75 years of women in the force: Tales from the police front line

By Teresa Smith -
Celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of women in the force include a nationwide torch relay. Photo / File
Celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of women in the force include a nationwide torch relay. Photo / File

This year is the 75th anniversary of the first intake of women into police training in June 1941.

Celebrations marking the occasion include a nationwide torch relay which will pass through Punakaiki, Tauranga Bay, Carters Beach and Westport on Saturday.

Area Commander Mel Aitken will run the torch through the Heaphy Track on Sunday to connect with a colleague from the Nelson Bay area.

The News caught up with two women from the police - one former, one current.

'I'd never run so fast in my life'

Hurdling a fence while wearing a skirt after being threatened by a woman with a gun is a vivid memory for a Westport woman who served with the police in the 1950s.

Chris Reeves was a member of Wing 56 - the first mixed class of police recruits/trainees at the police training college in Trentham in 1956.

After graduating, Constable Christy Boyd, as she was then, chose to work in Dunedin.

In her first year on the job police received a call that there was a woman pointing a gun out the window of a house.

In those days women police officers walked the beat but aside from that dealt only with cases which involved women and children. However, as this was a woman with a gun Mrs Reeves was part of the response.

As her colleagues staged a distraction at the back of the house she was deputed to try the front door but the distraction hadn't worked and the woman had spotted her.

"Get off the bloody veranda or I'll shoot you" was the message.

"I'd never run so fast in my life," said Reeves of her fleet-footed race through the garden and over the fence.

The woman was later taken to Seacliff Mental Hospital.

Brought up in Lyttleton, Reeves had three elder brothers in the police force before she joined.

She said she loved hearing their stories which prompted her mother to suggest she might also like to join.

In 1955, aged 19, Reeves joined the police in Christchurch as a cadet.

Once she turned 20 the following year she was eligible to apply for police training.

Five feet and five inches was the minimum height for women applicants in those days and no one with "flat feet" could get in.

Three references were also required from Reeve's, so she supplied ones from the Lyttleton mayor, headmaster and undertaker.

Wing 56 comprised 90 men and 10 women who all underwent exactly the same 12-week training, including learning to shoot, Reeves said.

At her Dunedin posting there were four other women in uniform.

She said in those days you could point a finger at children who were in places they shouldn't be "and say 'home' and home they would go".

Reeves recalled the public as very helpful "even the teddy boys -- they weren't like gangs today, they were pussy cats".

Each police officer had a whistle and this was how they would summon help if needed, Reeves said. She couldn't remember having to use hers, which was just as well she said, as she was not sure how far it could be heard.

Those were also the days before equal pay, and she and other female police officers got paid less than their male colleagues -- "quite a bit less" said Reeves.

Women in the police didn't get equal pay until 1973 and weren't allowed to wear trousers until 1977.

Reeves recalled being on duty at a wrestling match in Dunedin.

At the first and only match she attended for the police and one of the wrestlers went by the name of Zerro and was very popular.

A female member of the audience got carried away with the excitement, she said, and when Zerro was 'on the ropes' leapt up and began hitting him with her handbag.

The wrestler seized the handbag from her, swung it around his head several times then let it go whereupon it flew up to the balcony scattering coins and lipstick and other contents into the audience.

Reeves said she and the senior sergeant with her escorted the woman back to her seat and calmed her down. No arrest was deemed necessary, the hardest thing being to contain their laughter, she said.

Thrill of the chase

It was the thrill of the chase that hooked Constable Angela Meldrum into policing.

Meldrum said she was working in a Dunedin shop when she ended up chasing some shoplifters out of the store and cornering them along the road.

The resulting adrenaline rush got her thinking and from there she applied for the police force.

After graduating in June 2008, the Hokitika local was posted to Dunedin.

She did three-and-a-half years there before taking a year out to travel in Europe.

Working an office job in London during her time away, she said she found herself always wondering what the police were up to when she spotted patrol cars from her window.

After she returned, a job came up in Westport where she'd only been once before to play netball.

Eight-and-a-half years on with the police she "can't imagine doing anything else".

It's the "ultimate people's job", Meldrum said.

What was most important about policing was communication and people skills she said, rather than physical strength.

"There's a very small percentage of people in the community who see it any differently and whose idea of a good police officer is a big burly fellow."

Women underwent the same training as men, had to pass the same physical tests and did the same work.

Meldrum described the Westport police station as "awesome" with a great mix of police officers.

There were great career opportunities with the job, she said.

She has trained in negotiation and is a member of the four-person negotiation squad on the Coast which works alongside the Armed Offenders Squad in high-risk situations.

What she loved about the job from the outset was still what she loved today - "catching the bad guys" - responding, catching and arresting and then seeing that someone went through the court process.

- Westport News

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