Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray on challenges of policing, juggling her job and home life, and being PSNI's highest ranking woman.
Q. You clocked up 30 years' service this month. What made you want to join the police?
A. When I was 14 a police officer was killed after a car bomb detonated outside our house. Our whole family was at home. It was in such close proximity. My father was obviously very concerned and kept us in. The police officer had a young family. It was a coincidence that it happened where I lived, but I knew from that day that I absolutely wanted to do something that could in some small way help our society.
As a young child I was very aware of the Troubles and there were many serious incidents in the wider area of Bessbrook, Newry and south Armagh. I heard many bombs explode and there were many families and friends who were affected by the Troubles in different ways - some in the most tragic of circumstances. I don't remember a time that I didn't want to be a police officer. I applied when I was 18, but there was no recruitment for women at that time.
Q. How was your career decision received at home?
A. My family were broadly supportive. Mum and dad recognised it was a big decision; I probably wouldn't be able to go home again because of where I lived.
Q. You're currently the highest ranking female in the PSNI, which was described as a "boys' club" by Policing Board member Dolores Kelly. Does it feel like a boys' club?
A. I wouldn't say so. Within stations now, and within teams, the face of policing has definitely changed. As a result of 50:50 recruitment introduced in 2001 (to increase to 50% the Catholic representation), the probably unintended, but very welcome, consequence was a much greater increase of female representation.
Q. Is it harder for women to succeed as police officers?
A. Some of the challenges women have are all about balances. I absolutely acknowledge that within policing, and like many other public services that rely on shift work, things can be really difficult to juggle. But as society is changing our male colleagues have a lot to balance as well.
Q. Is there a glass ceiling for women in policing?
A. I don't believe so. We really work hard to identify if there are barriers within recruitment processes. We should be encouraged by the fact we have many more women coming through the ranks now.
Q. Can you see a female PSNI Chief Constable one day?
A. For sure. Judith Gillespie was our first Deputy Chief Constable and our first female Assistant Chief Constable as well... but we still remain under-represented in some specialist departments; for example, we've no women in our counter terrorist specialist firearms officers.
Q. Did you work with Judith? Was she a role model?
A. Judith Gillespie has paved the way for many women across society, not only within policing.
Q. Would you like to be the first female Chief Constable?
A. I'm qualified to apply nationally anywhere, but my heart lies in Northern Ireland. My ambition is to remain in post and do the best that I can.
Q. Why would you encourage women to consider a policing career?
A. It's a fantastic career. I hesitate to call it a job, it's a vocation.
Q. What was it like when you were starting out?
A. I was in the police five years before being issued with firearms. At the 75th anniversary event of women in policing held recently, it was interesting to hear the accounts of women who weren't allowed to drive police cars.
When I joined in 1989 women weren't allowed to wear trousers unless it was in the winter months and between 11pm and 8am, that was specifically with the inspector's permission, and my inspector wouldn't give me permission, so I just got cold in winter with my skirt and little shoes on.
Q. What was the ratio of women to men then - 1 to 20?
A. Probably about that because, when I joined in 1989, the overall percentage of women was about 8-9% and now it's 30%. From 2002/03 onwards there have been all-female patrols, which was just unheard of before, and we try not to talk about policewomen and policemen now, we're police officers.
Q. Why was the 25th anniversary of the attack on Corry Square police station in Newry particularly poignant for you?
A. Nine colleagues were murdered and scores injured (the commemoration service had to be relocated as, just days before, the courthouse was bombed). I was at school when the attack happened in 1985 and I remember clearly the impact and horror in the aftermath.
Q. What's the most dangerous incident you've been involved with?
A. In the early 1990s I was involved in a serious head-on collision with a 16-year-old driving a stolen vehicle in Dungannon. I was driving. I was off work for months. I had a shattered knee cap and crushed bones in my knee joint.
The irony was, I was brought to Musgrave Park Hospital military wing, which was deemed to be safer, but when I was there it was bombed and two people lost their lives. I was okay, apart from having roof tiles and debris coming down round me, but there were some very serious injuries. It was much worse for my family as they couldn't get any updates to find out how I was, there were no mobile phones then.
Q. You're an expert in public order policing and were involved in policing the infamous Belfast flag protests of 2012. Has that been the most difficult riot control situation to date?
