Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Cushla Watson

By Jennifer Dann

Former police detective Cushla Watson worked on some of the country's highest profile cases of the 1980s. On the 75th anniversary of women in the New Zealand police, she recalls what it was like being female in the force.
Undercover cop Cushla Watson at home in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Undercover cop Cushla Watson at home in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

1. Growing up in Thames, what did you want to be?

I actually wrote "policewoman" on a form at school when I was 12, but I ended up joining the air force first. Much to my parents' horror I took a job as a driver because that was the only vacancy going. In 1969 the air force didn't have women pilots.

Their roles were mostly administrative. A friend of mine was applying for the police and I wanted the adventure so I joined the 1973 intake at Trentham along with six girls and 100 men.

2. New Zealand was a sexist place in 1973. Did you notice any sexism in the police?

We had equal pay, so that was recognition. My first posting in Tauranga was talking to school children and women's groups so that was an indication of where they saw our place. I quickly got myself transferred on to section for general duties. I think the men, in the nicest possible way, believed women were less suited to certain roles like the physical stuff. I did often wonder, "Gosh " am I going to be able to do as well as the guys?" You wouldn't voice that, but it was in your mind.

Whereas the young policewomen today have absolutely no doubt they can mix it on the street. They have the batons and Tasers that we didn't have. We just got handcuffs and a big square police-issued handbag which I'd carry my torch in when I went on the beat at night.

3. Did you ever get assaulted on the job?

I got hit on the head with one of those big old brown beer bottles which bounced off a plate glass window at a nightclub. There'd often be scuffles during an arrest but I never had a direct attack.

4. Did you ever feel objectified?

No. Maybe I had a tattoo on my head that said, "Don't mess with me". I was comfortable with men. From me, what you see is what you get. I believe I was respected. I socialised with the guys but I didn't try to be one of the boys. I could talk tough to offenders when needed but I never went down to the level of gutter talk.

5. How did you become a detective?

The provinces were a bit quiet so I got transferred to Wellington for more action. One of the CIB guys asked me to disguise myself in a wig and meet a suspected sex offender. I stood on the side of the road in Karori waiting for the suspect to drive up while two detectives watched from cars up the road. I talked to thesuspect and when I'd got enough evidence the signal was that I'd put my handbag on the ground. That was fun.

Soon after that they asked me if I was interested in applying for the CIB. I worked on every squad except fraud over the years. They actually had an "indecency squad" back then.

6. Did you ever struggle to deal with a horrible case like rape or child abuse?

Yes, one in particular. A young Maori girl had been gang-raped. I interviewed her and took care of her right through to the trial. The offenders were all convicted but it was a long gruelling process for that wee girl.

7. Have you ever cried on the job?

I struggled not to one night when I was alone on patrol as a young constable and I had to notify a man that his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident. I think it's everybody's worst nightmare to open the door at night and see a police officer standing there when your family aren't home. Usually people know as soon as they see you. You don't have to say much. It's just the sombre look on your face and the body language you exude. I drove him to his other daughter's house and told her too. Afterwards I thought, "Well done - you didn't cry". There was another horrible one where a young girl was knocked off her bike and died at the scene. Her father was a surgeon who happened to attend in the ambulance without knowing. She was a twin and he had to look for a birthmark to find out which of his daughters had died. I'm tearing up now thinking about it. Seeing other people's grief is awful.

8. What was your role in the Rainbow Warrior inquiry?

I was working in Auckland CIB at the time. We had a registration number for a campervan seen acting suspiciously on Tamaki Drive so I went to Newman's rentals and was told it had been hired by a French-speaking Swiss couple. We searched the motel where they'd stayed. What struck me as interesting was they'd slept in different rooms. I found the sticker from a Zodiac boat and some other bits of evidence. I was asked to take their passports to the Swiss Embassy in Wellington and then on to Switzerland where it was found they'd been fraudulently manufactured in France, so I went to Lyon to interview the people whose passport numbers had been stolen. I also went to England to trace the origins of the Zodiac dumped on the beach at Tamaki Drive and the motor found under the Ngapipi Rd bridge. So it was building up this huge chain of evidence. I was the first woman to be sent overseas for that type of inquiry and was grateful to be trusted to do the job.

9. At what point did you suspect this went up to government levels in France?

The whole of New Zealand was in an uproar that this bombing had happened in our harbour. Very quickly it was world news - we had one media guy in the police and he was completely swamped - and the French were suspected because of the nuclear testing at Mururoa. The French police were clearly embarrassed. They knew they had to co-operate but getting the evidence we needed was a bit like drawing teeth - a long drawn-out process.

10. Any other interesting cases?

A group of us went down to Ruatoria for the church arson inquiry. I remember standing in the hot sun in front of a little garage that was the police station, watching a guy with long flowing hair riding bareback down the main street. It was fascinating trying to get your head around what on earth was going on down there. It was very complex and there was awful acrimony among the locals. We now know that it was fuelled by a huge cannabis growing operation.

11. Why did you leave the police after a distinguished 20-year career?

I had children and couldn't balance both. I left the CIB after my first child because with inquiry work you can't always clock out at the assigned time, so I switched to shift work in the control room taking 111 calls. After my second child I applied to job-share with a friend but flexible employment wasn't an option then. You worked fulltime or not at all. So I made the really difficult decision to leave. Some women did work fullime with children but for me that wasn't going to work.

12. You spent over 20 years in the police. What did you enjoy about the job?

The variety - no day is the same. It's a buzz and an adrenalin rush. Of course there's tragedy and it's challenging but challenge is a good thing. You learn about yourself and sometimes you can quietly pat yourself on the back and feel satisfied there's been a good outcome.

- NZ Herald

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