Skip to content

Women: A growing force in the city

Three New Westminster female police officers tell us what it’s like

It’s been more than a century since women managed to break into the ranks of policing in B.C. In 1912 female officers wore long heavy skirts, carried purses and were not allowed weapons of any sort. Equal pay, let alone equal anything, was unimaginable at that time. A lot has changed since then. Nowadays, more women are considering policing as a career choice, and female officers on the beat are standard.

According to a 2013 report by the RCMP, of the nearly 20,000 regular members across the country, 20 per cent are women. Within the New Westminster Police Department, a police service considerably smaller in composition than the RCMP, women make up about 23 per cent of officers. Sgt. Diana McDaniel, one of the department’s more senior female members, says that number has been on a steady climb since she joined the force in 1997.

This growing number of female officers, plus the nearly fifty-fifty split seen entering the recruitment process, mean’s women have become an integral part of the police department.

The Record’s crime reporter Cayley Dobie recently sat down with three female officers of varying ranks and experience levels to hear from them about being both a woman and police officer in New Westminster – the challenges, the triumphs and overall experience of being part of the force.

Cayley Dobie: Why policing?

Sgt. Diana McDaniel: I wanted to be a social worker at first, (but) I thought I didn’t want to be stuck in an office, though. I thought that you could do good work with the public and in the community, and I was very athletic and active, so policing just sort of attracted me. … It offered variety, it offered different shifting, it offered a team environment, and you could really do a lot of good out in the public as far as affecting people’s lives in a good way.

Const. Lara Dewitt: My first exposure to policing was my neighbour was a sergeant here in New West and my best friend’s grandfather was a chief here in New West. … They would always talk about, specifically the sergeant, would talk about how much fun he would have at work.

That kind of got me thinking that policing was cool when I was five and I used to love when he (the sergeant) would bring the police car home, it was very exciting. Growing up, it always kind of stayed in the back of my mind as an option. There are two things that I really love or that really intrigued me. One was I genuinely really like to help people, and the other was, I genuinely like to catch bad guys. That’s kind of how it evolved. I was super active my whole life, as well, so I like the idea of having a job where I’m actually out doing things and not sitting at a desk, being out walking around or driving around, just having fun at work.

Const. Shannon McLeod: My parents are both lawyers and they definitely fostered that kind of community service type atmosphere. You know, you volunteer your time, you want to help your community, you want to do good work in it and make a positive impact. So, yeah, policing was just the right fit.

CD: Prior to joining the force, were you worried about problems that could arise because you’re a woman?

SM: I don’t think so, and I think it’s just because my dad is a prosecutor. I had exposure to different police forces in Maple Ridge and Surrey, and I think it just became one of those things that once you get to know certain officers, you realize these are strong women. These are strong people in general, and I don’t think anyone would put up with it. We’re all kind of from the same cloth.

CD: Were there any challenges specific to being a woman on the force?

DM: I don’t think that there are any different challenges than a male officer would have faced. Situations of force that you have to use, you get training in that, but let’s say you might not have a lot of experience. I hadn’t been in a lot of fights before I started this job, … and you’re expected to be that person to protect other people, and you have to get into fights, you have to use force in some situations and developing a comfort level through training and all that would have been a bit of a challenge because it was something completely different than I’d ever experienced before.

CD: Any challenges that both men and women face?

DM: I think challenges that men and women both have are balancing home life with work. … It’s a lot easier to be on call or be called out or be on shifts when you don’t have children. When children come, obviously your priorities change and you have to adjust, and that always presents its challenges, but not so much on the job.

CD: Do you think the idea that policing is a “boys’ club” is true?

DM: I do not see it as a boys’ club, and when I started in 1997 that was not my experience at all. …There were women before me who blazed that trail far before we came into it. There was another woman in my academy with me, and I’d say about 10 or 11 per cent women back then, but that’s just a guess – certainly not as many as now. I felt very well supported, and I felt very much a part of the team.

CD: Do you feel fortunate you didn’t have to fight for your right to be part of the force?

DM: I think it would have been difficult because it is a male-dominated profession, that it would have been difficult to be the only female on a shift. I was not the only female. If anything, I was on shifts where there were more women actually, than men at times, on ‘A’ watch – more when I was a sergeant though than when I first started. What was funny about that was that people would notice, and I had never noticed, and yet they go, ‘Oh look at how many women there are,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I guess there is,’ but it was nothing I even thought about – we were just police officers.

CD: Do you ever feel you’re being treated differently because you’re a woman?

LD: First of all, I have never been made to feel any different as a police officer because I’m a female in this department. Yes, there may have been a boys’ club mentality back in the day, but I have never experienced it. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences here. When I graduated Block 2 and my first patrol watch, I was the only female on that watch, and again they made me feel totally welcome, totally supported. In terms of if I was treated any differently by anybody, I think I would see more of the sensitive calls that were dispatched. Perhaps, if somebody came in and they wanted to speak with a female, I was the default female. … Right off the bat it gave me a lot of experience dealing with sensitive calls and victims who have variant levels of distress that maybe they may not be overly comfortable talking about.

In terms of the guys on my squad, they were fantastic, they were great, they welcomed me. I always felt like they had my back, always, and not just because I was a female but because I was part of the squad.

