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Gender imbalance in police an age-old problem that has never been tackled

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 20/10/2015

I had been brought into police training on the assumption that the biggest problem for the police was the sectarian imbalance, with about 93% of the service being Protestant, but as soon as I walked into the room I could see that the gender imbalance was a bigger problem
I had been brought into police training on the assumption that the biggest problem for the police was the sectarian imbalance, with about 93% of the service being Protestant, but as soon as I walked into the room I could see that the gender imbalance was a bigger problem

When I was training RUC recruits in the Nineties I would regularly find myself in a long room in Maydown Training Centre with a class of about 15 probationers. These were young police officers who had been through basic training and were now getting a top-up after 18 months out on the job.

My role was to discuss community relations with them as part of the CAP (community awareness programme). The trainees themselves usually called it the "Crap programme".

In each group, on average two out of the 15 would be women.

They nearly always sat together.

I had been brought into police training on the assumption that the biggest problem for the police was the sectarian imbalance, with about 93% of the service being Protestant, but as soon as I walked into the room I could see that the gender imbalance was a bigger problem.

And it showed up in all sorts of ways.

During a discussion you could make out the pecking order among the men, how others would be quiet while another was speaking. But all of the men tended to talk over the women.

I told the groups that in most of the circumstances in which I would expect to be dealing with the police, I would rather be talking to a woman than to a man.

If it has to be someone breaking bad news on my doorstep or questioning me after a calamity, well the guy who can outrun a thief may not be the one with the sensitivity. We need some bullish, heavy policemen for some parts of the job. One of the handicaps to the recruitment of women was the physical test that few could pass. But for a lot of policing jobs, emotional intelligence counts for more than the ability to wrestle someone to the ground.

The Belfast Telegraph reports today that only about a third of applications to the PSNI are from women. When I was there, that would have seemed a radical breakthrough, not a major problem. But the best balance would be 50-50, with far more women in the service than now.

What was less obvious when I walked into a training room back then was how few of the recruits were Catholic. I would only know them if they brought it up themselves, and usually they did, often to talk of their difficulties in going home, being honest about their job with old school friends, and how their only friends now were in the police.

After the Patten Report that was to change and we were working to a sectarian balance, too, but we have not achieved it. In fact, Catholic applications are in decline and the balanced recruitment that Patten urged has been dropped.

This is serious, not because there are particular talents that Catholics bring to policing, but because we are going to end up again with the service which does not represent the wider community.

We'll be back to the days when everyone takes it for granted that the police officer stopping their car is a Protestant and it becomes too easy to attribute sectarian motivation to any slackness in manners and professional conduct.

Belfast Telegraph

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