Female officers on the frontline of policing, helping some of the most vulnerable people in communities are featured in a new documentary series. Laura Drysdale reports.
They spend much of their working life seeing people at their worst and for police officers on the frontline, dealing with traumatic incidents forms part of the day-to-day. “Every incident that we deal with, we are always seeing something where someone, somewhere is upset,” says Julie Young. “That is the nature of the job and it does take its toll.”
The inspector, based in West Leeds, is one of the women of West Yorkshire Police starring in a new documentary series that explores the professional and personal lives of females in the force, including the challenges they face in their roles and how the demands of the job impacts on their mental health.
“As well as police officers, we are social workers, mental health workers and family counsellors,” says PC Gemma Sharman, a fellow documentary participant. At the time of filming, she was one of just two female officers on a Neighbourhood Policing Team in Bradford and speaks openly on the show about her experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after attending a suicide incident last April. “This one just broke me really. It just wouldn’t go. I couldn’t sleep - I was having nightmares and flashbacks. I could taste the smell of the body. It was frightening.”
PC Sharman, 31, had counselling organised by her sergeant through the Police Federation and has now started psychological treatment. “We seem to talk a lot more now,” she says. “We are losing that ‘I am a police officer, I am a robot mentality’.
“I think because there’s less of us, we are looking after each other more and are more aware of what everyone is doing and what everyone is going through...That’s partly why I did the show really, to speak about the PTSD. Before, I was very much of the mindset of I am fine, this is my job, I have got to do this. But actually, I don’t have to be [fine] because I am a person.”
It was this idea of the programme showing the people behind the uniforms that appealed to Inspector Young, who joined the force in 1986.
“We are just human beings,” she says. “We are just people trying to do the best that we can for the community.” The 49-year-old oversees a team that attends to calls that come into the police every day, including those classed as an emergency. As part of her role, she must help to decide which incidents to attend when and how many officers are needed at each.
““Every day we are making those difficult decisions...“We do end up disappointing a lot of people. For everyone who is ringing, it’s urgent for them for us to get there. But we look at the threat, the risk and the harm with what’s going on. If we don’t get there straight away, what is going to be the effect? Is someone going to be harmed? Are we going to miss evidence?”
A lot of the work involves dealing with vulnerable people. It is not unusual for teams across the force to be faced with domestic violence incidents, worried parents whose children are missing, young people at risk of being groomed, families who have lost loved ones and people in suicidal crisis.
Such difficult situations can leave emotional marks. “I do find it tough,” says PC Colette Hindle, a patrol officer in Calderdale, also featured on the show. “There’s been sad situations where somebody is quite desperate and it is cry for help to ring the police. When you find them or speak to them, you have got to appreciate that they are very low. You have got to have a really caring side and be able to listen and comfort them, try to reassure them and also make them safe.”
The Shift: Women on the Force also highlights life outside of work for women across all levels of the police, offering insight into how the job can affect their personal lives and loved ones. It is something 40-year-old PC Hindle knows all too well. Her ex-husband was also part of the police and when their daughter Gabriela, now 11, was young, their shift patterns meant they had little time together.
“I would be on early and he was on nights,” the Todmorden-based officer says. “As you can imagine, if you are a couple, it puts a strain on you. ‘Normal’ couples have a routine. They go to bed at the same time, they can do things together on an evening and weekend.
“For me and my ex-husband, we didn’t really have many days off together and we grew apart really. Our daughter was our priority. She was young and the main thing was making sure someone was at home.”
PC Laura Gargett’s experience is not dissimilar. The mum-of-two is part of a uniformed response team, based at Keighley Police Station, and speaks in the show about the breakdown of her marriage which she blames partly on her commitment to the job and irregular hours.
“It affects a lot of relationships in the police. The motto is sometimes ‘join the force, get a divorce’. There’s a massive emotional toll on you that someone [not in the force] has no concept of what you experience and it can cause difficulties.” Police cannot always be there to share family dates such as birthdays and Christmasses. “You are always the unreliable person in the relationship because of the job...I don’t blame him for ending up not happy.”
PC Gargett, 48, had tried to join the force back in 1988 but says she was three inches too short. Instead she became a nurse - but her path took a turn towards policing when a detective undergoing an anaesthetic told her that the force was recruiting and that height restrictions were no longer in place.
It is not the only way things have changed. Recent figures show the proportion of female police officers in England and Wales increased from seven per cent in 1977 to 30 per cent in 2018, though nationally men still dominate senior positions by more than 80 per cent. The West Yorkshire force has more than 1,600 female officers on duty, ranging from Immediate Response Teams to CID, Neighbourhood Police and Operational Units. “When I go to work, I am treated as an equal,” says PC Hindle, who joined the force in 2005. “I am classed as a police officer not a police woman.”
Her motivation for doing the show was to show her daughter, family and friends what she does and “make them proud”. She also hopes it will change perceptions of the police, helping people to relate to the officers behind the uniform. “I am human and I have the same struggles as everyone else,” she says. “It is tough being a police officer but if it is something you really want to do, you can make it work.”
For PC Sharman, who joined the police in 2011, it was also an opportunity to inspire women and girls. “If you look at cop shows on television, there’s very few that have strong female leads in,” she says.
“We are just as bullish as the lads. It was hard work the filming but the message the programme is putting across I think is brilliant - to show girls you can do as much as boys. There’s no limit to you because of gender. It doesn’t mean you can’t lock somebody up... You can do just as much.”
“Dealing with critical things does give you a lot of satisfaction that you are helping people,” says Inspector Young, who is “really proud” of the work of her team.
Each of the women speak of the satisfaction they get from their work - from being able to tell families that a loved one is safe to supporting someone in crisis, helping to prosecute criminals and protecting vulnerable people. “I would describe my job as superb because you never know what you are going to be doing day-to-day,” says PC Gargett. “The nicest memories are when you are fearing the worst...and you can tell their families they are okay.”
Six part series The Shift: Women on The Force, will air on Fridays at 10pm on UKTV’s W Channel, starting on March 15.