She’s only weeks into the top job and Police Commissioner Karen Webb is already facing criticism for attending a luxury lunch on International Women’s Day as floods ravaged New South Wales.
Ms Webb reportedly turned down at least a “dozen” other invitations to various functions on the day, and there’s no doubt that as the state’s first female police commissioner, her presence would have been in high demand.
Now, her decision to turn down those other invitations and instead partake in a client luncheon at a high-end car dealership in Sydney which employs her husband, has attracted a publish backlash.
Much of the negative commentary has centred around photographs of her enjoying herself in a pristine, clean and dry setting, at the same times as her colleagues in other areas across the state were drenched with rain, sweat and mud, trying to help, or console, or make plans for, the thousands of flood victims who have lost everything.
To many the celebration, particularly given its timing, seemed a bit distasteful.
Nevertheless, attending the event has been justified by the Police Commissioner herself who says it raised $36,000 for police legacy and for the Police Citizens Youth Clubs (PCYC), both of which are charities close to her heart.
To that end, she told the media she had stayed in touch with the various police commands in regions dealing with floods throughout the day, and that she had been visiting flood devastated areas first hand in the same week She greeted the public criticism levelled at her with a very frank “ “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
But what’s also interesting about Ms Webb’s response is that she told 2GB radio: “International Women’s Day happens once a year, I think it’s important as Commissioner of Police that I show some leadership in terms of the messaging to young women.”
‘Leadership’ message muted
It’s not clear what attending a luncheon for a select few, in a car dealership which sells cars that are simply unaffordable for ordinary Australians earning an average wage, actually has to do with leadership, or International Women’s Day, which this year highlighted the tag line #breakthebias.
Rather, it seems to be a missed opportunity for the newly appointed police chief to take a stand on issues that involve police and are of great importance to women across the state.
For example, it could have been an opportunity to outline her vision for the male-dominated organisation that has been long accused of a toxic culture of bullying, discrimination, harassment and misconduct. Or to share her views on the rise in the use of strip searches, particularly on young people, and other heavy-handed police tactics that have been prevalent during the pandemic.
Or to talk about her vision for changing the way police respond to incidences of sexual assault and of domestic violence.
The epidemic of violence against women is well documented. Sadly, so too is the fact that police, who are often the frontline responders, are inadequately equipped and trained in these issues, and as a result, fail the community time and time again.
At the time of Ms Webb’s appointment to replace outgoing NSW Police Chief Mick Fuller, she boldly said: “It’s now time for a new leader and a new direction. The key focus will be on victims of crime, in particular child abuse victims, victims of sexual assault and victims of domestic violence.”
She also said that she hoped to inspire more women to sign up to the force.
The Premier stated: that Commissioner Webb would be an “inspiration for women.” Police Minister at the time, David Elliott, said he admired her empathy for victims.
But, neither were really on display to the public in the photos that were published in the media last week.
While it must be acknowledged that it is early days for her tenure, it also has to be noted that Ms Webb’s decision to attend a car dealership function for the wealthy elite on International women’s Day, has unfortunately portrayed the perception of “more of the same” – a top cop taking the easy route, instead of taking the chance to face the general public and be brutally honest about the tough issues that are very real experiences in our communities right now.
And, at a time when the police force has a lot of work to do in engaging communities and rebuilding trust.