Gender balance improves policing, as it does in all walks of life - Tom Wood

A little story for our time caught my eye recently. One of Police Scotland’s Firearms Inspectors was in the firing line (pun intended) for sending an email to his staff requesting that where resources permitted, it would be preferable if mixed teams of female and male officers be deployed on patrol, this on the basis of a balance of physical capability, temperament and the ability to deal with and search female suspects and prisoners. This brought howls of protest and complaints of discrimination and a ‘sexist culture’.

Now there may be more to this than meets the eye but on the face of it two things occur to me. First, it’s further proof, if any were needed, that at a time when communication has never been easier it has also never been riskier - there seems no such thing as a confidential message anymore. The days of candour and straight talking are dying if not dead. The second thing that strikes me is that all things being equal the Inspector had a good point, mixed teams of women and men have many advantages, policing is no exception.

Police firearms units are at the very tip of the sharp end of policing, they are called upon to intervene in desperate and violent situations often involving firearms and other deadly weapons. All volunteers, firearms officers undergo exhaustive selection and training - it’s not for everyone and the drop out rate is high. Once selected they train and wait and train and wait until the emergency call to intervene in tense, dangerous and fast moving incidents. Usually at night pairs of armed response officers have to deal with people posing a danger to themselves or others. The people they deal with can be armed, drunk, drugged, mentally disturbed or all of the above - the situation is often confused it’s usually raining and it’s always nerve shredding. And ultimately the decision to pull the trigger, rests with the individual officer alone. We ask a lot of them, we expect them to get it right every time. It speaks volumes that they invariably do- shots fired by police are very very rare indeed.

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In these tense situations judgement, communication skills and temperament are crucial and while these attributes are not the sole characteristic of either sex a blend of female and male temperaments often brings a balance. I suspect this is what the now beleaguered Inspector was trying to say.

It’s just over 40 years since The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 gave equality in the workplace. In that time women have entered all branches of the police and proven their worth in every specialism and rank. The healthy mix of female and male police officers has enhanced the service just as it enhances all workplaces. And in the high stakes front line of firearms units, they need every advantage they can get.

Post Script..In this column a fortnight ago I had the temerity to question religious segregation in our state education system suggesting that in the 21st century this may be an anomaly. The predicted opprobrium was swift with some interesting reasoned responses and much personal abuse. There are still taboo subjects in modern Scotland. But the highlight was a report of an online picture of me in full Masonic Regalia. Since I have never been a member of the Masonic movement I was intrigued. My chagrin was complete when I tracked down the picture to find it was of a diminutive man in his eighties. Very funny - fake news with a pinch of insult thrown in.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable