Manchester shootings: what life is like on the front line for policewomen
PUBLISHED September 23, 2012
It's Friday night in the town where I work as a uniformed police sergeant. The clubs have closed, and I am on my way to pick up a Transit van when I hear: "Oi, you lesbian whore."
I turn to see a 6ft mess of beer and cocaine, with one shoe missing. I think he was ejected from the Dreamz nightclub earlier in the evening.
"Yeah you, you fat b----."
"Just go home," I urge. He does not want to go home, and in the space of 30 seconds I have gone from looking forward to a cup of tea, to being squared up to by an apparent police-hating alcoholic. One of his forearms is the size of my neck.
"I'm not going to fight you; you're twice my size," I say.
I have had surprising success using this tactic. But this guy just grunts and glares. He is so close, a haymaker punch or a head-butt will take me straight out. I radio up my location, and then he raises a fist: "I'm gonna ------- smack you one."
I shove him away with both hands. He barely stumbles, then lunges. Before I can grab my baton or pava [synthetic-pepper incapacitant] spray, he has got me by the shoulders of my stab vest. I brace my arms against his. We spin, nose to nose against a shop frontage. The audience of kebab-eaters shuffles its feet. Ten years in the police, and suddenly this. How is this going to end?
When I joined the police a decade ago, being a female in a male profession did not really occur to me. I was a 21st-century woman: all doors were open. I just had faith that the job would look after me.
For a while, it did. The police was going through a boom in recruitment and plenty of girls joined up. Our sergeants, and above, had to get used to the idea of all-female crews. Some could not get their heads around it, and worried about us. Some thought we would not be as effective. One sergeant said: "Girls together… they just don't get stuck in." He must have imagined we would spend whole shifts talking about shoes and miss all the burglars creeping past.
A year later, a female colleague and I had collared some thieves, including a frisky street robber, and my sergeant ate his words - in fairness, he did so most humbly. The pair of us had not done anything special; we were doing the same work as the blokes, without distinction.
Now I am a sergeant, with a team of mostly men under me. Our numbers are so depleted that I scarcely notice the gender of those turning up for work. My few female officers are as likely to work with each other as with a man, or by themselves. Extreme budget cuts have done more for gender equality than any amount of positive action.
And yet, this modern, 21st-century policewoman has to admit, when I read about the deaths of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Manchester, it was more poignant for the fact it was two girls. In part this is because it is reminiscent of another deadly shooting, that of PCs Sharon Beshenivsky and Teresa Milburn, during a robbery in Bradford in 2005. At that time I was fresh out of probation, full of feminist fervour, and determined that no one was going to tell me what a woman could and could not do. The death of Sharon, and wounding of Teresa, although hundreds of miles away, were a stark reminder of what equality could mean. I was moved, and followed the story obsessively through to the conviction of their attackers.
Now two more women have been killed. This time it is no surprise to find two women working together. Indeed the surprise is more that they were double-crewed, and that they were armed with a Taser, and perhaps tried to use it. The bald truth is staring at us: that these women died like men - on the front line, in uniform. I feel proud, and yet frightened. What we have wished for is upon us, and it turns out that equality is not so glamorous after all.
We have more to do. Women still have, on average, shorter police careers than men, and with the reduction in non-response roles, more have to make hard choices if they wish to continue policing after starting a family. According to 2011 figures, the police workforce is still just 30 per cent female, senior ranks under 15 per cent. There is an inevitable dynamic at work, whereby I expect my guys and girls to perform highly, I feel protective of them, and the guys feel physically protective of me. But this is not necessarily negative, and I am not so sure it relates to gender, although it is easy to assume that it does.
What is waning is the presumption that you need to be a muscle-bound ex-marine to be an effective police officer. The times brute force by a sole officer is the right course of action are few and far between. We are there to control, not to fight. Control is best achieved calmly, with numbers on your side.
Which is why, pinned to a shop window by a slathering drunk, things are not exactly going to plan. I feel a sharp pain seer through my collar bone where his knuckles dig in. I prise a hand loose and scrabble for my pava, firing it into his eyes. To my amazement he lets go and raises his hands to his face. I am gasping in relief when four police cars and a van stampede on to the pavement.
My team are all around, offering to drive me to hospital, or to the station. I brush it off, and they have to stop me trying to help lift the offender into the van. I go for an X-ray, along with one of my team who ran out of the station so quickly that he got his foot caught in the door and thinks he has broken his toe. It would be funny, except he was beside himself with worry.
In spite of incidents like these, I do not consider the risks to be any different for female officers. I am marginally less likely to be punched in the face - and marginally more likely to go down hard if I am - than my male counterpart.
We are all vulnerable when faced with greater firepower, whether it be 15 stone of lard or a handful of grenades. Deaths like those of Fiona and Nicola remind us we are not invincible, and I will tread the streets more cautiously while the memory lingers on.
Ellie Bloggs is a blogger, author of 'Diary of an On-Call Girl' (Monday Books) and police officer in the southern half of England. The fee for this piece will be donated to PC David Rathband's Blue Lamp Foundation