Sandra Venables, Assistant Commissioner at New Zealand Police Service
Sandra Venables, the award-winning Assistant Commissioner in the New Zealand Police Service has risen through the ranks with perseverance, determination and a very positive attitude. She is an example for us all.
You joined the Police Service in 1994; please share your life and career journey to your current appointment as Assistant Commissioner for the North & South Districts, and Road Policing Services and Strategy.
“I was raised in Rotorua and Ngongotahā, attended Rotorua Girls High, and when I left school I wanted to become a physiotherapist. I was advised that I was too young, so at age 18 I went to England. When I returned a couple of years later, I trained as a Karitane nurse and then worked for the Plunket Society in Tauranga and Rotorua. I’ve also worked in pubs, restaurants, private nannying and as a caregiver in a rest home, to pay the bills. I needed job security and had an interest in working with victims of child abuse after a situation I witnessed whilst working for Plunket, so I joined the NZ Police in 1994. My first five years were spent in Hamilton City and Hamilton East. I was interested in joining the CIB, however, my partner of 37 years, Rog, wanted to change direction in his police career and got a job as an Officer-in-Charge in Mangōnui, in the Far North, so we moved. I worked in Kaitaia, whilst living in Mangōnui, the best decision we made in relation to my career.
One of the senior officers in Kaitaia became a strong advocate for me, and he suggested I apply for the vacant Sergeant position. I said no as I didn’t believe my five years’ service was enough to take on a supervisory role. He continued to encourage me, and the day I passed my final sergeant’s exam was the day I was promoted to Sergeant. The officer did a great job of helping me to believe in myself which put me on my path.
We stayed in the Far north for three years, then I applied for a sectional sergeant role back in Waikato in Hamilton City, but I missed out. Six weeks after that I got a role in Whitianga (one of the most remote locations within Waikato) on the Coromandel Peninsula. At the interview, I was told by the Chair of the panel that I probably wouldn’t get the job, even though I was now the only applicant, as all the men who had applied had pulled out. It made me angry and I was probably a bit assertive through that interview as I had nothing to lose and in the end there was an amazing woman, Mrs Joan Gaskell, who was on the panel; she was renowned for her courage and strength of character and she really pushed for me to be given the role as the first Sergeant in charge for Whitianga, Tairua and Coromandel stations. I was really proud to become the first Sergeant there (male or female.)
I loved my five years in Whitianga, but after a while I thought, I would like to try for my boss’s job which was at the rank of Senior Sergeant! To do this I had to be strategic as there were others in the Waikato area who also wanted this job. I applied for a promotion to Senior Sergeant back in the Far North and moved back to Kerikeri to set up the Family Violence policy, process and programs. My partner was still in our home in Whitianga so every Friday after a busy week of work, I commuted the seven-hour drive to Whitianga while I was also studying after hours to gain the qualifications I needed to continue promoting through the ranks. After 18 months I was mentally tired and knew I had to get back home. Fortuitously my former boss’s job was advertised, my gamble paid off and I returned home to start my new job as the Sub- Area Manager (Senior Sergeant) for the Coromandel Peninsula (Whangamatā Thames, Whitianga, Tairua and Coromandel.)
After 3 years in this role, I applied for the Whakatāne Area Commander based in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. I applied three times, was finally given an interview, and was lucky enough to gain the support of local Iwi on the panel and was offered the role. I was the first female Area Commander in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, based in Whakatāne, and I was the first Area Commander to take over this area after the Tūhoe raids. The next three years my role was to deliver culture change, improve staff engagement and work on restoring trust within the communities we served.
In addition, in 2014 I was fortunate to travel to Gallipoli for the ANZAC commemorations as one of the NZ Police Security Liaison Officers, it was an inspiring moment in my career that I will never forget . It was made even more special by the fact that my grandfather had served in WW1.”
Who are the mentors who have supported you throughout your career?
“My biggest supporter has always been my partner Rog; we have been together for over 37 years, and I am so grateful to him and for all he has done. He has always been the one most likely to see a job advertised and to say ‘you should apply for this’ especially for roles that were not usually given to women.
