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The man facing me is agitated. He curses loudly and aggressively, spittle flying out with his words. I'm acutely aware we are outside a shopping centre and the people going about their business shouldn't have to put up with this. And as a police officer, it is my job to resolve it. But the man won't listen to sense; he's shaping up for a fight. His fists are clenched and the colour is rising in his face.
My patrol partner is reaching for his capsicum spray but I'm still trying to talk the man down, while glancing inconspicuously at my watch. I don't want to arrest him. Not only is it risky and hazardous, but a trip to the watch-house means I'll be late for the school run.
I'm one of a surprising number of women who juggles raising children with work, when work means strapping on a number of assorted weapons. For the past 15 years, I've been a "general duties" police officer. When the call for help comes through, my job description involves racing there with lights and sirens on. I used to love the action and unpredictability. I was drawn to it because I wanted some excitement and I didn't want to be stuck in an office.
Having children changed it for me. These days, with a six- and an eight-year-old in the equation, I just want to finish work on time and go home in one piece. I no longer want to put myself in any sort of dangerous situation.
I don't want to risk a needle-stick injury or have some drug-addled grub spit at me. How do you explain to a child that Mummy can't kiss you until the disease test has come back?
I tried to rationalise my change of heart to one of the station sergeants. He told me I needed to take a tablespoon of concrete and "harden the f... up".
Sometimes, as a cop, I know things a mother shouldn't. There is a man I often see at the local shops, who is a convicted paedophile. He always gives me a wave and a smile when he sees me. Especially when I have my children with me.
We both know he has done his time and is entitled to go to the shops. He is not breaking any rules by saying "hello" to me, or even my children. But it makes my skin crawl. I want to yell out, "Paedophile!", alert everyone to who he is. I want to warn him if he goes near my children, I will do unspeakable things to his unmentionables. But because of my job, I have to keep my thoughts and my words to myself. Would it be easier not to know at all?
At the start of each school year, I scan my kids' class lists to see if I recognise any surnames. One year, my daughter had a friend, both of whose parents I had arrested. I needn't have worried – these aren't the sort of parents who hang around for a chat outside the classroom.
I've only been caught out once, at a six-year-old's birthday party, where I didn't realise who her mother was until I was standing at the front door with my daughter, present in hand. I recognised her [from an arrest] but thankfully, a couple of years and a different hairstyle was enough for her not to recognise me. When I'm in uniform, people don't seem to make the connection that I may be someone other than a police officer.
Then there are other, random occasions where motherhood and policing collide. One day, I realised I had forgotten to send an important work email. No problem. I'd just picked my children up from care, so I could duck past the police station on the way home. It would take two minutes. However, my children (aged about 1 and 3 at the time) had other ideas.
When I parked at the station, my three-year-old got it into her head that she did not want to go into the station. She started up the sort of unprompted hysterical screaming that only a toddler can manage. Her little brother, always the follower, joined in.
I unbuckled my daughter's car restraint and she ricocheted around the inside of the car, screaming. While I was attempting to either settle her down or grab her (either one would have done at that stage), the volume and persistence of her screams caused an officer to come out from the nearby Child Protection Investigation Unit – because, judging by the noise, clearly some children needed protection. He laughed when he saw it was me; he was also a parent of young children.
I ended up carrying two screaming children into the station, one tucked under each arm like pigs being taken to market, so I could send my two-minute email. It's funny now, but there was more apologising than laughing at the time.
But you never know what reaction you will get from people when they find out you're a cop. It can be very polarising, depending on people's experiences with police. I ran into my year 3 teacher shortly after I had been sworn in.
When she asked me what I'd been up to since year 3, I told her proudly about graduating from the police academy. She launched into a diatribe about corrupt and evil police because her police officer brother-in-law had screwed her over.
Lesson learnt. You can never predict someone's reaction. Ask me now and I'll say I'm a public servant until I know you.
But my kids are proud of my job. They tell their friends, the parents of their friends, strangers at the park. My daughter even threatened to call me in once when her teacher was stirring her up. I'm pretty sure she was joking. •
J. M. Peace's debut crime novel A Time to Run is published by Macmillan Australia.