Police women are reality TV’s newest subjects, discovers Sarah Lang.
If ever there was a reluctant reality TV star, it's Tracy Phillips. She is one of seven policewomen who appear on TV One's new series Women in Blue, which premieres on Tuesday. Not that she'll be watching her episodes.
"The last thing you want as a woman in your 40s is to see yourself in close-up on a 56-inch screen," she tells me, laughing. "When did those wrinkles happen?"
Her relaxed attitude, comical quips and love for the job make her the perfect poster girl for the force and great on-screen talent. But the inspector (then area commander of Whangarei and Kaipara) took a lot of persuading to do the show.
"I said 'no' persistently for a month. Go into the public arena and you potentially open yourself up for ridicule, but our comms lady was very persuasive and knew where
I lived," Phillips says with a laugh.
Eventually she was sold on the reasons to say yes. "It's about showing a human face and inspiring other women to join the police: 'God, if she can do it, I can'." It's no coincidence that Women in Blue kicks off at the same time as two new police initiatives: a recruiting drive to get more women into the police, and the Police Women's Advisory Network to mentor and advise up-and-coming female leaders.
Phillips is involved in both. "People say it's difficult for women to do well in the police but I've been given opportunities and been well looked after and supported."
On the show, Phillips is the highest-ranked of the policewomen we see dealing with everything from detective work to disaster-victim identification, domestic violence and volatile drunks. Over eight episodes, we also see how they deal with the job, personally and professionally.
In one episode, Phillips chats with some intoxicated youths on the street, handing one an alcohol self-assessment brochure that she calls a scratchie, cracking him up.
Later, she banters with the occupants of a car she stops for a routine breath test. "You're a very attractive policewoman," says one passenger. "Oh, see, now I know you're drunk," she quips back.
That trademark sense of humour cools any tension or heads it off in advance. "I use humour a lot. It relaxes people and shows police are human - we're not robots."
Phillips joined the police after winning a 1990 Commonwealth Games bronze in high jump. "I was 12 at the time," she jokes. She has spent most of her career on the frontline as one of the first female dog handlers. "Because it's the most fun." But, accepting her strength is strategy, she has risen her way through the ranks, including a stint as national alcohol programme manager, where she took part in the Law Commission review of liquor laws. "It's one of the things I'm most proud of [doing] in the police."
Nowadays, she doesn't get out in the field as often as she'd like. "The higher you go in the police, the less excitement you get.
"There are a lot of meetings and office work, not chasing people over fences so much. I really love getting out to play in the real world. A change is as good as a break, and I don't know anyone who says, 'my God that was an awesome meeting'."
Since filming, she and her partner, Constable Geoff Bray, have shifted from Whangarei to Auckland for her one-year secondment as a regional professional-standards manager, covering Northland to Taupo.
"He was a bit reluctant to hang up the pictures," she jokes. "He's like, 'how long are we here for?' I do get about a bit."
Coincidentally Bray, who works with the NZ Police National Dive Squad, appears in an episode of Water Patrol, another new observational series which premieres Tuesday. Billed as Police Ten 7 on the water, it follows the dive squad, police officers, and maritime units as they patrol our waterways.
"The other day Geoff was making sure there were no bombs under the boats the royals went out in. His life is way more exciting than mine."
Phillips doesn't know what her next police role will be. "I'm a great believer in things coming up at the right time. If not policing, I'll be cleaning windscreens at intersections - ooh, and I'd love to be a professional shopper."
But seriously, she has no plans to leave the police. "I really can't imagine doing anything else now."
Women in Blue premieres Tuesday, 7.30pm, TV One, followed by Water Patrol at 8pm.