Have a little think about the Police. Who comes to mind? A man in uniform, likely. Quickly imagine a police detective? That’ll be Rebus, Maigret, Wallander, Frost, Zen, Morse, or Columbo then? Yes there’s a theme here. We think of the police as men, yes we do. And the women who come to mind are probably the fictional anomalies; DCI Tennison, Lisbeth Salander, Miss Marple. That’s why the news this week – that a woman has been put in charge of protecting the people of London – is really quite something. Cressida Dick, 56, has won the biggest job in police business; Head of the Metropolitan Police.
Hailed as “an exceptional officer and a tough cookie”, her, mostly, commendable 31- year police career saw off the 5 other applicants. Home Secretary, Amber Rudd warmly welcomed her to the role: “Cressida’s skills and insight will ensure the Metropolitan Police adapt to the changing patterns of crime in the 21st century and continue to keep communities safe across London and the UK.
One of the most demanding, high-profile and important jobs in UK policing, Cressida’s working day will be busy; with a heightened terror alert, evolving threats from fraud and cybercrime, an increase in violent knife crime, all the whilst keeping Londoners safe and protecting the most vulnerable.
The Met is also facing steep cuts in spending, as well as pressure on recruitment and retention because of London living costs. Then there’s the fallout from Operation Midland, the inquiry into false allegations of sex abuse by VIPs, coming her way – the Met is now facing a series of lawsuits.
Cress (as she’s called by colleagues) is thrilled though, it’s “an extraordinary privilege” and she’s “very humbled”to be chosen for the post.
It’s not so long ago when the Police was entirely dominated by men; working in a culture where abuse of power, a lack of accountability and racism were endemic to the job. But when the Commanders started to take note of research showing the benefits of police women – better educated, better at understanding orders, writing reports and presenting evidence, better at questioning suspects and getting confessions; much less likely to fight or use violence or use firearms – things slowly began to change. Today women make 29% of our police force (though 4 in 10 say they want to leave). And Cressida has probably had to push against male enforced boundaries every step of the way, good on her.
And if her news profiles are to be believed, it’s been a very focussed life of public duty; there’s not a lot of colour – no children, marriage, even a whiff of a partner and certainly no hint of an anti-social habit. She seems to have been serious from that start; stirling scholarly record (child of academics she attended Oxford High School, then Baloil College Oxford) and a steadily rising career, (she began as a beat officer in 1983, rising through the ranks to become assistant commissioner in 2009). Other than a colleague commenting, “she has a wicked sense of humour, makes time for people and is great company ,” her private life has been kept tightly shut.
In this age of over-sharing we can’t blame her for keeping to herself, but it is rather mysterious that there is nothing at all out there about her. And really she probably needs to give us a bit more of herself; certainly if she wants more girls to follow her in the force. In fiction we much prefer our lady dicks to show their personality; their individual quirks, their vulnerability. Just like these literary heroines;
From Nancy Drew – the amateur girl detective and important 20th century cultural icon (she has a strong fan base still, with conventions and everything) – Nancy was the embodiment of independence, pluck, and intelligence (and watch out for a new American made series soon);
to Modesty Blaise – the shapely, stylish brunette with a secret agent’s guile, who devoted her cartoon time to ridding the world of super villains;
From Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium Trilogy (Modesty probably inspired this Steig Larsson creation). A highly introverted and asocial world class computer hacker, she caught the world’s attention with as a fiercely unconventional and darkly kooky anti- heroine;
To, those of us who grew up with, Cagney and Lacey ; Mary Beth Cagney (Tyne Daly) was the a highly respected tough cop on the streets of New York, she was also funny and a devoted wife and mother and supporting friend (through the many sexploits) of her single partner, Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless).
From today’s Catherine Cawood (Happy Valley, BBC1). The Sergeant with a sense of humour, and a heap of family crises; rooted in her Northern community she has a deeply caring side but she’s no softie as the gritty series showed…
To yesteryear’s DCI Jane Tennison – DCI Tennison the difficult and demanding boss of an all-male team in Prime Suspect. She was a ferocious and formidable operator, and very aware of her sexuality (she was played by Helen Mirren after all).
And then Tennison led to Sarah Lund (The Killing). The clever, modest and serious detective, who had her work cut out catching Denmark’s super nasty serial killers. A lady cop who lived in a pair of old jeans and a cream and navy Faroese jumper. Doing her job was more important than any of her personal relationships. She was, in short, just like a man.
We like police chiefs who are determined and dedicated and honest and human. Dick’s appointment is a major personal achievement but lets hope that, unlike Margaret Thatcher, she shows she knows it’s different for girls. If she can she really will leave a lasting legacy – inspiring the next generation of top she-bobbies – what would be wrong with that?
(But we won’t expect “Cressida the woman” film just yet…)
Timely for Cressida’s appointment perhaps; ITV’s big new series Prime Suspect 1973, starts Thursday 2nd March
Cressida Dick talks to Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4
BBC World Service: Pakistan’s Women Only Police Station