Becoming inspector is ambition realised

A new breed of young inspectors is challenging traditional notions in the Southern police district. Rosie Manins talks to Inspector Mel Aitken about her swift rise through the ranks.

Inspector Mel Aitken, of Dunedin, is passionate about her work. Photo by Peter McIntosh. The 1990 Aramoana massacre inspired Insp Aitken to become a police officer.

She was 14 years old at the time and went on to complete a commerce degree at the University of Otago before joining the police force in 1999.

''I lived down near Aramoana and that [incident] made me want to join the police - that was the catalyst.''

Insp Aitken (36) spent her first two years policing in Auckland then transferred to Dunedin, where she was ''born and bred''.

In 2004, she was promoted to the rank of sergeant and worked in the Dunedin-based strategic traffic unit.

''I think I was the only ranked female sergeant in the area at the time. Now, when I look around, there's a good handful of females that are going up and getting promoted.''

Another promotion to senior sergeant came in 2007.

In November, her promotion to inspector, as the area prevention manager for Dunedin, Clutha and Waitaki, became official.

Insp Aitken said getting the call about her successful application was ''a dream''.

''I believe 36 is still quite young to be an inspector these days, but we are entering a changing time within the organisation. Our superintendent [Andrew Coster] is 38, and I think we are recognising that age isn't a barrier to knowledge, or having leadership skills and being able to use them.''

Her new role involved overseeing the specific work groups of road policing, youth, alcohol, families and community staff.

While based in the central Dunedin police station, she planned to get out of the office regularly to maintain a solid understanding of the front line.

''Certainly, I'm new to the role and my vision and where I want to be is doing a lot of visits away from the office. That's around leadership, leading staff and driving things from the front.''

Insp Aitken said she got personal satisfaction from many facets of being a police officer, from ''making people happy'' to sharing success in team operations.

''Sometimes it's just coming into the morning meeting and seeing we've made an impact on crime. Developing staff is a huge highlight; you feel fantastic when you see other people achieve through giving them opportunities.''

She did not think being a female made any real difference to her abilities as a police officer, and said the modern policing environment included many high-ranking women.

But she was also chuffed to be considered a source of inspiration by some female colleagues.

''A couple of them have said to me that my becoming an inspector has given them confidence they can achieve that, too. I'd never really thought about that, and I didn't do it because I was a female, but if I can inspire others, I think that's cool.''

Insp Aitken said her main sense of pride in the promotion came from having worked for it, and as a leader she would never ask staff to do anything she had not done or would not do again.

''I've put in the hard yards and done the crap work. I've earned the respect of staff because I've actually gone and done it, and that helps in being influential.''

While her immediate focus was on consolidation and getting grounded in the new role, Insp Aitken said there were many more opportunities for future development within the police force and she was ''certainly keen'' to explore them in due course.

She recommended being an officer without hesitation and said she had no intention to try her hand at anything else.

''I'm so happy. I love my job.''

Fellow Dunedin policewoman Amelia Steel was also recently promoted to inspector, making her and Insp Aitken the first female inspectors permanently based in the Southern police district.

In 2010, Insp Steel became the first woman to head the Southern prosecutions team, when she was officially appointed as the district prosecutions manager at the rank of senior sergeant. She was 36 years old at the time. Her new role was in the police's professional standards unit.

Also recently promoted to inspector was Dunedin officer Jason Guthrie (43), who became the Southern district deployment manager - a new role created within the district's structure change.

Insp Guthrie had served in Dunedin for 20 years, was promoted to senior sergeant in 2008, and from 2009 until earlier this year was the tactical co-ordinator for Dunedin.

An armed offenders squad commander, in 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months.

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