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Published 01 March 2012 05:10, Updated 01 March 2012 05:16
In 28 years, Catherine Burn has experienced every facet of being a police officer. The highest ranking policewoman in Australia, she has been everything from the officer on the street and a detective fighting crime on the docks, to an internal affairs officer fighting corruption, and co-founder of programs to help improve public perceptions of police.
Burn still hasn’t lost that old-school police officer vibe, despite these days managing a $2.7 billion organisation. Burn is the NSW Police Force’s deputy commissioner for corporate services, responsible for its operational side. She is one of three deputy commissioners working under police commissioner Andrew Scipione, and has been flagged as a potential successor.
Burn’s role offers her the big-picture perspective needed to follow Scipione into the top job. Under her watch are about 1400 properties state-wide, a vehicle fleet worth $130 million and more than 19,000 staff. Her ability to manage a big budget and the day-to-day operations are part of the reasons she was awarded 2011 Telstra Businesswoman of the Year.
“The exposure I’ve had while working in corporate services is an understanding and confidence of doing something outside of policing,” she says. Being operational all the time doesn’t give one “a full understanding of how the business runs”. But she’s thankful she’s been a cop as it allows her to make better decisions.
One way she’s made life a bit easier for the state’s police officers is introducing lighter attire. “When I first started [in the new role] police were wearing their equipment on heavy belts and getting sore backs,” she says. “We designed a vest over their police shirt to fit equipment so they have another option. Now the taser’s held right on the front. It’s the sort of investment that’s had a big operational impact and that’s positive.”
Better ergonomics in vehicles are being investigated and officers are testing thigh holsters to allow firearms to be worn on upper thighs to relieve weight on belts.
Burn also has a head for finance and an ability to empathise with people. She undertook a Bachelor of Economics course at Macquarie University but deferred to join the police. Some years later, she went back to university part-time to do a psychology degree; her thesis on “paranoid delusion” taught her much about mental illness and “was useful in the job”.
One of the toughest parts of being a police officer in those days was overcoming the perception she wasn’t capable because she’s a woman. “In early days, people wouldn’t look at you; they would only engage with the male police officer,” she says.
Burn is against quotas to promote women, saying there are other ways of helping women such as gender equity programs (being introduced in the force) and more flexible working hours. She says about 27 per cent of the NSW Police Force are women, the highest of any state. “The fact that I’m now one of the highest ranking police officers is extraordinary. So a lot’s been done but there’s a lot more to do.”