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Sergeant Sarah Stirling has never lost her passion for being where the action is – her eyes light up whenever frontline policing is mentioned. PHOTO: CARLA AMOS

Police Association Region 5 director Sergeant Sarah Stirling recently clocked up 42 years in the blue uniform, putting her near the top of the list of the longest-serving women in Police.

One of the many entertaining, “better work stories” from her long career in the Wellington District comes from when she became a recruit instructor at the Police College in late 1996. To be allowed on the parade ground, female recruits and instructors had to wear a skirt.

“I told them, ‘I haven’t worn a skirt since 1982!’

“I quite often – and everyone who knows me will laugh at me saying this – go head to head. I stick up for myself when I'm really passionate about something,” Sarah says.

“But as you get more experienced, you get a little bit smarter and strategic. So I went to the person in charge and asked them to change the order and then reasoned that we could save quite a bit of money if we didn't put women in skirts. I said, ‘Not letting us wear appropriate clothing is limiting us from doing the job’.”

Changes were made and females were no longer issued skirts.

“It bothered me because that wasn't equality for me,” Sarah says. “I was getting paid the same. I pushed back on not getting treated the same because of my gender, just as I have throughout my career.”


A brave new world

When Sarah headed off to Police College with Wing 82 on January 18, 1982 – after having spent a year as a Police employee – there were only 300 female police officers to about 5000 male officers. Females now make up roughly 25% of Aotearoa’s 10,000-strong constabulary staff.

The 1980s were another world, Sarah says. “We were meant to wear skirts and had to wear navy shoes – never black like the men. We were issued handbags that we were meant to carry on the job and we had to be escorted on the beat on late and night shifts.”

She recalls asking facetiously how she would fit her wooden baton in her handbag along with the obligatory spare pantyhose and tissues. “I was scornfully told, ‘Oh, you don’t need a baton, love, you’ll only be dealing with victims and little kids so it’d be a good idea to have crayons and colouring books in your handbag’.

“The sexism was rife in those days,” Sarah says. “It could be hideous, the chauvinism, the misogyny. Early in my career, to survive, I had to have this hard exterior. I always used to say that sometimes it was easier dealing with the offenders than it was working with some of my own people,” she says.

When Sarah asked for a pair of operational trousers with baton and notebook pockets, a pair of “slacks” were made for her instead. She managed to get a colleague to get her a pair of men’s trousers and shirt. She has never looked back.

“We have come a long way and there is a significant improvement in the number of female staff but we are still a minority. It is great to see the females who have stepped into areas that were previously off limits though, like dog handlers and AOS.”

While working at the college a few years ago, Sarah was part of its Women’s Advisory Network (WAN) and had the chance to hold sessions with female recruits on each wing.

“It was an opportunity to discuss and empower the recruits, give them tools to succeed and permission to challenge any perceived bad behaviour. I would arrange for an inspiring female like a dog handler or AOS member to come to one of the sessions to tell their journey.”


Honesty and integrity

Sarah had wanted to be a cop from when she was about seven or eight, after she was told she couldn’t be a firefighter. “But you wouldn't have thought I’d want to join Police during my rebellious teenage years. I might have acted out a bit, but I still knew right from wrong.”

Integrity sits firmly at the top of Sarah’s values, but it nearly saw her policing career end before it started. The last step in the Police recruiting process was an interview with a commissioned officer.

“The inspector who interviewed me asked a number of questions on topics like politics, religion and drugs. He very clearly didn’t like my answers. At the end of the interview, he told me he didn’t think I was suitable. I told him he was wrong and I would become a cop.

“So he said I could have another interview to convince him he was wrong or I could get my parents to come and see him, which they did the following week. Shortly after, I was offered a job at Police National Headquarters on the commissioner’s floor for the whole of 1981.

Sarah’s honesty later played a major role in her career.

In 1996, a constable on Sarah’s section told her that he had laid an information charge alleging an assault on police that hadn’t happened to cover up an assault by another constable. Both constables were charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice, and one with the assault.

The fallout from Sarah becoming the “whistleblower” was immense including bullying, threats and lies about her. “People I had known my entire career wouldn’t talk to me, and my supervisors, who should have been offering me support, didn’t. It was just so horrible.”

Sarah says remaining on section became unworkable.

“I’d been under so much pressure and tension. I ended up with depression and had three months off work. It was a very lonely and dark place to be. That was a huge, huge turning point. It would have been very, very easy to have left Police.”

Instead, Sarah cut her almost 15-year frontline career short and opted to move to a role at Police College.

“I was a recruit instructor for three years and absolutely loved it. I then had my son in August 2000. While I desperately wanted to go back to frontline duties, the reality was, that I was a single parent, had a mortgage and, at the time, it was impossible to do shift work and raise a child.


Frontline fervour

Sarah has never lost her passion for being where the action is – her eyes light up whenever the frontline is mentioned.

“Working on Team Policing was the first time I felt included. I was just a constable [not a female]. I was treated exactly the same and I thrived in that environment. I was working with like-minded people. We worked hard, but we had some amazing laughs and amazing times,” she says.

“That's why, when I get the opportunity to work at [things] like Operation Convoy, or something like that, it’s just going straight back to that feeling. I just love it. That's why any role that I’ve had within Police, I am always thinking of what's best for frontline staff.

“I feel for the troops on the frontline now because it feels like there's not enough of them. When I was on section as a sergeant in 1995-96, we had between 15 and 20 constables, two sergeants, an inspector who would be out on patrol, a senior sergeant in the watch house as well as comms. You were well supported and you had enough staff. Plus Kilbirnie and Johnsonville Community Policing Centres were 24/7.

“There seems to be fewer staff with way more population now. I feel for them. We worked hard but there was still the ability to have that camaraderie and fun. I don't know, because I'm not on section now, but I don't see there’s many opportunities for them to be able to do that.

“The call for service is just absolutely constant, particularly the hours and hours that are spent on family violence and mental health. And the paperwork. It seems mountainous compared with what it used to be.”


This show isn't over

Sarah says she can’t believe how time is flying but has no thoughts of slowing down.

“As long as I feel like I'm adding value [I’ll stay in Police]. I still want to turn up to work. I enjoy the work that I do out at the college. Plus my director role in the association gives me the ability to satisfy that need to help people.

“I wanted to join the Police because, and I know everyone says it, but it's absolutely true, I just wanted to help people and that’s reflected in everything I've done.

“So while I haven’t been frontline for a while, I have continued to give back. I've been a diversity liaison officer, a member of College’s WAN, a harassment support officer, a foster helper for Police dogs and for 10 years, a college basketball coach.

“A lot of people [say] how much I had helped them over the years, which is lovely and I appreciate it. I just offer advice and I probably don’t appreciate the impact of when I've done that for staff, particularly females. I'm always an advocate for them using their voice. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Sarah says she has seen huge, huge changes in Police over the years, but she has proudly remained who she has always been.

“I will push back if I see things that don’t fit with our values… I have challenged perceptions and I believe I have shown tenacity and resilience in my career. It hasn’t been easy sometimes but anything worth doing isn’t always easy, right?”

The one role Sarah coveted?

“I really would have loved to have been a dog handler. I applied twice but they said women couldn’t do that in the 1980s. One of the reasons they gave me was that I wasn’t strong enough. I played rep sport, I was strong. I would have done the training to have been able to do it. By the time we had our first female dog handler [Constable Debbie Grumball joined the Dog Section in 1995], I was a sergeant.”


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