I don’t know if I would call myself a feminist... more a bit of a diplomat

Jo Byrne
Jo Byrne
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She’s the first woman to reach the rank of a chief officer at South Yorkshire Police. Jeni Harvey meets assistant chief constable and horse lover Jo Byrne.

She’s the highest-ranking woman officer to have ever been appointed at South Yorkshire Police.

But new Assistant Chief Constable Jo Byrne says that she’s never been “on the brunt” of sexism in her three decades of rising up the ranks.

The 47-year-old was born in Walsall and started out as a constable with West Midlands Police in June 1986, after briefly working with horses – a passion which remains with her today.

She said: “When I left Queen Mary’s High School I became a riding instructor.

“I had dreams of doing something with horses, but then decided that I wanted a career in policing, and they were recruiting at the time.

“I started out as a constable, became a detective two years later and spent probably the next 10 years as a detective in the next three ranks – major investigation, intelligence and local CID.

“I had an absolutely challenging but really enjoyable 27 years with West Midlands.

“It was never the same day twice, and I always wanted to get up and go to work.”

During her time with West Midlands Police, she met Gerard Byrne, the fellow officer who later became her husband.

The couple live together in Derbyshire and Mr Byrne has now retired, after reaching the rank of detective inspector.

The new position in South Yorkshire appealed to ACC Byrne, she said, as it was “somewhere I always wanted to work”.

She said: “I wasn’t conscious that I was going to be the first female chief officer, but I’m very proud to have that role.

“I very much feel that I can bring experience with me. I’ve also been made to feel extremely welcome.”

Policing, however, has changed over the years, she said.

“I like to think that it’s more of a relationship with communities and others now, particularly the media”, she said.

“The 24/7 scrutiny police are under now is a big change.

“In my early career, I might have had 24 or 36 hours before we were saying something about a case, whereas now within minutes you get somebody putting a recording device in front of you.

“We’re very much living in a 24/7 news society, so it makes you more aware of using every opportunity to communicate.”

ACC Byrne went on: “I think policing has moved a considerable way forward during my service, and the role of women in policing has moved on considerably in the last 30 years.

“I hope to be a role model for male and female officers - not just young women wanting to go into the police.

“I don’t know if I’d describe myself as a feminist, more as a bit of a diplomat.

“Feminist is a word with such a broad meaning.

“I don’t think that anyone should feel they have any limitations due to their gender.

“Respecting each other and respecting yourself isn’t gender-specific. It’s about how you treat each other and work together.

“I’ve never felt I’ve been limited in anything at work and, if I’ve been told ‘no’, I’ve seen it as a challenge.

“Everybody should be able to aspire to be who they want to be.”

In her new role, she says that “first and foremost”, meeting people is the priority.

“I need to get a good understanding of where the challenges and opportunities lie”, she said.

“There’s an awful lot of things going on at the moment, and my role is to work with others and develop things.”

She added: “Policing is a fantastic career.

“It gives you the opportunity to do lots of fantastic, different things and to be challenged, but also really rewarded.

“You also work with people who are at their most vulnerable and you have to work to keep them safe, and keep that quality of life that you would want.”

Outside of work, ACC Byrne is a very keen horsewoman, and still competes all over the country.

She owns one horse, a German dressage horse called Lenny.

“He’s 18 hands, so he’s a big horse”, she said.

“I don’t get to ride him as much as I’d like, but I have a very good friend who helps me with him and rides him for me.

“I also enjoy cooking for people and love entertaining, also going out for meals.

“To be honest, I don’t have an awful lot of time to do much else.”

ACC Byrne is now one of three female assistant chief constables within Yorkshire.

Sue Cross became ACC of North Yorkshire Police in 2008 after transferring from Cleveland Police two years previously.

She previously worked at West Yorkshire Police, during which time she was at one point head of operations in Huddersfield.

Meanwhile, Ingrid Lee is currently a temporary ACC at West Yorkshire Police.

Over at Humberside Police, however, a woman holds the top rank in the force.

Justine Curran joined the force as chief constable on April 1 this year, after beginning her policing career with Greater Manchester Police on the graduate entry scheme in 1988.

Upon taking up the role, she said that her biggest challenge would be delivering another round of budget cuts ,as the squeeze on police finances continues to bite.

The 45-year-old said earlier ths year: “It’s a significant challenge whilst keeping the level of service we deliver to the public as good as it can be.”

But she added that she had inherited a force that was well placed to meet the challenges ahead. “I think we are in a really good, solid place, ” she said.

“We’ve had a 34 per cent crime reduction over the last five years.

“The challenge is, how do we move to the next level.”

The first woman to hold the rank of chief constable in the UK was Pauline Clare, who took the top job at Lancashire Constabulary in June 1995.

Busy first week for chief officer

In Jo Byrne’s very first day on the job, South Yorkshire was the centre of a media storm as concern heightened for the welfare of a 13-year-old girl who was missing from her home in Sheffield.

She was found that evening, alone in Bradford.

A number of people are currently on bail in relation to her disappearance.

Her first week also saw a man being charged in relation to a sexual assault in Shiregreen, Sheffield, and the beginning of a crown court trial into a so-called “cash for crash” fraud.

The case, dubbed “Operation Lollipop”, involves a police investigation into the activities of an accident claims company called City Claims 4 U, based at Pitsmoor Road.