SM: I think everyone really appreciates when they start seeing diversity on their squads just because of the diversity of the calls we get. Once it’s reflected in your teammates, it just means you have more experience and knowledge to draw from. Whatever kind of background you come from, whether you’re female or you’re from a racial minority or any of those kinds of diversities, people really appreciate it. It makes the job a lot easier when you have someone with different skill sets, whether you’re more sensitive to certain calls and you can find yourself handling them and just build a rapport better with certain communities, it’s just great, awesome to have.

CD: Helping people is important; did that part of the job happen right away?

LD: Absolutely, right away. Unfortunately, our first contact with most people, they are in a critical moment or distressing moment, and it's our job to sort it out, whichever way it's going to go. Immediately, your first role in responding in your first call is helping somebody, one way or another. Generally somebody is a victim and so the goal is to help that person. That's what we do.

DM: People often say, 'Well, how can you do that? How can you deal with that element of society and the criminals and all that? It must be depressing.' If anything, it's the opposite of depressing because it's the way that you deal with the people. So yea, you do have to deal with these somewhat negative incidents, but you can make a huge difference in how you treat these people, the way you process the file. The energy that's put in can make a huge, huge difference in their lives, really.

LD: And if you think about it, they or somebody involved in the situation has called for help, so somebody needs help. So yes, with the negative side of it and the negative people that are involved, there is somebody who needs help so when I go to a call, the way I look at it is that I'm going to do whatever is in my power to help these people. Regardless of the other person involved, if they're a bad guy, yes, we deal with them but first and foremost this person needs help.

SM: I've been out on the road for a month and I finished my Block 2, so it's been a couple of months now. I can still remember my first call, and it was a woman who was in medical distress. So you do meet these people in crisis moments, but you arrive and you lift them out of it and it's a fantastic feeling, so definitely there's risk, but there's reward for sure. As long as you're coming in and you're healthy yourself and you rely on your team, you'll come out the better for it having a career in policing – it's definitely rewarding.

CD: When deciding to go into policing, were you worried about problems that could arise because you're a woman?

SM: I don't think so, and I think it's just because my dad is a prosecutor I had exposure to different police forces in Maple Ridge and Surrey, and I think it just became one of those things that once you get to know certain officers you realize these are strong women. These are strong people in general and I don't think anyone would put up with it. We're all kind of from the same cloth. I don't see it as fostered in this kind of environment because we're all very type 'A' go-getters, confident individuals here.

CD: Lara and Diana, you both have kids. Did you continue patrolling while you were pregnant?

DM: I think it's up to the individual. … I was in a seconded unit, behind a desk anyways, so I wasn't presented with that decision at all.

LD: The department essentially says you can stay on the road as long as you feel comfortable. They don't tell you what you have to do.

I was with OSU (Operational Support Unit), which is what I'm with now on the mountain bike squad, and I was still operational, meaning in uniform, until I was four-and-a-half months pregnant. My gear still fit me, I could still ride a bike, so it was my choice for when I came off, and there were no questions either way from any of the managers or my supervisors.

CD: Were you treated differently while pregnant?

LD: I was with OSU at the time and there were only four members on the squad, myself and three other guys and it was no different at all. They were more concerned with me falling off my bike than getting into an incident – for good reason they were worried about me falling off my bike (she laughed). But no, they completely trusted me that I was making the right decisions and I could handle myself. If anything ever happened, cover is always seconds away.

CD: What do your daughters’ think about your chosen profession?

DM: In my case, my daughter thinks it's pretty cool. Although she has been raised with it ever since she was little, obviously born. When she talks about it with her friends they're all quite interested. She has expressed interest in wanting to be a police officer as well.

LD: My daughter is too young to wrap her head around the concept, so who knows what she'll end up thinking of it. I hope that she sees it as something that is awesome, and I hope that she sees how much fun I have when I go to work and how much I love my job everyday. If she considers a career in it, I would be totally supportive of it.

DM: I would be supportive – of anything she wanted to do.

CD: Are you treated differently because you're a mother?

DM: No, I'm treated like any other member.

LD: I'll get questions like if I have Band-Aids. Now that I'm a mom there's a guy in my squad and he had a blister the other day and he actually phoned me from the locker room and asked me if I had any Polysporin because I'm a mom now, but that's it. Otherwise, when it comes to the job, it's no different than all.

CD: Are you seeing an increase in the number of women applying to the force?

DM: We do have a fair share of female applicants (six this year). We don't necessarily target any one group of people but we have been seeing really highly qualified females applying in my almost three years of recruiting.

CD: Is diversity important to policing in New Westminster?

DM: Oh I think so, and we want to represent the population that we serve, and as Shannon touched on, too, it makes our job a lot easier when we have that diversity within the police department.

CD: The department is installing new lockers for the new female hires coming in. What do you think of that?

LD: That goes to show that yes, we're hiring more women ... and it's something they have to think about. It's not an afterthought, it's not some poor new hire rolling in saying, 'Where do I put my stuff?' It's a conscious decision that OK this is something we need to address and need to deal with before it's too late.

CD: Do you think having more female officers will change the way policing is done?

DM: Shannon touched upon diversity and I think when you’re hiring people from different backgrounds, whether it be gender or anything, it’s going to bring different skills but we’re all trained the same. We all learn the same skills; we all have our different strengths and weaknesses.

CD: Do you think one day there will be an equal number of female officers as male officers in New West?

DM: I don't know, I think that's a hard thing to predict for any police force.