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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October 2003, 17:47 GMT
A female-friendly thin blue line?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

In a grand hall in Westminster, around the corner from New Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police put on a show on Tuesday to try to attract more women to its ranks. For men - and white men at that - still make up the bulk of the UK's police.

Papia at the recruitment event
Papia Haque is keen to join up
There are leaflets on flexible working hours. There are puppy police dogs gambolling amongst the stalls. And there are friendly-faced representatives on hand from all manner of staff support groups.

But what really grabs the attention of the teenagers, the working mums and the career girls thronging the hall is blood 'n' guts talk on batons, knives and body armour delivered with considerable relish by a jocular East End copper.

With blades waved within inches of their eyes and a blood-curdling armoury of concealed weapons seized from the mean streets - including a lipstick case fitted with a scalpel blade and garrotting wire hidden in a belt - this is hardly the cuddly image forces across the UK are keen to promote.

But it strikes a chord with the women listening. For all the gory details, the key message many take away is "safety first".

"I come from the area where all those weapons he showed us were seized," says would-be recruit Papia Haque, 21, a local government worker from Newham, east London.

"It didn't put me off. I found it reassuring that we'll be trained in how to deal with dangerous situations."

Police recruits
More women are on the beat
As a woman and a Muslim, Ms Haque is exactly what police recruiters around the country are looking for; people from what's known as "visible minorities" have been very much in the minority until recent years.

Last week five police officers were forced to resign after being secretly filmed for a BBC documentary on racism in the police. They had been taped boasting of targeting "Pakis" and one was filmed apparently wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. All this, four years after the Macpherson report branded the Met Police as institutionally racist.

Ms Haque watched the documentary and found the attitudes expressed distasteful - yet her enthusiasm to join the police remains undimmed. Tearing up her application would be like shutting her eyes to a problem that should not be ignored.

"It's reality that some people think like that. The police need more young Asian women - and men - to help change those attitudes from within and also to make the service more representative of the society it works in."

One officer taped by Daly in a Ku Klux Klan mask
One of the recruits filmed by the BBC
This view is echoed by Valerie Rowson, 20 - keen to join the dog handlers - who adds that women and ethnic minorities will gain strength in numbers as more join the police.

Among the officers on hand to answer their questions is Sergeant Pat Denham, who joined the Met 26 years ago. Many of the would-be recruits have asked her about what it is like being a woman in what is still viewed as a man's world.

"Attitudes have changed out of sight since I joined. Back then there were very few women - I now work in an office where the men are in the minority."

Today women make up just over 17% of the Met's strength. That is set to rise to 18% by the end of the year.

"When I first joined, women officers were referred to as plonks," says Sergeant Denham. "To this day I don't know what it means, but that's how you were referred to: 'hey, plonk'. If you laughed and joked along with the teasing and the name-calling, you were accepted. Today only a handful of the guys in the force remember those days."

Behind her, the talk on officer safety has drawn another big crowd. As the would-be recruits' eyes widen at a detailed account of an officer brutally stabbed in the line of duty, it seems that being teased in the line of duty is the least of their concerns right now.

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