A. From 2011-2014 we had some really, really complex issues in Belfast when you had up to 1,000 police officers on the ground for operations and a raft of police staff in the background, ensuring the logistical issues are in place as well; people are being fed, welfare issues dealt with, the media team are together and everyone is briefed and the challenges around that.
When you've got two main communities, and where consent hasn't been reached, ultimately I end up in command of a situation where two communities collide. Dr Paul Nolan talked about us being the shock absorbers between two communities, and I've often quoted that line - we were the human shock absorbers at times. It was a very challenging time.
I was a sergeant in Drumcree in the mobile support unit as well. Different role, different time. But the flag protest was the most recent (difficult situation).
Q. Have you ever been scared?
A. There's a risk to everything we do as police officers; we're operating under a severe dissident republican threat and we know that. As a probationary constable there's no doubt there were specific incidents that were scary, there were a lot of attacks on police, there was almost hand-to-hand fighting at times in Drumcree.
My concerns and fears as a police officer were different according to the role I was playing. Anxiety levels can be high, but the reasons change.
Q. Police officers still can't tell outsiders what they do. Do you think there'll be a time when police officers here won't have to pretend to be "civil servants"?
A. I really hope so. We are still operating in an environment that is unique in the UK. It's worth recognising as well that, for some people here, joining the police is definitely a bigger decision.
Q. You're 51 (52 next month) and married with two children - a 19-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son - who are both students. Was it difficult bringing up two young children while rising through the ranks?
A. It hasn't always been easy juggling work and home but, like everybody else, we worked it out.
The choices we made as a family allowed me to progress.
My husband took a step back from his working life which allowed me to progress in mine.
Q. You now live near Belfast. Where did you grow up?
A. I'm originally from outside Newry. I went to school in Newry, then studied geography and English at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.
Q. You started out as a constable in Dungannon (1989-1994); became a sergeant in Enniskillen (1994-2002); inspector in Antrim (2002-2006); chief inspector in Ballymena (Area Commander from 2006-2009). You went into more senior management as a superintendent in Armagh, Newry and Down (2009-2011), then you went to A District (north and west Belfast) from 2011-2014; became chief superintendent in 2014 before assuming the role of Assistant Chief Constable in 2017. What's your current job description?
A. I'm a strategic commander for public order, firearms and CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) response.
I'm also a qualified assessor for public order, firearms and selection processes for UK-wide posts such as direct entry superintendents.
Q. You've held every rank so far apart from Deputy Chief Constable and Chief Constable. Chart your career path for us.
A. I started as a probationer. When I was promoted to sergeant in 1994 I had to go to Enniskillen. I couldn't be promoted in the district I was in (Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt) because there was already one woman sergeant in the district.
I was promoted to Superintendent in 2009-2011. During my time there, there were approximately 28 shootings and 30 explosive incidents, with the majority aimed at police officers or police infrastructure. It was just after Constable Stephen Carroll was murdered (the first PSNI victim of terrorists), so it had its own challenges at that time.
I then went to A District (north and west Belfast) as the operations manager from 2011-2014, and in January 2016 I started the strategic command course, which would render me eligible to apply for any chief officer posts across the UK.
I was interviewed for the post of ACC in early 2016; I wasn't first on the merit list - Alan Todd was promoted to Operations Support Department - I was then promoted as Detective Chief Superintendent, head of Specialist Operations Branch, its first female lead.
I was in post for 10 months when, following a selection process, I was made temporary ACC for Operations Support Department, then appointed temporary ACC for Crime Operations Department; I'm the first female chief of Crime Operations since its formation in 2007.
Q. Has cyber crime become a big challenge?
A. A new cyber unit has been introduced. It's one of our strategic priorities now. It's a really significant challenge to policing. There are very few crimes now that don't involve some forms of social media input or phones. That could be from domestic abuse to extortion, assaults, murder enquiries.
Q. You were awarded the Queen's Police Medal in 2016. Any other accolades?
A. I have three Masters degrees - human resource management, business administration and social policy and administration. I was recently awarded the Certificate for Institute of Directors.
Q. What do you do in your free time?
A. I keep fit: running, walking, gym. I don't like spin classes but still do them!