Metropolitan elite

June 28, 2017

By Jacqui Smith, former Home Secretary, UK

10 March 2017

It has been a long journey for women to reach the top of the police service [in the UK], writes Jacqui Smith in Progress

The appointment of Cressida Dick as the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan police [London] is excellent news for policing and another crack in the glass ceiling. The reaction to her appointment has been very positive from within policing – she clearly commands respect and admiration. When I worked with her I found her calm, considered, and a refreshing break from the largely male ‘big beasts’ in the upper echelons of British policing.

There has been criticism of the move, given her role in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005. This was an appalling tragedy for his family and the type of devastating mistake that I am sure haunts any senior police officer. However, she was cleared of personal responsibility through several inquiries.

Heading up the Met is arguably the most difficult and high profile job anywhere in the policing world. Anyone able to take on this role will have faced problems and criticisms during their career. How they responded to them would, I am sure, have been high in the minds of Sadiq Khan [Mayor of London] and Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

It is also worth celebrating the fact that Dick was not the only excellent female candidate for this role. Sara Thornton, previously chief constable of Thames Valley and now heading the National Police Chiefs Council was also on the shortlist. Alongside Lynne Owens who leads the National Crime Agency, these three are now the most senior police officers in the country. So have we sorted the ‘woman problem’ in policing? Not quite.

In 1914, Margaret Damer Dawson, an anti-prostitution campaigner, and Nina Boyle, a militant suffragette journalist, founded the Women Police Service.

Dawson wanted a uniformed organisation of women to deter pimps and discourage young women from entering prostitution, while Boyle wished to take advantage of the First World War to put women temporarily in men’s places, with the expectation that their usefulness would lead to their permanent continuation after the war.

The then Met commissioner, Edward Henry, permitted the WPS to patrol the streets, undertaking ‘rescue’ work among prostitutes, and issued them with identity cards. However he never enlisted their official support and the Home Office said that they could not be sworn in.

Grantham was the first provincial force to ask the WPS to supply them with occasional policewomen and in 1915, Grantham swore in Edith Smith, making her the first proper female police officer in Britain with full powers of arrest.

However full integration took a long time. Up to the mid-1970s, there was a separate rank structure for female police officers; in the 1980s, the female police uniform included a special handbag and truncheon that could fit inside it. More disturbingly, female police officers have told me that when they joined the force in the 1980s, they were ‘branded’ – supposedly as a joke by male colleagues.

Even now, only 28.6 per cent of police officers are women – and the Met has the lowest proportion of all the major forces with only 26 per cent. Among police staff, the proportion goes up to 60 per cent, but these are the people most likely to be lost in the current cost-cutting so there are a disproportionate number of women leaving the service at the moment too.

Fewer than one in four chief officers are women and there is a particular problem of representation in some of the specialist roles, such as firearms, that are often part of a career route to the top. Just by her appointment, Dick will make a difference to how women feel about a career in the police and I know this is an issue she cares about and would work on. As with other female leaders, we are placing an extra expectation on her shoulders to support women. This will be alongside the challenges of delivering policing for London’s communities at a time of unprecedented cuts; leading the national counterterror effort; responding to the new threats of child sexual exploitation and attacks on vulnerable people as well as new forms of crime on the internet. The Met is a large and unwieldy organisation where the ferrets have not always played nicely in the sack. I am confident that Dick is the woman for the job, but she will need all our support to survive and get it done.  

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