Having just turned 55, Helen Mahon-Stroud admits she is doing things a little unconventionally.
“While a lot of people join the police and spend a few years on the street or frontline and then naturally progress into a uniform support role within CIB, and then do their induction course, usually in their 20s, I didn’t until my early 50s.”
So, more than 30 years after her police career began in Te Kūiti in 1990, she is working in metro crime and has ticked off all the exams, modules and workplace assessments needed and just has the detective qualifying course to go, beginning on July 17. (She was set to do it from May 1 but had a big trial starting that day.)
“It’s not the conventional way of going about a career in the police,” she says. Helen balanced her first 24 years with Police – including more than a decade as a uniform support officer for the CIB – with having three children with husband and former All White Alan Stroud, and working in high-performance sport.
She had already played representative netball and rugby and was named Black Ferns captain in the first women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991 [scoring the first try]. In 2008, she took on coaching the Tactix for four years in trans-Tasman netball. In 2013, she became part-time manager of the New Zealand women’s cricket team before leaving Police in 2014 to double as manager and high performance manager of the White Ferns for more than three years.
Her plan when she left New Zealand Cricket was to have a year off and just do nothing. It was shortlived… “there’s only so many hours in the day to walk the dog and go to the gym”.
After a phone call from Darryl Sweeney at Christchurch Central, saying ‘we need your help’, Helen returned to Police in mid-2018.
“I came back non-sworn to help out in adult sexual assault, because, at that time, they had a real backlog of files… I did that for almost six months. That helped clear the backlog a bit but then, six months on, I got another phone call to come back on a second six-month contract, so I did.”
At the same time, Helen started the “difficult” process of becoming resworn.
“I had to go right back to the beginning and it took 18 months.”
But she doesn’t regret the decision: “Coming back was pretty much like coming home. It was very familiar, it was an environment I was really comfortable in, and still had a lot to learn and a lot to be challenged by. Hence the decision, doing my detective qualification.”
Being back in blue
Helen hasn’t shied away from tough jobs since she returned from her short sabbatical.
“When I came back non-sworn, I was in adult sexual assault, and then when the mosque shooting happened [in March 2019], I was seconded over to Operation Deans as a family liaison officer. There were 10 of us, and each of us had about 30 to 35 families that we worked with. That was a mixture of families who had lost loved ones, victims who had received serious injuries and also victims who were present at the mosque when it happened and escaped.
“That was a real challenge but also a pretty incredible investigation to be involved in right throughout the process. I've met some amazing people and amazing families. It was a real eyeopener into [the Muslim] culture, their beliefs, their ability to forgive. I keep in contact with a few of them.
“The other thing I did [when I came back to Police] was I qualified as a level three specialist adult witness interviewer [which you have to do] to be able to interview victims of adult sexual assault and other victims of serious incidents as well, so that can be homicides, violence offences and so on.”
While Helen has plenty of knowledge and experience, she says she would never pretend that she knows everything.
“One thing I'm absolutely loving about being back in the fold is working with the young cops who are [graduating], the young detective constables, who are smart and savvy, and all this technology. They're just so good and I love it when I have the ability to go to them and say, ‘Hey can you tell me about this?’
“Likewise, it's great they know that I'm a bit older and a bit more mature and they come to me to ask things of me that they're not sure about. It's a very reciprocal sort of relationship that you have with these young guns who are everywhere.”
Loving life at 50-something
Helen marked her latest birthday in April with drinks and good company at her Taylors Mistake home near Christchurch.
“I’ve lost quite a number of really good friends over the last five, six years who haven't made it to 50 or 55. I lost my parents when they were 58 and 59. So I just think every year is to be celebrated with your family and friends. We’ve got to be really grateful that we're still here and still able to do what we do.”
Two of her three children were home for the occasion. Ben, 25, is playing football professionally in Finland so didn’t make it but daughters Georgia, 22, and Lucy, 20, were there.
Both girls, who are finishing off university studies, are also keen sportswomen – Georgia is a top netballer and Lucy is doing well in surf lifesaving, competing in surf ski and board paddling.
As for Helen, 2023 is the first year in about 26 years that she hasn’t coached a netball team but she is chairperson of her local committee for Surf Lifesaving Canterbury. She also supports her children in their sports endeavours – including taking two months off soon to visit Ben – and she goes to F45 (high-intensity) workouts “to hang out with all the young folk and injure myself and get really tired”. She also loves going on day tramps and roaming the hills near her home with Alan – one of her biggest cheerleaders.
“He has been very integral in supporting the ongoing sports and police career. He was an All White so he knows the deal in terms of the commitment to sport, and what that takes, as a player and as a coach. We've always maintained our sort of independence in what we do. He's been really involved in football and I've been really involved in netball, and then there’s the family in between. He runs the family business, that's his baby, and then I've got the policing side of things.”
In the right place
So does the soon-to-be-Detective Stroud wish she’d chased the title earlier?
“You don’t know what you don’t know if you go back and go, ‘Well, where would I be now if I had made that choice of career over a police career, promotion over what I did in sport coaching and so on’. You just don’t know. Family is the same thing. I was pretty involved in coaching the Tactix and that was a pretty torrid four years. The kids were still quite young while I was doing that, so that was quite demanding.
“Perhaps completing an induction course way back then when [everyone would have been] a similar age, I think that would have been similarly demanding of time and of family and trying to get that balance. Something would have crashed and burnt.”
Helen says Police has supported her throughout her “two careers” including being able to move to flexible employment options and take leave without pay.
“For me, the ability to have that worklife balance was amazing back then, and [Police’s flexibility] allowed me to also have one foot in high-performance sports. It allowed me to go and do other things and it's allowed me to come back. I see that as beneficial not only to me, as a police employee, but also to Police as an employer, because you're retaining a lot of IP, a lot of knowledge and experience.
“All of it has added to a colourful career to date.” And it’s not over yet.