Woman on a mission

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As the NSW Police Force celebrates 100 years of women in policing, meet Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn

Migrants from multicultural backgrounds now constitute a sizeable portion of Australia’s growing population. Increasingly, law enforcement authorities are proactively engaging with these communities to understand their concerns and pre-empt anti-social acts.

Deputy Commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force, Catherine Burn has worked with many officers of multicultural origin. She acknowledges many migrants are often fearful of approaching authorities due to previous experiences, especially in their home countries, with corrupt forces. “The only people who we want to fear us are those people who are going to break the law. The rest of the community – we want them to respect us and be able to come to us so that we be able to serve them,” she says.

Burn believes the Force needs to be more representative of the community it serves and encourages people from these culturally and linguistically diverse communities to join the police. “I’m extremely genuine about the desire to link in with the Indian community,” Burn says. “We are blessed to have the Indian community as a part of the Australian community. The Indian community is an outstanding one, contributing unbelievably for all of us. If there is anything I can do to help, I would want to do that.”

One of the key issues currently on the national agenda is domestic violence. Burn points to statistics that show family violence affects one in three women and it is still extremely under-reported – especially by women from non-English speaking communities. Burn explains the police are trying to overcome this fear of reporting violence by obtaining the confidence of women belonging to such communities. “Women have to trust that we can deal with the issue; that we will respect their privacy; that we will respect them as a victim or respect them as a survivor.”

Investigating officers are educated about how to speak to someone reporting a crime or to a traumatised victim, especially in scenarios such as domestic violence, Burn explains. They are trained to remain objective and conduct investigations sensitively no matter what the issue.

To gain community confidence, Burn outlines how the police force has undertaken work in the community through the “absolutely critical” work of Multicultural Community Liaison Officers (MCLOs) stationed at all Local Area Commands (LACs). The MLOs specialise in reaching out to the community, especially women and young people, and at times they also step forward and help with language translation.

“There is no point coming to the table when there is a crisis because it’s too late. You have to build the relationship,” Burn says. “As an MLO you’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to work with the community. We have to understand what’s going on, because if we don’t, we get it wrong. When I was the Commander of Burwood we had a couple of MLOs who I couldn’t do without. I had direct contact with them nearly every day with what was happening.”

Burn champions a philosophy that is community-centric. “I actually encourage people to come forward and express their frustrations as well because that’s how we get the feedback and that’s how we learn and improve,” she says.

“We’ve been trying to do a lot of work with Muslim women and Muslim youth, particularly young boys and young men, because a lot of the times it is the mothers who actually know what’s going on with their boys and it’s the mothers who wield the influence in the house.”

Indeed, this year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s involvement in the NSW Police Force. “Two women took up the challenge and joined the force. You can imagine what it would’ve been like for them – they were absolute pioneers. Unbelievable! And from there, we’ve grown to what we are now,” Burn says.

Catherine Burn started with the NSW Police Force in 1984. “I just knew that I wanted to be a police officer,” Burn recalls. “If some emergency was happening, I wanted to be a part of it and help, rather than be a bystander and watch.” For her, there wasn’t a definite moment or time when she felt she wanted to do the job, it was just something that was always there. “I don’t come from a policing family, so this job was unusual.”

Speaking about her career journey, Burn smiles and says, “There have been institutionalised barriers, without doubt, but today, I believe there is equal opportunity. Women can do anything in this job. We still have a long way to go, and we still are working on some sections of the police force where there are systemic barriers, and they exist across all organisations as well. But we’ll get there. Within the next 100 years we’ll get there.”

For a female police officer, balancing family and career can be tough. “Policing is a consuming job,” admits Burn, who worked shifts for a lot of her career. “You didn’t know if you’d be working in the afternoon, in the night, throughout the night, or in the early hours of morning which made it difficult to plan and have that sort of very stable family commitment.”

Today, a third of police employees are women and around 27 per cent of all sworn officers are women. Burn acknowledges the challenges female officers faced in the past, such as a lack of maternity leave, but commends the force saying, “We have some really good entitlements to help women officers juggle career and family. We are sort of one of the organisations at the forefront.”

Burn is the highest ranked female in the NSW Police Force, was the recipient of Australian Police Medal in 2007 and has several other accolades to her credit. Her 32 years of formidable experience inspires female officers, and her professional acumen and longstanding contribution to policing is laudable.

A member of Chief Executive Women, a forum that strives to educate and influence all levels of Australian business and government on the importance of gender balance, Burn advocates for more women, as well as cultural diversity, in decision and policy making. “It’s very obvious that you can’t get the best out of your country, the best out of your economy, the best out of your society, if you don’t include everybody in it fairly and equally,” she says. “It’s an inspiring bunch of women who are achieving amazing things every day and I’m humbled to be a part of that.”

“A lot of the policies that guide us, impact on women,” Burn continues. “If we don’t have women helping with that, then you’re not making the best decision because people who don’t know necessarily about the issues are making the decisions for others.”

“If we speak about the Indian community, you have different parts of your cultural upbringing and heritage which are really important to you and your family and to your country, and it’s important that you maintain them here. How can I make decisions that will impact on you if I don’t understand that?”

“Society isn’t just wealthy, white men anymore,” Catherine Burn says. “Our society is inclusive of, fortunately, this unbelievable richness of men and women, people of every country, and so they all need to sit at the table.”

Royston Rebello
Royston Rebello
A lover of literary and musical works

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