Women in the front line against a violent society: Female police face increasing risks. Terry Kirby meets a constable who knows the dangers of her job only too well

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The Independent Online
WHEN Ailsa Schofield's colleagues arrived to haul away the man who had been vigorously and repeatedly kneeing her in the face, her features were so bloodied, bruised and disfigured that they failed to recognise a fellow officer of Derbyshire police.

'It's a good job he didn't pull at my nose - it had been broken twice, so would probably have just come off,' says PC Schofield. She did lose bunches of hair - because her attacker grabbed hold of her bun to steady her head as a target. He also punched and kicked her in the arms and back and bit her on the arm. Her partner, a young woman probationer, suffered a black eye and a knee in the chest.

The women had been on a normal daytime patrol when they simply asked a 22-year-old man to stop riding a mountain bike unsafely - with a child on the back and a dog at his side. When he refused and shouted abuse, they persisted. He then hit and kicked PC Schofield, and when they tried to arrest him he attacked both women. He later received an 18-month jail sentence.

More than three months after the assault, PC Schofield is still suffering pain and bruising, but the mental scars are taking longer to heal. She has post-traumatic stress syndrome and is paying weekly visits to a psychologist. Her condition was aggravated because five months earlier she had been beaten up after going to help a male colleague.

'I've developed agoraphobic tendencies,' says PC Schofield. 'The only place I feel really safe is my home. If I go out to a strange place I can become afraid of any groups of men moving towards me, even though I know I am in no danger. If I go to the supermarket, I just put on my blinkers, get my head down and bomb around. It was very difficult when I went Christmas shopping. And I cannot watch violence on television at all.'

Although her superiors at Pear Tree police station have said there is a desk job ready when she feels able to return, PC Schofield, 34, is determined to resume the life on the beat that she has lived for most of her 16 years as a policewoman. She readily admits, however, to being afraid and worried about that first shift as the driver of the station's fast-response car. 'My husband (also a police officer) does not want me to return. End of story.'

Her story illustrates the dangers facing front-line policewomen even in relatively peaceful places such as Derby. A similar period of stress will almost certainly face Lesley Harrison, the Liverpool policewoman stabbed last weekend.

But as the numbers of assaults on police have mounted, psychological counselling, as PC Schofield has discovered, has become accepted as a necessity.

Attacks on officers have reinforced demands for police to be allowed to test the American side-handled baton. PC Schofield believes it should be tried, but is unconvinced of its value, particularly when an officer needs to get out of a car quickly. 'I think we need something extra. Body armour is too heavy. There is absolutely no self-defence instruction for officers like myself. The last I had was at training school.'

Her world of night-time Derby, with its small red-light district, endless drink-fuelled domestic rows and the mentally disturbed, many highly aggressive, wandering the streets, creates daily opportunities for the same explosions of violence that can come from dealing with errant mountain-bike riders.

Since the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s ended policewomen's separate career structure and responsibility only for 'women's offences', they have been required to do the same work as their male counterparts for the same pay - in PC Schofield's case, the constable's maximum, about pounds 20,000 a year.

Women now make up close to 11 per cent of the service and about 12 per cent of front-line officers. All-women patrols are commonplace, as are women detectives, divers, firearms officers, dog-handlers and Special Branch officers. Policewomen in trousers and carrying riot shields are victories for equality, but problems of discrimination and lack of promotion to the senior ranks, particularly as detectives, remain.

Although women officers feel ready and able to do the same work as men, they recognise that being a woman on the front line creates special pressures: signs of weakness must not be displayed.

PC Schofield admits to at least one occasion when she felt the need to demonstrate toughness where a male colleague might have held back. 'A man had gone berserk, smashed up his house and kicked and battered a heavily pregnant woman, killing her unborn child. I knew he had a knife and was prepared to use it. My colleague said we should wait for reinforcements wearing helmets and body armour, but I decided to go in because I was concerned for the safety of the woman. I managed to keep him talking until help arrived.'

She has faced many knives and one gun. 'I was on my own in a station one night and this man came in waving a double-barrelled shotgun. I managed to talk him out of it. It is the same in most cases, you have to develop a superb line in bullshit.'

The conciliatory qualities a woman can bring to policing are undervalued in a male-dominated service. Many policewomen complain that they are still expected to conform to male stereotypes: the tough lesbian or pretty secretary/housewife figures, regardless of how they are expected to perform on the streets.

'That attitude still exists, particularly among older officers, who think we should be back home in the kitchen,' says PC Schofield. 'Sometimes they do not realise they are saying it. But we are getting better and it is disappearing. No one would ask me to make tea because I would tell them where to go; but I can imagine cases where it would occur.'

The male officer's natural protectiveness towards women also creates difficulties. 'Logically, there is no job a woman cannot do. But I think it is wrong for women to be in riot squads. You cannot escape the fact that most women are physically weaker. They become the weak link in the chain and distract the men who become concerned about protecting the women.'

These are issues that have to be tackled. Senior Scotland Yard officers have estimated that by the end of the decade more than a quarter of all front-line patrolling officers will be women.

It means that commanding officers will have to dispatch women officers to violent incidents without the knowledge of male back-up crews and, despite the genuine difficulties, assign policewomen to riot teams.

Inevitably, a quarter of the officers injured each year - currently 18,000 and rising - will be women. PC Schofield faces one big hurdle before she can contemplate returning to work. 'I have not been able to face putting on a uniform yet; I haven't got one at the moment because the one I wore at the time had to be thrown away. How I would feel if I had to wear a uniform I cannot say. I don't yet know whether I could.'

(Photographs omitted)