As one of the most senior police officers in the United Kingdom, Chief Constable Lisa Winward QPM (Vanbrugh, 1993) is an inspiration to women everywhere. In a male-dominated profession, she has broken through the glass ceiling and has paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps. Alumni Voices speaks to Lisa about her love for York, her career and the growing challenges faced by the police force.
“My favourite memories of being at York are the campus university; it was nice to come and be on a site with other people, where you lived with those people, you spent time with them and it was all contained within that site, as opposed to being in a city university, where people are spread out far and wide. It felt like a home and it’s a very nice site; I have happy memories of sitting out on the grass near the lake. I enjoyed the great social events in the college bars. There was a group of people in Vanbrugh that were all doing different subjects so rather than being with the people you’re on your course with, you got to know and socialise with people who were in your hall from across the different subjects.
I came from a working class background: my dad was a gas fitter, my mum was a secretary, nobody in my family had been to university. University wasn’t the end; it was the means to the end. I think moving away from home and living on a campus with other people and starting to learn about yourself and how other people have been brought up differently to you; that people have different life experiences, backgrounds, views and perspectives on the world. Having that whole student experience of being self-reliant and meeting other students who don’t have the same privileges that you have – all of those experiences really helped me – alongside my Psychology degree, which obviously was about how people function. Those things combined made me much more prepared for a job in public service. It didn’t necessarily have to be policing; it could have been health or teaching but I think it was that human element. All of those things together were the ingredients of being able to take those skills and take them into a public service environment.
I completed my degree in the summer of 1993. I remained in York, living in a student house with some Masters students who I knew from doing my first degree.
From having a few careers sessions on campus, I knew I wanted to work in and around people. The whole desire behind my Psychology degree was to work with people. I’m an extrovert in terms of getting my energy from other people so I knew I wanted to do something people related. I applied for some of the graduate schemes at big companies in personnel roles but I wasn’t successful. At the time I was working in Superdrug in York, a friend of mine, who was a Special Constable, said to me, ‘Why don’t you join the special constabulary?
“I suppose you would describe it as a defining moment in life, like a light bulb moment or a calling where you are absolutely in congruence with the thing that you’re doing.”
I had no family or friends in policing and never wanted to be a police officer. It was purely as a result of that person suggesting I become a Special Constable, in addition to my day job at Superdrug for the skills I would gain. It was about the added value and benefit of the skills I would gain but I very quickly discovered that I was really attuned to doing that job – it’s something to do with the privilege of being able to help people every day, and how that makes you feel. I suppose you would describe it as a defining moment in life, like a light bulb moment or a calling where you are absolutely in congruence with the thing that you’re doing. It wasn’t about joining the police for me. Very quickly I decided I wanted to be a Police Constable (PC). I was living in a student house in Heslington at the time and I applied to Humberside Police and started my full-time police career in March 1994 in Cleethorpes and Grimsby.”
Lisa began her career in the police force in 1993, working as a special constable in North Yorkshire and then joined the regular service full time in Humberside in March 1994. Over the years, she worked her way up the ranks, taking on a variety of roles, including working as a detective, leading major crime investigations, and heading up the Professional Standards Department. In 2018, she was appointed as Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police, becoming the second woman to hold the role in the force’s 170-year history.
“I was posted to Grimsby where I spent ten years as a police officer and then moved to Hull for 4 years. I bought a property in York but commuted to Hull every day for 2 years.
When I was offered a job with North Yorkshire Police 15 years ago, I jumped at the chance to move back. I always felt a sense of belonging to the city of York and affinity to the university. I love being a resident of where I work; when you are part of the community you feel responsible and accountable to the residents for ensuring the service that you deliver is really good.”
Lisa’s appointment as Chief Constable was a significant moment for women in the police force. It showed that women could not only work in senior roles within the police force, but also that they could excel in those roles. It was a step forward in the fight for gender equality within the force, and it gave hope to the many women who aspire to join the police and rise through the ranks.
“Technically, policing was seen as a male orientated job because it was full time – there was no flexibility years ago but there wasn’t in any job. In the military if you got pregnant, as a female military personnel you had to actually leave – you couldn’t go on maternity leave and come back, it was just leave. In policing it was very male orientated: it was full time, it wasn’t particularly family friendly. It was a bit “roughty-toughty” – the image of the police was them physically manhandling people; arresting people, hands on, going to pub brawls. It was seen in that era as ‘not a job for a woman’.
