William Bernard McIlveney was born in Greymouth on 8 March 1867, the son of Irish parents Ellen Biggim and her husband, Bernard McIlveney, a flax dresser and goldminer at Kumara. Educated privately, William began teaching at Greymouth in 1881. He became a telegraphist in 1885, leaving three years later in search of a commercial opportunity in Ballarat, Victoria. Returning to the West Coast in 1890, he settled in Kumara, becoming a borough councillor the following year. After joining the Permanent Militia in October 1892, he was appointed a police constable at Dunedin on 13 December 1893 and transferred to Invercargill. A younger brother, James, joined the police force at Auckland in February 1895.
With a better education than most recruits, McIlveney was soon given clerical work and watch-house duties. When Invercargill's sole detective was transferred in July 1897, McIlveney took on plain-clothes duties. Shrewd, articulate, genial and energetic, with a keen eye for suspicious characters and effective in securing confessions, McIlveney was praised for smart work in catching thieves and cheque forgers.
In December 1899 he was appointed detective and transferred by Commissioner John Tunbridge to Wellington, where he dealt with serious cases in the Nelson and Westland districts. Typically, he worked with the aid of a few local uniformed police whose contribution was overshadowed by the mystique then developing around individual detectives. McIlveney exchanged stations with a Dunedin detective in July 1900 and was soon back in Invercargill. He was periodically called on for investigative work in other districts.
His work impressed Commissioner Walter Dinnie, who brought McIlveney to police headquarters in February 1907 and made him a chief detective – the youngest ever and the first New Zealand-born. He did not direct staff, but undertook special investigative duties for Dinnie anywhere in the country, cementing his reputation as an able officer. Sensitive to sectarian antagonism inside and outside the force, McIlveney had lapsed from Roman Catholicism before he married Maud Surman (an Anglican and daughter of a publican) in the Christchurch Registrar's Office on 15 September 1909.
The chief detective's standing was enhanced when, in September 1912, Commissioner John Cullen instructed him to reorganise the criminal registration branch at headquarters. Having passed the recently introduced promotion examinations, he was made sub-inspector in January 1915 and sent to Auckland. Here he developed a reputation as a disciplinarian and a flamboyant, outspoken officer who tended to alienate subordinates. Transferred to take charge at New Plymouth early in 1917, he was then sent to investigate the Waikato coalminers' 'go-slow' strikes, and later seconded to liaise with the Defence Department in administering the war regulations.
McIlveney was promoted inspector in September 1919, and became second in command of the Wellington district. Local businessmen praised him for organising effective protection of strike-breakers during the seamen's strike between October 1922 and January 1923. Late in 1923 he visited various police forces in the United States to study their organisation. He was promoted superintendent of Wellington district in January 1923, and became the first New Zealand-born commissioner on 1 February 1926.
Unlike his predecessors, Commissioner McIlveney was not shy of publicity. A more rigorous, visible and ultimately controversial style of police leadership was soon apparent in his pursuit of increased discipline, efficiency and economy. Initially he impressed government and opposition politicians alike. For services during the visit of the duke and duchess of York, he was made an MVO in 1927.
Promising police a 'square deal', McIlveney altered the hours of shifts, introduced an independent board to conduct police examinations, and supported an unsuccessful rank-and-file initiative for earlier retirement – though excluding himself. But he also tightened up on rewards for police, made unpopular changes to their uniform and proved to be a martinet. Numbers dismissed or forced to resign increased.
McIlveney sought to have some police services paid for by those requesting them; consequently the largest cities appointed their own traffic inspectors. During 1928 and 1929 the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch districts were reorganised. More than his predecessors, McIlveney visited police districts, addressing assembled staff at length. Some saw considerable ability and learning in his eloquence; others found him arrogant, overbearing and officious.
During 1929 growing concerns were voiced about the efficiency, methods and administration of the force. McIlveney found the minister of justice, T. M. Wilford, a stout defender. In May 1930 the commissioner caused further controversy by dismissing a sergeant without leave to appeal. A new minister, J. G. Cobbe, set up an informal appeal board. Considering that his control of the force had been undermined, McIlveney retired on 30 June, nearly two years before the end of his term.
A colourful public servant who left his mark in the memories of police, McIlveney's 'vigorous personality' made up for a lack of physical stature and invited vivid pen portraits from reporters impressed by the 'dominant mental force of the probing eyes', the 'shrewd common sense', the self-assurance and 'crisp staccato' speech. He died at Wellington on 23 July 1956, five years after his wife, Maud, and was survived by two daughters. By then McIlveney's zeal and ability as a detective were recalled rather than the circumstances of his commissionership.