I held the Area Commander role for three years, then the role of District Commander for Eastern District (Tairāwhiti, Hawkes Bay) was advertised. This role is at the rank of Superintendent. I went into that interview knowing I was the underdog but surprisingly I got the job. The iwi representative on the panel, Dr. Apirana Mahuika, was amazing; he fought for me and became one of my most wonderful mentors; he really helped me to develop my leadership skills and to understand my role in ensuring our partnership with Iwi was honoured. He passed away in 2015, but I will never forget how he challenged me and sometimes made me feel uncomfortable, but always valued and supported. A true gentleman that I will always be grateful to have known.
In 2014, we set up the Women’s Advisory Network (WAN) and Dame Paula Rebstock became our first independent chair. She has become a tremendous supporter of mine and other women in the NZ Police. I have learned a great deal from her and have appreciated her ongoing support and advice wrapped up in a friendship that has been very inspiring. The WAN has been instrumental in improving how women are treated and I am very proud of the work that is ongoing in this space.
I have been lucky to have been mentored and coached by a number of people over the years and I believe strongly in paying this forward. I have mentored both men and women in both formal and informal ways. Sometimes it is as simple as connecting people with others. I truly love this part of my role as invariably I learn so much from the people who let me into their career/life aspirations. After nearly 30 years I am coming to the end of my policing career; the proudest thing I will take with me is the fact that I have actively tried to open the door for other woman to push on through. I have always been prepared to guide, support and also learn from others. The NZ Police offers great careers for women.
In 2017, I applied for an Assistant Commissioner role in Wellington. I was the first female sworn officer to be promoted to this rank. I am now responsible for Wellington, Tasman, Canterbury and Southern Districts. I feel very privileged to be in this role and still able to serve the communities within New Zealand.”
Is there negativity, discrimination or pushback in the Police towards women and others, and how do you handle this?
“My parents were really focused on raising independent children, and at Rotorua Girls High I never realized that I couldn’t do something; we were encouraged to do everything, so I didn’t really know about women being discriminated against. In the police there have been a few issues over the years, but luckily, I am quite bolshie, I value my independence and I am always prepared to stand up for what I think is the right thing to do. If anyone has ever tried to hold me back, I go around them.
When I joined the Police in 1994, I got some really good advice from my partner who said, ‘you will always set the tone for how you are treated.’ And that’s what I have done. I am opinionated, honest and I treat people how I would want to be treated in the same situation. I’ve never wanted to act like a man; I have always just been myself.
I’m not frightened to put myself in uncomfortable positions and to fight for what is fair and right. I was very proud to be asked to be the Executive sponsor for our new Employee Led Network (ELN) The Next Transgenderation which has been set up by our gender diverse and rainbow staff to provide support and initiate change within our organisation. I admire greatly the courage, ability and resilience of these staff and I am incredibly proud to have been asked to support them as police employees. We deal with a lot of sadness and horror in our roles as Police officers, but we have a strong network and camaraderie, and the NZ Police is forward-thinking and becoming more inclusive and caring of all staff and their wellness and that makes me very proud.
We are tremendously lucky in Aotearoa New Zealand that we have such a willingness and openness to honor the Treaty. I am proud to be part of an organisation that has as its values – Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Commitment to Māori and the Treaty, Empathy and Valuing Diversity.”
Why did you join Global Women?
“In 2015, I participated in the Breakthrough Leaders Program with a group of 40 amazing women. I learnt a lot about myself and how I operate. I was contacted this year to become a member, but I wasn’t sure that I was the right sort of person to be a member, so I did some research and also spoke to a friend who is a Global Women member. She said that if you want change to happen, you have to be in a position where that change can emerge. I have had a lifetime commitment to promoting women, therefore Global Women’s initiatives are encouraging, so my membership is another step in my journey to influence and support women in New Zealand.”
What more would you like Global Women members to know about your life?
“I’m going to London in May to be there for the King’s Coronation as part of the crowd! I went to London for Diana and Charles’ wedding, and I love all the pomp and ceremony.
One of the opportunities that I’m very grateful for is becoming a Director on the Police Superannuation Scheme board. I’ve been on it for nearly four years. The role has made me grow in a way that’s quite different for me, so never say no to an opportunity!
I live in Whakatāne, and commute to Wellington each week and I have learnt that geography should never determine what you want to achieve in life! I’ve served in the Police for 30 years in February 2024. And if any of our Global Women members are interested in joining the Police Service, please contact me!”
Thank you, Sandra, for your inspiring, straightforward and uplifting approach to your celebrated career!
All interviews and stories written by our Editor in Residence, Jenni Prisk (Global Women Member)