The make up of policing 30 years ago and the fact that everyone had to start as a PC and work their way up the ranks has meant that it has taken a number of years for women to reach the higher ranks. Therefore, there weren’t actually any women available to become Chief Officer. There are direct entry routes now but then there was no other way into policing.
“It was a bit roughty-toughty – the image of the police physically manhandling people; arresting people, hands on, going to pub brawls. It was seen in that era as ‘not a job for a woman’.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s that more women started to join policing so inevitably there was going to be a gap between women joining the police and working their way up the ranks with the correct skills to apply for Chief Officer jobs. It didn’t surprise me when I joined the police service that there were no female Chief Constables because the route into becoming a Chief Constable can only come through more women joining the job at the outset. When I joined in the 90s there was a cohort of 12 people in my intake; 6 women and 6 men. It’s taken 30 years for those women who want to progress to get to a stage where they are eligible to apply for a Chief Constable’s job.
Women who took time out to bring their families up sometimes didn’t want the responsibility of rank because it’s obviously a bigger job and requires people to be away from their families so some people chose not to go into those jobs. I think the world has changed because it’s more flexible now. There’s more ability for people to use that flexibility in the workplace. It’s about your skills and what you’re actually bringing to the workplace and not your presenteeism. It’s also opened up opportunities for women to apply for those jobs that perhaps weren’t there because society was less accepting of the flexibility.
I’ve had good female role models in the police force and been supported and encouraged by those women. In the same way, I want more women to join policing and I want more women to see that they can have a life and flexibility and be a good police officer. It’s not an all or nothing thing.”
In a male-dominated profession, women face numerous obstacles, from gender bias to the physical demands of the job. Women in the police force have to work harder to prove themselves, and they often have to be more resilient than their male colleagues. Historically, police chief constables have been male up until 1995 when there was the first female chief constable; now 40% of chief constables are women – a point it has taken 30 years to get to.
“The thing I’m probably most proud of isn’t a specific case. It’s that somewhere out there, somebody’s life will have changed or somebody will have been protected or saved or a criminal will have been prosecuted and a victim will have felt that justice has been done as a result of me wanting to help the public. I truly believe in using your time on this planet for good. It’s a privilege to have used my time to benefit other people – even if I’ll never know the benefits or if somebody’s life has changed as a result of that, but it’s the thought that somebody’s life might have changed as a result, even if you’ve only changed one person’s life.
To receive the Queen’s Police Medal (QPM) was just a really big shock because I didn’t ever do this to be recognised. You feel a little bit like, ‘Oh I’m not worthy of this.’ When I first got the medal, I didn’t use QPM after my name as a postnominal. Somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t feel deserving really, I felt a little bit arrogant.’ And they made the point to me that I was actually being rude not to use it when I’ve been recognised for it, like a shun that I don’t recognise the value of the praise that the Queen has bestowed on me by not using it. So now I see the point that you’ve been awarded something and you should be proud of something, rather than not recognising it.
“I truly believe in using your time on this planet for good. It’s a privilege to have used my time to benefit other people – even if I’ll never know the benefits or if somebody’s life has changed as a result of that, but it’s the thought that somebody’s life might have changed as a result, even if you’ve only changed one person’s life.”
The most rewarding part of my role is hearing from people who have received a service from North Yorkshire Police and it’s been a positive experience. Even though they might have had a bad life experience, the service they have received from North Yorkshire Police – even though it can’t take that harm or that crime away – has been an exceptional service and helped someone or made them feel better in some way. As a leader in the organisation, you feel you’re creating the right environment for people to go out and deliver that best possible service to people.
The most frustrating part of my job is the opposite – when you get letters saying you didn’t deliver a good service, you didn’t pick up the call in time, the person who came didn’t have empathy or care about me because then you feel, as a leader, you haven’t created the environment that enables us to deliver the best possible service. How do you change that? Nobody joins the police to do a bad job. Nobody. The reason they don’t give a good service is because something has happened in the chain of events that has prevented them from delivering the best possible service, either they haven’t got the skills, equipment or time they need to do the job properly. It’s a challenge to try and unblock those things that are stopping us giving the best possible service to the public and keeping them safe.
