A Letter to my ‘Sisters in Blue’ 👮‍♀️

Reflections on 11 years in a toxic sludge police culture

Nikki Waterson
7 min readFeb 3, 2022
Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

Why I’m writing this article

I don’t often talk about policing in a public forum like this. And I’ve been absent from Medium — I’ve been sick.

Most cops I know can relate to rarely sharing anything online about our work. Let alone about our incredibly fucked up work culture. I know that so many of my blue sisters here will appreciate that feeling.

But here I am, I’m taking the plunge. So how did it happen? Well I just was finally able to put something into words recently and today I was reminded of it.

And if you don’t agree with my post, I’m open to your thoughts. I recognise everyone has different experiences. What I can say is that this is my experience and my view, 100%. My aim is to hopefully validate things others might be feeling or experiencing.

About my experience in the Police

I’m an Australian based cop — a criminal investigator. But I’ve been off work for a year now. In 2018 I developed a neurological disability. Technically it’s not work related, so I’m on my own in all treatment, expenses and the effect it’s had on my career. But in actuality it’s a disorder that is caused by an autoimmune response, which stress contributed to significantly. It’s definitely work related, I just can’t prove it.

I found it hard to fit in to the police culture, back when I started around 11 years ago. I was always told I was:

  • Too opinionated
  • Bossy
  • Stepping out of line
  • Too smart for my own good
  • Lacking commonsense
  • Thought I was a higher rank than I was
  • Should just be quiet.

I get it, I was high-spirited and ambitious. That’s scary for people who feel threatened easily.

But I’ve always been ready to hear feedback, have a go, and really change my actions if someone suggests a better way of doing things. I’ve always admitted that I make plenty of mistakes.

So, understandably, this treatment frustrated me, and for a long time I thought I was just so broken and incapable that I would never be happy in the job. I was looking into other work by my third year of policing.

I stuck around though.

And over the years, I’ve watched women entering into the job and be treated this way as well. Meanwhile I’ve watched equally, or lesser experienced and qualified blokes demonstrate those same ‘negative’ attitudes and be praised.

I’m not sharing any giant revelations, I know. It’s the classic idea of when a guy is assertive, his female counterpart taking the same actions is bossy. But my first point here is that I, like many of you blue sisters, have seen it first-hand.

And like many of us experienced, those comments were often from male colleagues. They became so normal for me to hear, because by comparison to the really bad comments, they didn’t hit a nerve in my body.

Not when I was also being told in the middle of a tiff where I finally stood up for myself about being sworn at over my driving being terrible (I clipped a gutter):

‘You are so shit at driving, you should just crash into that fucking tree right there already, so that you can die just like your friend did.’

This didn’t come from nowhere. I had told him recently about a school friend of mine who had died a few months before, when in a car versus tree collision.

He used that piece of information to say that horrendous thing. It was calculated to hurt me as much as possible. He was a big fan of the idea of ‘break the probationer’, the ‘old school’ way.

That was about 10 years ago now. And after experiencing bullying and hazing from a select few cops (not everyone for sure), I subconsciously came to change my attitude, behaviour and mindset to survive.

It’s only been the past few years now, being away from that culture, that I realised that I changed in the way that I did. And I also realised that I had internalised the bullying to form a self-view of shame. Distrusting that nearly anyone from the police truly liked me as a person. I felt broken.

Lean In

There’s a famous-ish book called Lean In, and I’ve never read it. So I could be wrong about it’s whole premise. My understanding is it’s meant to empower women to lean in and be more like men — take what were equally entitled to. Step up and step out. don’t be afraid to make noise. That kind of sentiment.

I leaned in for the first couple of years of my career. I did it because I had 100% confidence that I was equally entitled to the opportunities that everyone else in my cohort was entitled to. But I became a pariah.

So then I did a different kind of leaning in. I became one of the boy’s club. And don’t get me wrong, I still am close friends with male cops, this isn’t me saying that those friendships were bad. But here’s what I’ve since realised, and it’s the new way I think of things.

When you lean in, you take up a spot. A spot for one woman in the toxic culture. When you’re leaning int that circle, the one that everyone is leaning into, you’ll feel safe, have opportunities and be chosen.

Sure, probably still at a slower rate than male counterparts, but you will have success.

How? You get crude as fuck and make dark jokes, you go to the pub after work and drink together all the time, you come to be known as being tough as nails in one way or another — smart as a whip, hellcat in a fight, or maybe so dedicated you stick around after hours to finish your work, and the club loves that. You just don’t realise you’ve become a novelty — a token and caricature of the way you have to perform to be a part of the club.

So my recent (slow) realisation is just something I wanted to share in case this resonates with, helps or supports anything that my blue sisters (or anyone else in a similar culture) have been through or are going through now.

It’s hard to be in the middle of the boys club and experiencing ‘positive’ relationships and feedback, and to see the toxicity that is in all of our forces.

How to know if you are part of the toxic culture

Ask yourself:

  1. How much more have you had to do to prove yourself than your counterparts?
  2. What have you had to change about yourself to be accepted?

When I asked myself those questions, that’s when I realised that I was leaning in. And when I thought about it more, recently I realised what I’m doing by leaning in, and how that makes me a part of the toxic culture.

There are only ever so many spots for women in the boy’s club. There are only so many spots for women in promotional opportunities. Women tend to replace women. I realise now that when I was leaning into the culture, I was helping the broken system work.

We’re trained to compete with other women for those one or two spots on the ‘inside’.

That’s why we sometimes end up demonising other women.

There are only a few spots, and… oh no! If you don’t do your best to lean in, you’ll miss out. Another woman will come and take that spot! Especially when, like when I first joined, probationers are coming in to experience exactly what I did — and exactly like I did, they aren’t going to realise for ten years that by leaning in you are contributing to the toxic culture. The ‘competition’ goes around in circles.

None of this is to say I think it’s easy to just step back and not engage, especially if you want to gain promotions or opportunities. Honestly, I have no fucking idea how an individual can do anything about it.

I tried, I saw many other women try. Got kids? Got a disability? Working part-time? Got a vagina? I feel for you.

At the very least I hope this post is validating. It might not be much, but hopefully it puts into words the gaslighting and brainwashing that were experience. So you can know that you’re not alone.

On a happier note, another book I love — how to be successful without hurting men’s feelings. It’s great for the coffee table.

How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings: Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women Hardcover — 3 December 2018, by Sarah Cooper. click to see this fab book on Amazon!
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