Sunday, 4 April 2010

"It's like being the queen ..."

The Times, March 20, 2010

Sexism in the police force? There probably is, but rank lends a fresh perspective on life, chuckles Justine Curran, the new chief constable of Tayside, from her perch on the edge of a black leather sofa.

“Sometimes,” she says, “it’s like being the Queen, the world smells of fresh paint. It’s certainly different than I’ve experienced as I’ve come up. When people think about chief constable, they tend to think about a big man.”

She tilts her head back and the chuckle becomes a guffaw. “But they do think that. I’m not the image they have in their head.”

Police headquarters, Dundee, will never be the same again. Blonde, 42, and much nearer to 5ft than the burly, 6ft copper of legend, Ms Curran cuts an extraordinary figure in the macho world of the Scottish constabulary.

She is disarmingly open in conversation, sounds like the comedian Victoria Wood (she was raised in the same part of Lancashire), and introduces herself as Justine over the phone to colleagues. She is, in the words of a junior officer, “very attractive” — and they never said that about James Anderton, the chief of police when Curran joined the Manchester force 20 years ago.

Not the least of her recent achievements has been to win successive posts as assistant chief constable, in Manchester and on Tayside, while her first marriage fell apart. These days, after yet another promotion, Ms Curran lives in rural Perthshire with her two primary-age children and Gordon Meldrum, the Director-General of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency — “The Plod Couple” as they were christened by The Sun. The embarrassment, she giggles.

For all her good humour it would be a mistake to think of Ms Curran as a soft touch. In 2007, she was the first woman to be appointed assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester Police and was Gold Commander in charge of public order the day — and night — that 150,000 Rangers fans descended on the city for the 2008 UEFA Cup Final. That event rapidly descended into scenes of public drunkenness and violence. Films of vicious attacks on the police were flashed around the world over the internet and on TV.

When news came through on Thursday that one of the worst offenders, Scott McSeveney, 21, from Shotts, had been found guilty at Manchester Crown Court of violent disorder, Ms Curran could scarcely conceal her delight (“I thought: ‘Bloody good’.”). Just two years go she had watched open-mouthed in horror as live CCTV footage showed a brutal attack on PC John Goodwin in Piccadilly Gardens.

“This was an officer who had a crowd round him,” she recalls. “When you see the footage, it is really sickening. It looked like they were trying to kill him, they were trying to pull his helmet off.”

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, one Scottish newspaper tried to pin blame on the police and city council for their failure to control the crowds or provide adequate facilities. That is simply ridiculous, says Ms Curran.

“It interests me when people say, ‘What when went wrong that day?’ As if you could control everything to stop these things. There were up to 150,000 people in Manchester city centre.

“If all 8,000 officers from the force had been on the street, we wouldn’t have been able to stop people.

“The numbers don’t stack up. To turn up in a city which had offered you hospitality and behave like that? It is appalling.”

Ms Curran’s no-nonsense streak emerges again in her attitudes to the Scottish government’s plan effectively to abolish short sentencing for minor offences, including some crimes of assault. Senior colleagues, notably David Strang, the chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, support the proposal and believe it will reduce crime, but she can manage only the faintest of praise.

It’s “a bit counter-intuitive” she says, “a bit difficult”, but “maybe there is a combination” of approaches. The fact is, “as a cop, you want to get to those who are causing problems for people, who are blighting their lives, just generally being bad, and get them locked up”.

Crime is simply ingrained in some people, she believes, a learned behaviour picked up from mums and dads. “We have been dealing with the same people for generations,” she says. So does she have a name for folks like that? Ms Curran guffaws. “Aye, one or two,” she laughs.

Her vision for ideal community policing is something like the TV series, Heartbeat, in which an affable country policeman holds sway in a tiny Yorkshire village. “It’s that model where your officer knows the community, the families and knows the partners too —– in Heartbeat it’s the doctor and various others. Between them they know the people to be involved with. It’s about trying to get upstream from it.”

If the cultural reference point seems trite, it might be excusable. Ms Curran loves drama and ballet and studied both as a child; it was only after a degree in classics at the University of Hull that she settled on a career in the police.

Her earlier passions lingered in her day job, and she was never averse to practising pirouettes and pliés in the corridors of the old police headquarters building in Manchester. “It had these long wooden block floor corridors, some of them would have only a couple of doors,” she says.

“It’s screamed out for me to do something. It’s not quite the same here. Well, women of a certain age, you have to try.” She tells these tales in a way that makes it easy to believe that women officers — who still only account for 25 per cent of the Tayside force — could bring a fresh approach to the interview room and the interrogation of suspects.

They can, she says, because whatever ruses her male counterparts come up with, in that rarefied environment, there is still a physiological reaction, man-to-man.

“It’s the rutting stag thing, isn’t it?” she says. “It is easier [for a woman] to build a rapport. People are not threatened, it is easier to have that conversation, people are more willing to open up. There are some stunningly skilled interviewers of both genders, its not exclusive, but as a generality, there is a reaction for women.”

Ms Curran took up her post on Tayside last month, a vast territory embracing the city of Dundee, along with rural beats, that extends far into the Highlands. Heartbeat meets Taggart, but as different from Greater Manchester — with a population greater than the whole of Scotland — than it is possible to imagine.

Won’t she miss the big city? “The reason I get up in the morning is the thought that I can make it better here. I have loved the operational challenges of big cities, so a bit of me hankers for that. But I love it here. I know this probably sounds a little Pollyannaish, but I am passionate to do my bit.”

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