Justine Saunders' journey to the top job
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Justine Saunders' journey to the top job

Justine Saunders had just three ambitions when she joined the Canberra police force as a 19 year old.

She wanted a job that involved working with people, that wasn’t stereotypically female, and that didn’t involve working behind a desk.

Nearly 30 years later, Assistant Commissioner Saunders, as she is currently known, gazes a bit sheepishly across the vast, polished surface of the desk from which she runs the ACT’s police force.

Outgoing Assistant Commissioner, Justine Saunders, will take a new job with the Australian Border Force.

Outgoing Assistant Commissioner, Justine Saunders, will take a new job with the Australian Border Force.

Photo: Elesa Kurtz

“It was one of those things I wanted to avoid,” she says.

But in every other respect, her career has exceeded all of her youthful expectations. She went in hoping to work within the community, and recalls being instantly drawn into what would become a lifelong occupation.

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“Within days of doing community policing, I was working with victims of crime, solving that crime, putting someone before the court or even just solving problems that people were dealing with every day,” she says.

“It was extraordinarily rewarding, and that's what's kept me going. I was absolutely hooked.”

Since then, she has worked as a cop on the beat, headed up national AFP teams dealing with transnational crime, drugs, people-smuggling, fraud and counter-terrorism, and represented Australia as its police advisor to the United Nations in New York. She was appointed ACT’s chief police officer in 2016, and seems to have barely settled in before announcing that she’ll be going national again, joining the Australian Border Force as a deputy commissioner. It's too soon, she says, but this is how her career has often proceeded.

“I've never had a plan - my career has been one of following opportunities when they arose,” she says, as she prepares to move desks once more.

“I made a commitment to myself very early on in my career that if an opportunity arose, even if it was something I hadn't seen myself doing or thought I had the skills or attributes to do, that I would do it.

"It's through saying yes that I've had the extraordinary career that I have, which has brought me back to my roots in probably the best job I could have ever done.”

She says nothing quite compares to her experience in New York, where she went into her first meeting, and realised that her new title would simply be “Australia”.

“I sat down at that table, and no longer was I 'Commander Justine Saunders', no longer was I a member of the AFP, I was now ‘Australia’, and I felt the weight of that,” she says.

“When I joined the ACT as a young constable, walking the beat in uniform around Canberra, did I ever dream I'd be sitting at a table and referring to myself as 'Australia'?”

Of course, back then, in 1989, she had no inkling of where the job would lead her.

She found herself quickly moved to the sexual assault and child abuse unit, where she worked with victims as they navigated the police and court systems.

“It was a really challenging area to work in, and the privilege to work with those victims, for them to share the most traumatic experiences, and therefore the relationships that you build from those disclosures will stay with me forever,” she says.

“Making a difference in someone's life in a positive way - it didn't get any better than that.”

But looking back on what was an impossibly blokey workplace in the late 1980s and 1990s, she can see that while it was work she found fulfilling, she was placed in the unit largely because she was a woman.

“It was all I knew. I was a young woman, so to be honest, I just accepted that this is the way it was. But it was absolutely a male bastion, it was very difficult to manoeuvre your way through as a young policewoman,” she says.

“I wasn't a trailblazer. I went to that unit because that was the one area within criminal investigations that a woman could go and work in. There was recognition that women had the skills to better support victims of crime, child abuse and sexual assault. So that was really the one area that opened the door into criminal investigations, which is where I had an interest.”

And it wasn’t as though she had any female role models; for the first 15 years of career, she was usually the only woman in the room.

“You just had to gain an appreciation of the environment you were operating in and manoeuvre your way through it,” she says.

“To be honest, I accepted this is the environment I was operating in and I did the best that I could in it.

"When I reflect on my early career, I did make a common mistake for women at that time, and that was to gain credibility I felt I needed to fit in, so absolutely I did adopt some male traits. I used to swear, I used to drink beer, I still do.”

But she always knew she was a good cop. She remembers a case in the mid-1990s involving a fatal shooting in Wanniassa. The victim, a man, was dead by the time she and her colleagues arrived, and, as was often the case for young detectives, they worked through the night to put the case together. By the morning, they had three people in custody.

When I look at the diversity within the organisation, it's vastly different to the organisation that I joined.

Justine Saunders

“It came to interviewing those that we suspected were responsible, and we brought in a sergeant, a very experienced person, who joined the investigation after having a good night's sleep,” she says.

“I understood that that person would take over the interview and I would corroborate, take notes and so on. So in many ways, I relaxed a bit.”

But within 10 minutes, the sergeant had drawn a blank, and handed the interview over to her.

“When I reflect on that murder investigation, it was probably at that point that I realised I could actually be myself, because it was the work that was going to speak for me, it wasn't going to be whether I had that beer at the end of the shift, or whether I bought into the blokey jokes,” she says.

Justine Saunders when she was appointed Chief of Police

Justine Saunders when she was appointed Chief of Police

Photo: Karleen Minney

“If I did a good job, I could get ahead and I could make a career of this. I did learn that, but it was the case of, you are working in a male-dominated environment, and therefore you adapt to that environment. I think it does shape you, it changes how you communicate, it did have a big impact.”

Today, of course, things have changed considerably, and not just because there’s a woman at the helm.

“When I look at the diversity within the organisation, it's vastly different to the organisation that I joined,” she says.

“I find it really rewarding to hear about women's experiences in joining the AFP today, and the fact that they do feel that it's an inclusive workforce, and they do feel valued, and they don't feel or see the barriers that certainly I had when I started.”

The nature of policing has also changed irrevocably in the decades since she was on the beat.

“I had 10 years in ACT policing, then worked nationally and internationally for 20 years before I returned, and I saw in some ways, some things hadn't changed at all,” she says.

“The basic principles of policing hadn't changed, what our objectives are insofar as solving problems, enforcing the law, providing a service the community - that hasn't changed. But certainly the nature of crime has changed, the complexity of the environment police are now operating in, and of course, let's be honest, the increased dangers to policing that we certainly didn't see when I was a young constable here.”

She also realises that she didn’t know the name of the Chief of Police at the time; she likes to think that Canberra’s police force is aware of her now, even though she’s already on her way out.