before he was rushed to hospital, where he died soon after.
Originally from Hawke’s Bay, Sgt Ratana came to the UK in 1989 and played rugby for London Irish.
The officer had served with the Met Police since 1991 and worked in Croydon from 2015.
The New Zealand-born rugby coach had told colleagues he intended to quit as early as next year, and posted of his excitement at the prospect of “a long healthy life”.
Pals said Sgt Ratana, dad to a grown-up son, dreamed of travelling Europe on his motorbike then coaching at his rugby club in Sussex.
‘SUCH A LOVELY GUY’
His partner of four years Sue Bushby was said to be devastated tonight and was being comforted by friends.
Her sister Amanda Tessier, a community nurse, told The Sun: “He was a great big friendly bear of a man, one of the loveliest men you could meet.
“He was absolutely dedicated to being a police officer and had almost 30 years of service.
“He knew the dangers of being a police officer in London but for him it was all part of the job.
“He was such a lovely guy. He was a big friendly guy.
“He liked to keep fit and loved his rugby but he also liked a burger or two.”
She added: “We simply can’t believe it. How did someone have a gun in the police station?
“I’m sure there is going to be a huge investigation by the Met but it doesn’t seem right at all.”
Mrs Tessier said her sister was left devastated by the news.
She said: “She got a knock on the door in the morning. It’s just devastating.
“We can’t believe it. He was the life and soul, a real fun-loving guy.”
Amanda said Matt was also a passionate rugby fan who coached players at Hove Rugby and also East Grinstead.
Breaking down in tears, Amanda continued: “They’ll be devastated by this. He coached the juniors as well.
“It’s just awful.”
The veteran officer’s cousin, Adrian Rurawhe, said: “He was really proud to be a police officer, he was also really proud to be Māori from New Zealand.”
Mr Rurawhe, a Labour MP, described Sgt Ratana, who worked at the Croydon Custody Centre, as “fearless”.
He added: “Matt really loved his job. He knew what he had signed up and the risks involved. He was never afraid but he was not reckless either.
“He would have followed every correct procedure in the way he carried out his job.”
“He wasn’t a big risk taker, but he wasn’t afraid to challenge the norm.
The suspect, of Sri Lankan heritage, was referred to the Government’s Prevent anti-terrorism programme several years ago over fears about alleged sympathies towards Islamic extremism.
He was not on MI5’s radar or on any watchlists.
A source said: “He was on the very edge of the terrorism landscape. Mental health is a key line of inquiry.”
The man is said to have expressed extreme right-wing and Islamist views and was referred to the Channel programme, which deals with the most serious Prevent terror cases, according to The Times.
But sources stressed it was not deemed necessary for MI5 or counter terrorism cops to investigate him.
Earlier the suspect had been stopped and searched by two special constables close to a community centre in a crime hotspot.
He was arrested on suspicion of dealing cannabis and possessing ammunition and taken to the custody centre in Windmill Lane.
He remained handcuffed until a door was opened for him to be searched with a metal detector.
A source said: “He was cuffed behind his back and given a pat down.
“It would appear the suspect has somehow managed to conceal the gun on his body.”
“However, there are rules preventing any intimate body searches on the street. It can only be done when a suspect is booked into a custody suite.”
The source added: “The sergeant opened the door to admit him and take his temperature to comply with Covid rules. But the suspect shot him at point-blank range.”
Sgt Ratana is the tenth officer to have been killed in the line of duty in the past decade, and the first since PC Andrew Harper was killed by thieves while responding to a burglary in Berkshire in August last year.
Met officer Stuart James, who raced to help his colleague, described the horror scenes as fellow officers fought to save his life.
He wrote on Twitter: “This morning my team and I responded to the worst possible radio transmission from custody, words and scenes I shall never forget.
“The unimaginable happened to our police family. We have lost not only a good skipper but also a real gentleman. One of the best. RIP brother.”
Ch Insp Jack Rowlands wrote: “Hard to put into words. All I can say is I lost a friend today and know very many more friends did everything they could. I’m thinking of everyone affected.”
Community police officer Jacqueline Kufuor burst into tears after laying flowers outside the centre in tribute to her colleague.
She said: “You never expect this to happen when you go to work. For him to have been in custody and for this to have happened, it is just so sad.
“He was a very lovely man. He was such a nice man. When he sees you, he would just stand and talk to you.
“He would ask you about your job and how your are coping and how you are doing out there.”