“Nobody joins the police to do a bad job. Nobody.”
The other biggest challenge is prevention and early intervention. It’s really frustrating when you can see a person not being protected from being a victim because another part of society is letting them down but you can’t directly stop that happening because you don’t own that service.
When somebody’s not been given the life opportunities as a result of a bad education or poor parenting and other agencies have had a chance to change that, you feel powerless because you can’t protect that person. You pick the pieces up and deal with the symptoms afterwards. It’s very frustrating that that person ever became a victim of crime in the first place because somewhere in the system they’ve been let down in life. The tragedy is that there will be people in custody today, whose grandparents and parents our officers have dealt with 30 years ago and their life hasn’t changed the course at all so that person is in custody today because nothing has changed for their family.
“You pick the pieces up and deal with the symptoms afterwards. It’s very frustrating that that person ever became a victim of crime in the first place because somewhere in the system they’ve been let down in life.”
Another challenge the police force faces today is technology. When I joined 30 years ago there were very few computers, no social media, no mobile phones, hardly any cameras or CCTV. Life was much simpler. To interact with anybody you had to physically have contact with someone and therefore, the jobs that you dealt with were simpler. It was still crime (burglary, robbery, rape) but they required somebody to physically be present in a location.
The challenge for policing now is that there aren’t that many more police officers – there’s just been a 20,000 uplift in the last three years as a result of the government’s initiative but that’s only partly replacing what used to exist. We’ve now moved to a level of demand where we’re investigating people texting each other bad things on their phones, people filming everything, global child abuse online, global economic, fraud and cyber crime. The demand is huge and much more complex. Every job you go to now, there’s usually an electronic device to be seized in some way that’s been used in that crime, or is part of the evidence chain that never used to exist. We are asking fewer people to do ten times more work. If you were a victim of a burglary 30 years ago, it would generally be a one-off; we’re now dealing with criminals who are committing thousands of frauds a day, on thousands of peoples’ computers. The job has become so much more complex but the people you’re expecting to investigate it have not increased in number, and the skills required of those people have massively increased in comparison to the skills required to be a police officer 30 years ago. That takes more money and training that we don’t have. The sorts of skills we now need in place like digital forensic and cyber security experts can earn a lot more money in the private sector than they can in policing. In terms of affordability in delivering a public service it’s a real challenge.
“Every job you go to now, there’s usually an electronic device to be seized in some way that’s been used in that crime, or is a part of the evidence chain that never used to exist.”
A lot more police, instead of being out on the streets, where physical crime was being committed 30 years ago, are investigating internet related crime where they’re not visible to the public, but they are doing something really valuable.
I’m so excited about that project with the Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre at the University of York because there’s a whole opportunity here for prevention and early intervention, if we can use technology and partnerships to prevent crime happening in the first place. You can never take the harm away when someone’s been a victim, you can give them exemplary service in responding to them but they’ve still been a victim of crime. If you can actually understand the root causes of crime and the root causes of the people who are involved in crime and the enablers to crime being committed against people and you can therefore change those precursors to crime, reactive demand will go down.
Therefore, some of the more complex cases mentioned above will not require as many police resources to deal with. It will never happen in the first place through societal change or doing something to impact on what causes crime in society – it will make a big difference to the harm to the community.
“I’m so excited about that project because there’s a whole opportunity here for prevention and early intervention, if we could use technology and partnerships to prevent crime happening in the first place.”
If you are considering joining the police force my advice to you would be: think very carefully about your connection with wanting to help people. You live and breathe it so you have to really care about it. You join because you want to go out and care for people but you are going to have a lot of complex paperwork and investigations alongside it.
You’ve also got to have a lot of patience and empathy because in some of these situations you may not understand why somebody allows something to happen to them in life because you wouldn’t let that happen to you. If you are the sort of person who can live in somebody else’s shoes and understand their perspectives and at the root of all things, you want to help people, policing is a great career and it is a fantastic vacation for life.”
The Vulnerability & Policing Futures Research Centre aims to reshape how the police and other organisations work together in order to reduce harm among vulnerable people in society. Jointly led from the Universities of York and Leeds, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Centre brings together an interdisciplinary team of 25 co-investigators from across institutions across the world, as well as 38 police, non-governmental organisations, local and national government partners. Click here to find out more.