Sandra Manderson

by Joanne Black / 24 December, 2005
Top cop.

She has an MSc, an MBA and a QSM, but among her friends New Zealand's highest-ranked female police officer is best known for the occasion when she was out shopping in high heels, caught a shoplifter and floored him when he tried to get away. As he was being removed by uniformed officers, he was heard muttering, "I've just been felled by a sheila in high heels." Sandra Manderson is no ordinary sheila. She was five times a New Zealand judo champion and, although often desk-bound as commander of the Canterbury Police District, is no stranger to the front line. In fact, she led New Zealand's victim ID team in Phuket after last year's Boxing Day tsunami.

Why a police career? I was born wanting to be a policewoman. I wanted to be a policewoman all the way through primary school and still did when I left Hagley High School. I went to university and did a BSc, then taught physical education for a year and that was when I joined the police.

Which types of criminal do you like the least? Burglars ruin people's lives. Burglary becomes a social control on people, and on women in particular. It creates fear of crime. But mostly I dislike violence and violent crime. I find arson a very ugly crime, too, and it does huge damage, but of course sexual offenders and paedophiles are abhorrent. Where do you stop? As a police officer, I'm passionate about reducing offending and making a difference in society - that's why I wanted to be a policewoman.

So, you believe that police, rather than social change, can reduce crime? Without a doubt the police contribute significantly to crime reduction. We work with the community and other government agencies to do it. And what we're doing is making a difference to the society we live in and, yes, we can reduce crime and we have to try to stop the revolving door of the same players, different scene.

You have said there are key crime families in Christchurch who are responsible for a lot of the crime. How can you deal with them? We do have some major crime families in Christchurch and in my opinion the root of the trouble comes from families. You can't put the onus on the education system to discipline children or mould their lives. We have to make those families respons- ible. I chair a crime meeting every week and we are targeting those families. As often as we can, every time they offend, we will apprehend them. We have 14-year-olds who have stolen 400 vehicles, by their own admission. It's pretty mind-boggling. We have to intervene and work with other agencies to give those families an alternative to crime. In one family, the mother is in prison, the father doesn't seem to care and the kids are causing huge havoc. The mother is the linchpin. We have to get to her and say, "Do you want your children to be where you are soon?" Most criminal families don't want their children going to prison.

There is a macho culture in the police. How do policewomen cope with that? I suppose it's macho, but I am not critical of it. I am part of police culture and there are some very positive things about it. A lot of it is about commitment. As a career choice, it is probably like nursing. You don't go into nursing just for a job, and you don't go into the police just to get paid. And we recruit a particular type of woman. You probably don't get a lot of fading violets applying for the police.

Does your job satisfaction diminish the higher up the ranks you go? No. It's good to be in a position to influence the job satisfaction of other people, although sometimes you deal with problems all day. The other day, people were lining up outside the door to see me and you just feel like shouting, "Next!"

I was the first director of the Crime Prevention Unit, which was at that time in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and I was there three and half years. It gave me experience in central government, but I enjoy working in an operational police station, because you are completely in touch with what is going on with policing. The work the staff do is far more important than the work I do.

Do you get singled out for attention because you are a woman? Many of the questions that reporters ask me are gender-based. It's to do with being the female boss of 900-plus men, but it's not unusual to me, because when people ask, "What is it like to be a woman in the police?", well, how would I know what it's like to be a man in the police? I've never been one. People get over it. I'm not a novelty to the people I work with. Mind you, I do remember going to baton and OC [pepper] spray training last year. I was partnered with a young constable and we had to carry each other piggy-back and then do a couple of lengths of the wheelbarrow thing, holding each other's ankles. Although it wasn't a problem for me, I felt a bit sorry for him. I certainly noticed that while other people were clambering and scrambling onto one another's backs, this constable stepped back, then took one flying leap onto me.

You've been superintendent in charge of organisational performance at the Office of the Commissioner, you led New Zealand's disaster-victim identification team for a month in Phuket, but could you still knock down an offender in the street if you felt you had to? Absolutely.

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