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick last night said Sgt Ratana was known as a “big guy” with a “big heart”.
She said: “A lovely man, respected by his colleagues, officers, staff and of course by members of the public, including, I may say, suspects arrested or dealt with in custody.
“He was very well known locally and he will be remembered so fondly in Croydon and missed there, as well as in the Met and in the rugby world.”
Dame Cressida confirned that he leaves behind a partner and an adult son from a previous relationship.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct will investigate the shocking circumstances of the officer’s death.
IOPC regional director Sal Naseem said: “What we have established is that the man was arrested for possession of class B drugs with intent to supply and possession of ammunition.
“The man was handcuffed to the rear before being transported to Croydon Custody Suite in a police vehicle where he was escorted into the building.
“He remained handcuffed to the rear and seated in a holding area in the custody suite.
“His handcuffs remained in place while officers prepared to search him using a metal detector.
“It is at the point that shots were fired resulting in the fatal injuries to the officer and critical injuries to the man.
“A non-police issue firearm, which appears to be a revolver, has been recovered from the scene. Further ballistic work will be required.”
‘BRAVE AND DEDICATED’
An internal probe has been launched into the shooting and will focus on the failure to find the gun during the initial search.
Sgt Ratana’s colleagues wrote an emotional tribute to him this morning, saying: “Today we lost an honourable, brave and dedicated family member.”
A number of serving and former police officers changed their social media profile pictures to black, with a blue line, today as a mark of respect.
A flag outside Croydon police station was also lowered to half mast as forensics officers combed the scene.
Asked about how someone could enter the building while armed, former Det Ch Insp Chris Phillips said: “I think police officers are probably less likely to search people now with all the furore that goes on.
“When people get arrested there is a general view that they should be searched before being transported to the police station but that doesn’t always happen – and it depends on what the man was arrested for in the first place.
“This goes down the line about handcuffing – do you handcuff? When do the handcuffs get taken off for protection etc?”
“My heart goes out to his family, direct colleagues and friends.”
And in an emotional Facebook post, PC Harper’s widow Lissie Harper also said the killing was “utterly devastating”, adding: “What is happening to our world?”
Shocked locals told The Sun of their horror at the scene yesterday as a murder investigation got underway.
Daniel Michaels said he has been held in the custody suite and was searched throughly – including strip searches.
The 19-year-old former student said it was “unbelievable” and “outrageous” the gun was not found.
He said: “I can’t believe this. I was arrested and taken in there and searched numerous times and the security is very tight. This is unbelievable.
“You get searched every step of the way. You get searched before you get in the car, after and when you arrive and then when you get into the suite. How an earth has this happened? It’s madness.
“It seems impossible this could happen. It’s so strict. Something has gone badly wrong for this to happen.”
Lisa Verrilli, a local cafe worker, said she saw the hero cop several times a week when he would visit for lunch.
The 39-year-old described him as a ‘proud dad’ and ‘devoted family man’.
She said: “He was only in here two days ago – it’s absolutely heartbreaking. My heart goes out to his family.
“He was a true gent. He was a very proud dad and a devoted family man.
“He’d been in the force for a long time. Despite a demanding job he was always in a good mood. He was happy and cheerful.”
A player from the rugby club where the tragic officer coached said he had come straight to his final shift from a training session last night.
‘A REAL LEADER’
He said:”He was so vibrant, so bubbly. Larger than life. He was just a great character.
“His wife is lovely. It’s a huge loss. If you had a problem you could go and speak to him. He would find a way to help.
“The man was a machine. He was at training last night.
“He used to train with us then he would come to do shift work here in Croydon.
“He would do that week in week out. We start training at 7pm. He would have left at 9, 9.30pm I guess.”
Another pal, who had been with Sgtr Ratana just horus earlier, said: ” “He was an inspirational coach, a real leader.
“I was with him at training at 6pm then I heard what happened on the radio this morning. I’m in shock.”
Ken Marsh, of the Met Police Federation, said news of the shooting was “utterly devastating”.
He added: “Officers are in shock and sick to their stomachs at the nature of his death. Sadly, on very rare occasions officers make the ultimate sacrifice whilst fulfilling their role.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted saying: “My deepest condolences go to the family, friends and colleagues of the police officer who was killed in Croydon last night.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “I am deeply shocked and saddened to learn that a Metropolitan Police Officer has been shot and killed in the line of duty.
“My thoughts today are with his family, friends and policing colleagues in London and across the country.”