Lauano Sue Schwalger has spent the past 30 years quietly breaking down barriers for women in the police force.

But now she's through the glass ceiling and NZ Police's new Assistant Commissioner is making herself heard.

The self-described "very shy" Superintendent from Hawke's Bay is one of just three women in New Zealand history to have reached the rank of Assistant Commissioner.

She believes the key to helping women achieve is to ensure "the door is wedged well and truly open" for others to follow in her footsteps.

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Superintendent Sue Schwalger has been appointed Assistant Commissioner. Photo / Supplied
Superintendent Sue Schwalger has been appointed Assistant Commissioner. Photo / Supplied

"Once somebody goes through those doors, it's really incumbent on us to make sure that those doors stay open, so that it is not seen as unachievable," she said.

Schwalger is the product of a mixed marriage; her mother is a New Zealander from a prominent wine-making family, her father is Samoan.

She received her Samoan chiefly title - passed down from her paternal uncle and grandfather - earlier this year.

"It represents not just me but my wider family; those who have gone before me but also those that are to follow."

She grew up in Hawke's Bay and her first job was "working the land" as a horticultural cadet, before joining the force in Hastings in 1983, aged 20.

She quickly learned how much she enjoyed effecting change in people's lives.

"I completely changed directions ... I suppose it was that X factor that appealed to me".

Sue Schwalger never saw herself going for such a powerful position when she first started out in the force. Photo / File
Sue Schwalger never saw herself going for such a powerful position when she first started out in the force. Photo / File

After leaving to have children and then returning to work in frontline roles in 1991, she admits a lot has changed and there have been challenges.

She wouldn't change anything about her career, though.

"Considering, when I came out, I had a baton, handcuffs and a handbag, it has certainly changed.

"There are many challenges that continue to face men and woman today; decisions around family, be it children, ageing parents, or the ability to move locations, but it is all about the choices that you make and how you deal with those decisions.

"The NZ Police is an organisation that continues to offer its people a wealth of exciting and challenging experiences and career opportunities no matter what gender you are."

In 1999, she joined the Criminal Investigation Bureau and investigated homicides, child abuse and other serious violence and organised crime offences.

Since then, her roles have included Central District Crime Manager, Professional Conduct National Manager and Whanganui Area Commander.

Most recently she held the position of Central District's Area Commander and is best known for leading the investigation into the murder of Feilding farmer Scott Guy in 2010.

"Policing a diverse community means you get to see the best of people, but you also get to see the worst of people, including some horrific acts of violence.

As a Detective Senior Sergeant in Counties-Manukau, she got her first big case - the "barbaric" rape and stabbing of a 14-year-old girl in her home on New Year's Eve 2004.

She says those sorts of cases, involving children, that stick with her the most.

"There's no one more vulnerable than children and there's been some very sad and very tragic cases involving children."

As a mother and grandmother, she finds reconnecting with her loved ones is the best way to "centre" herself.

Her new role will involve operational oversight of six of the 12 policing districts in New Zealand. It's a position she never considered aiming for when she was starting out.

"That was probably the furthest from my mind and I probably created my own glass ceiling way back when I first started because I didn't have aspirations to do anything or gain promotion."

It wasn't until working in Counties-Manukau that she started to look at supervisory roles.
"It has been incremental really".

"For me, I have always focused on nailing the role that I'm in rather than what's next."

Her two priorities are doing the best she can as Assistant Commissioner, as well as "tapping into that responsibility to give back and to encourage and support others so that they can see that they too have the potential to go anywhere in this organisation."