Taking care, but always aware of the ultimate sacrifice

Sue Waites was 19 when she came home one day and proudly showed her family a shiny new gun.

Sue Waites was 19 when she came home one day and proudly showed her family a shiny new gun.

While she was thrilled to be among the NSW Police Force's newest recruits, her family was less so.

"Dad was just freaking out, he couldn't believe women got guns," she said, laughing.

But she also recalled how she calmly grasped her new reality. "Yes dad, that's part of law enforcement. I could get shot, I could die."

Not exactly comforting words to a parent.

Just days before being interviewed by The Sun-Herald, NSW police lost their 251st officer on the beat, and the sentiment she shared with her father was again on her mind. "Every day we come here to the police station and there are young officers putting on their uniforms knowing they could sacrifice their life just like Senior Constable David Rixon just did. That is your ultimate sacrifice and you know that from the outset."

The most striking feature about Superintendent Waites, now 48, is how much she loves her job. She jumps out of bed at 4.45 each morning and has never experienced a day when she has not wanted to go to work.

As the most senior officer in the Kings Cross command, which takes in some of the city's biggest problem areas, she admits being troubled by the drug- and alcohol-induced violence that frequently leads to her officers being assaulted.

As she tackles crime in the Cross, her other enduring passion is her work as chairwoman of Police Legacy, an organisation that helps support and raise money for families of officers killed on duty.

Now in its 25th year, Superintendent Waites dedicates two weeks of her annual leave to taking children of deceased police on camp, accompanied by her husband, former assistant commissioner Bob Waites, who she jokes is "living the dream" in retirement. The camps are mostly about having fun but there is a counselling and cathartic element as well.

"They bring a picture of their dad or mum and we get them to talk about what happened to them," she said. "One of the little boys was going into year 7 and was having anxiety attacks ... he was worried about getting his head flushed down a toilet, knowing his dad's not around to help or talk to. But another young girl put her arm around him and said, 'I had the same thing, my dad died, we had to move, but you know what - moving schools is great 'cause you've got two lots of friends.' That really helped him."

Another young girl's father died on duty her mother had some mental health issues and the girl lives with her grandmother who "wraps her up in cotton wool". "She doesn't know how to ride a bike, doesn't know how to swim ... but we can then pay for swimming lessons so it doesn't have to hurt her grandmother's bank account," Superintendent Waites said. "The only rules are having fun ... and as long as [they] have one shower a day and clean [their] teeth before bed, it's just about enjoying themselves."

Her eyes also brighten when she speaks of her three young grandchildren, whom she proudly says want to follow their parents and grandparents into the job. "We were talking about it recently saying, 'You can be anything, you can drive a garbage truck or be a doctor.' My granddaughter actually said part-time - she wanted to be a nurse, but said she still wants to be a police officer, too."

Women in uniform

1915 Women allowed to become police officers. Two probationary special constables were appointed, from 500 applications. They acted as a social and modern guardians to women and children, and primarily carried out traffic direction and supervision of juvenile girls.

1941 Now 14 female police.

1959 Training extended in line with male recruits, although that did not include physical training nor pistol practice.

1961 Women were allowed to stay employed after marriage.

1965 The title of special constable was dropped. Women received equal entitlement to superannuation, long service leave, and a pension.

1976 First women police transferred to general duties.

1979 Firearms became standard issue for police women.

1981 Equal Employment Opportunity Branch established to assist with discrimination and harassment issues.