National award for trailblazing officer who thrived on adversity

Dena Fleming
Dena Fleming
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Former Detective Superintendent Dena Fleming is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Simon Bristow looks back on her remarkable career.

THERE have been many fine officers at Humberside Police, but there have been few like Dena Fleming.

When she retired last August, albeit reluctantly, the detective superintendent was not just leaving a job she loved, she was calling time on a career that is now being hailed as an inspiration to others.

For in many ways Mrs Fleming was a trailblazer, a woman who was prepared to fight, and win, against what often seemed insurmountable odds from the moment she stepped onto the parade ground as a rookie cadet of 17.

She had entered the archetypal ‘man’s world’, and encountered a training regime that was more suited to the Army.

That she prevailed in such an environment reveals much about her character, and there could have been no sterner testing ground than the Hessle Road area of Hull in the late 1970s, where bar room brawls and domestic violence were common in the hard-drinking former fishing community.

It was here that 18-year-old Pc 3073 Dena Brown, as she was then, was sent out on patrol – alone.

There are few professions in which it is not unusual for a woman to end her shift with the occasional black eye, broken nose or broken rib, but that was Mrs Fleming’s introduction to frontline policing.

She set about achieving her dream of becoming a detective as well as marrying and having two children, but was under no illusions about the prejudices she would still have to overcome, having been told by a sergeant when she first came back to work after maternity leave that it was “disgraceful” she was not at home looking after her baby.

By 1986, divorced and with two young children, she joined Lincolnshire Police and became a detective in Lincoln CID, where she studied for promotion.

She rose from sergeant to inspector within two years, in which time she had married again; to Max, another officer who now works as a training consultant in Afghanistan.

All seemed to be going well – she was producing excellent results after taking over a mainly male shift in Gainsborough – but after a series of unpleasant incidents involving colleagues, Mrs Fleming felt she had to take action.

But instead of the support she might have expected, she found herself suspended and ended up taking the force to an industrial tribunal, which she won.

After a two-year legal battle, the tribunal ruled against her claims of sex discrimination but said she had been victimised and the force apologised.

She is still unable to discuss details of the case because of a confidentiality agreement, but the tribunal’s conclusion made uncomfortable reading for her employers.

It said the disciplinary action against her “was pursued deliberately and in a way designed to prevent her allegations being given the consideration they deserved. This was because the senior management team appreciated the damaging nature of her allegations of discrimination, which they wished to suppress.”

It was a significant victory but a battle she should never have faced, and she leapt at the chance of a fresh start when she was offered a transfer back to Humberside Police, starting work again on a date she still remembers – March 3, 1998.

Her career over the next 15 years showed what Lincolnshire Police had lost, and when you consider her roles and responsibilities and the positions she held, you might wonder how Humberside are coping without her.

She rose to become the force lead for kidnap and extortion – work so sensitive it was carried out in isolation from the rest of the force – and the force lead for honour-based violence, human trafficking, homicide, and extradition, while also being the figurehead for rapid response investigation into child death, and has also been the force director of intelligence.

But she is probably most proud of her work as the force lead for historical investigations.

After attending a seminar about advances in DNA science, she launched a series of cold case reviews of unsolved sex crimes, many dating back decades.

Conscious of possible resistance to the idea of focusing resources on such old cases, work initially began “under the radar” until it became clear that real breakthroughs were being made.

This became known as Operation Fox and secured the convictions of some of the region’s most dangerous offenders, including paedophiles and rapists who thought they had escaped justice.

Mrs Fleming retired as the head of the force’s highly regarded Major Incident Team.

Her outstanding contribution will be recognised next month when she receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Association of Women Police.

Sadly, neither her parents nor Sue, her only sister, will be around to see it, having all died of cancer within two years of each other.

She said: “I’m immensely proud of my career in the police service and of the young people who are continuing to do the job today. I have witnessed the most harrowing of scenes, dealt with so very many victims of crime and put a large number of bad people behind bars.

“It has been hugely challenging, both internally and externally, but I have got great professional and personal satisfaction from my role as a police officer over the past 32 years.

“To be nominated and receive this national award has given me a fantastic sense of achievement.

“I am absolutely delighted to be honoured in this way and would like to thank all those people who have worked for me and with me over the years, and all those who believed in me. Given the choice, I would do it all again.”

CAREER ‘WILL BE INSPIRATION TO OTHERS’

TRIBUTES to Dena Fleming’s career have been paid from across the police family.

Jane Townsley, President of the International Association of Women Police, said: “I want to thank Dena on behalf of women officers and staff across the world. It is because of ‘fighters’ like Dena that many women in policing can achieve many of their goals and whilst discrimination and bullying can never be completely eradicated, the personal sacrifices of women like Dena have made positive changes and have become inspirational role models.”

Humberside Police Assistant Chief Constable Stuart Donald said: “She certainly would be the first person I would want investigating a major crime.”