Trailblazer steps down

Trailblazer steps down

Superintendent Sandra Manderson has retired after a 40-year career during which she blazed a trail for women at senior levels of New Zealand Police.

Sandra was Police’s first female Superintendent, first District Commander, then first woman to serve as an International Liaison Officer (ILO).

Throughout her years of senior command she has always made a priority of operational policing - and has maintained her street craft.

More than once, criminals who targeted the wrong store have been foiled by Sandra the off-duty shopper. “I’ve just been felled by a sheila in high heels,” muttered one as he was led away, it was reported in 2005. Her pursuit of a thief who tried to rob a Wellington jewellery store she was browsing in made front-page news in 2014.


“It’s been a pretty amazing job,” she says. “I’ve done things I would never have been able to if I hadn’t been in Police.”

She is a former national judo champion and has BSc, MSc and MBA degrees and an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Canterbury. She received the Queen’s Service Medal in 1993.

She fulfilled a childhood ambition when she qualified with 70 Recruit Wing on 15 January 1978. “I’d always wanted to work in and for the community.”

She started in her home district Canterbury – “there’s red and black running in my veins” – and progressed through uniformed and CIB ranks and served in SAR.

In 1993, as an Inspector, she went to Wellington as the first Director of the Crime Prevention Unit at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

She moved to Wellington District as a shift commander, then to Police National Headquarters (PNHQ). Promotion to Superintendent in the role of National Manager Organisational Performance came in 1999.

In 2002 she returned to Canterbury to start her six-year stint as District Commander. “It was just great to be at home as District Commander. I already had an extensive network in the community and the staff were, quite frankly, outstanding.”

Sandra’s next post took her a long way from her home turf - to Washington DC, where she spent four years as ILO to the Americas.

When she arrived, the search was under way in the US for fugitive Nai Yin Xue, whose wife Anan Liu had been found dead in Auckland, and whose daughter Qian Xun Xue – who became known as Pumpkin – was abandoned in Melbourne.

After his capture in February 2008, Sandra worked with local police and other authorities, arranged interpreters and liaised with New Zealand’s Consul General in Atlanta as the deportation proceeded.

Her time in Washington was interrupted when she flew home after the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake, taking command of night shifts.

“I was glad I did that. When you’re overseas you have the feeling that you want to do something but can’t.

“It wasn’t just a disaster, it was a disaster in my city. My city as I knew it had gone.”

After finishing in Washington in late 2011, Sandra became the go-to national commander for policing of major events, a position drawing on her extensive experience of working with other agencies.

These events included, in 2012, the visit of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. “I’m a bit of a Prince Charles fan,” she says. “That was a highlight.”

A series of major sports tournaments - the ICC Cricket and Fifa Under-20 World Cups in 2015 and the World Masters Games, Lions tour and Rugby League World Cup in 2017 – brought tens of thousands of visitors and each presented different challenges for Sandra’s team at PNHQ.

She has high praise for local commanders and staff who both handled day-to-day policing and understood the importance to New Zealand of what they were doing. She cites the support given to a visiting family whose Lions tickets were stolen in Christchurch.

“After the tickets were replaced district staff took them to the game, let them park in the police car park, gave them pizza. What a hugely positive experience for that family. It’s just great working with people who are so on-board.”

Sandra’s other roles have included National Manager of the International Service Group and contingent commander in Phuket after the 2004 Tsunami. In 2016 she became one of the faces of celebrations of the 75th anniversary of women in policing.

Sandra, who retired 40 years to the day after joining Police, believes she leaves the organisation in good shape. “We’ve got to focus more on service and delivery, but I think we’re in a good space. The Commissioner has made a lot of positive changes.”

cuppaSandra says Police has vastly improved its attitude to female staff since the day a senior officer learned the hard way that Constable Manderson was not his teagirl.

“I wasn’t there to make tea, I was there to make a difference. When I joined, women weren’t supposed to go out alone. There was no way I was being told that.

“We’ve come a long way but not before time. We’ve had the vote since 1893 but haven’t progressed very fast since then.”

Sandra is enjoying the Canterbury summer while considering her options. Meanwhile, criminals shouldn’t think retirement means she is less likely to step in – in high heels if necessary - if someone else picks the wrong store.

“I’m a cop,” she says. “That’s what I do.”