Heart of the Tiger - NZ's first female Indian police officer

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 30 May 2016

Ethnic Liaison Officer Constable Mandeep Kaur thinks that New Zealand is a more accepting and tolerant country than Australia. 12 years ago Mandeep escaped to Australia from an abusive marriage in India. She struggled there as a single mother with two children and no English. Then she came to New Zealand and it got easier.

It was so powerful, so empowering... The weight had been lifted. I could be myself you know? - Mandeep Kaur

Constable Mandeep Kaur is taking me on her beat in West Auckland but first, at the Henderson Police Station we look at photographs from another lifetime.

She shows me an image of her as a beautiful but uncertain 16 year old, dressed and decorated as a prize, for a photograph that her arranged husband would approve her from. "My journey starts as a woman from a child. I have two beautiful grown up kids from that marriage [they're grown up now and I'm very proud of them], but unfortunately the marriage didn't do well."

In India we don't have social support. I had to either stay with my parents or with my in-laws. So I lived with my parents. I asked my mum 'What if I can [study] overseas?' She said 'Don't even think it. Your father won't approve it' - Mandeep Kaur

"It was a long process getting a visa, a passport. I begged her to convince my dad. Finance was one of the big hurdles. I sell my assets from my dowry [to] contribute to my airfares to Sydney, accommodation and student fees."

She shows me another photograph of her with her two young children. The photos mark off the heartbreaking stages of her escape, her fight and her success.

The day Mandeep left India and her children

The day Mandeep left India and her children Photo: Courtesy Constable Mandeep Kaur

"This photograph is of the day I'm leaving India. My daughter is eight and my son is six. They were not told I was going overseas. We were afraid my in-laws would try to take them from me." Constable Kaur spent three years away from her children while she studied and missed them everyday. But eventually she won the right through the Indian courts to bring her children to New Zealand.

When Constable Kaur was the eldest of two young girls and with no brother, her mother had regularly wished she had been a boy instead, saying 'if you were a boy at least you could have joined the army or the police'. It sparked a dream that would eventually come true.

After policing in Counties Manukau she has recently been promoted to be the Ethnic Peoples' Community Relations Officer for Waitemata District. In the police car she tells me more about working in West Auckland. It's a change from the heavily South Asian population in Counties Manukau where she had been predominantly policing to West Auckland (Waitemata) where there are many African youth.

Mandeep and her children courtesy Constable Mandeep Kaur

Mandeep and her children courtesy Constable Mandeep Kaur Photo: Constable Mandeep Kaur

Baljit Kaur (no relation) gives us a warm welcome when we arrive at the Waitakere Community Resource Centre. Constable Kaur is newly returned to the area where she lived, but as a police officer and an essential link between the police and community. "Mandeep's been a great asset - we have someone we can relate to within the ethnic communities. If Mandeep comes she can talk about anything - family violence - anything."

And someone else agrees. With our fast-changing demographics, Inspector Rakesh Naidoo explains how valuable Ethnic Liaison Officers like Constable Kaur are to both the police and our ethnic communities. "Mandeep's empathy, because she's able to understand the cultural challenges that face our families - in relation to victimisation - we find victims are more likely to approach people that can understand them, if they have the same language. Mandeep's experience and her own learnings have been very valuable for the police."

The Inspector says that the Constable is also a role model for Indian women.

Mandeep's example shows there may be many barriers you have to overcome. She had never swum before [her police training], never worn a swimming costume before, she was in her mid-thirties when she decided on a dramatic career change and she backed herself to do that - Rakesh Naidoo

We're back in the car and on our way to the Hari Krishna Temple in Kumeu. Upon arrival we're greeted with offerings of prasad by Aramiya Naidu, one of the founders and a priest at the temple. Constable Kaur tells me that the Holi Festival or Festival of Colours took place at the temple in February this year with 11,000 visitors in one day - enough for a police presence. "Many communities were part of this function, everyone enjoyed it. All four of us police officers were completely covered in coloured powder."

Mandeep Kaur wants to encourage more from the ethnic communities to join the force - especially women. "We need more ethnic liaison officers, saying 'You can do it'."