Art's influence on career detective

Former Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner and La Trobe alum Sandra Nicholson links successful policing career to a passion for art.

La Trobe Journalism grad Harriet Edmund talks to fellow alum Sandra Nicholson about her outstanding policing career, and her love of art.

If the National Gallery of Victoria started charging her rent, it wouldn't surprise Sandra Nicholson.

The former Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner and La Trobe University Bachelor of Arts graduate has been a member of the NGV since 1984.

In fact, it was during the height of her policing career when Ms Nicholson would frequent Frederick McCubbin's 1904 painting, The Pioneers.

"I remember time after time just sitting there…trying to work out what's next, or even just to trying to relax.

"Everyone experiences it sometime – you just feel like you're being crushed by everything that's going on, by all the decisions you have to make. But after looking at that painting I would feel refreshed and renewed."

It was Ms Nicholson's passion for art that helped shape her career as one of Victoria's pioneer female detectives.

"I learned to look beyond the surface of things. Art taught me to look deeper into issues for the truth and develop a deeper understanding."

Ms Nicholson joined Victoria Police in 1975, the year the United Nations declared women equal to men – a fitting milestone given Ms Nicholson went onto become a revered mentor and trail blazer for women, particularly in Victoria Police.

After just two years in the job, Ms Nicholson was appointed a divisional detective at the Russell Street Criminal Investigation Branch. By 1990, she became the first female lecturer on staff at the Detective Training School, and in 1996 was appointed first female District Inspector in Melbourne's western suburbs.

At the time of retiring in 2010, Ms Nicholson was the highest ranking woman in Victoria Police.

It was her role in mentoring women – and men – that Ms Nicholson is most proud of. Many, under her guide went on to be Commissioned Officers. This was recognised when she won the Australian Police Medal in 2004 and was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2008.

Reducing the incidents of domestic violence in Victoria was another important career aspiration for Ms Nicholson. She lent her voice to successfully lobby for change to all levels of the justice system, which she says: "is now taking violence against women and children seriously". It was also Ms Nicholson's region, the western suburbs, which housed the first Family Violence Unit – an initiative later rolled out across the state.

However, on the issue of discrimination in the police force – highlighted in a Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report in December 2015 – Ms Nicholson concedes there's still a way to go.

"Although it's being addressed, you can't just change the culture of an organisation; you have to change the culture of Australia," she says. "We recruit from our community and if there is prejudice within the community, it will find it's way into organisations."

Now retired from policing, one of Ms Nicholson's commitments is Chair of the La Trobe University Alumni – Art History Chapter. The group of 60 plus members award prizes to La Trobe students studying art subjects, and coordinate the annual Rae Alexander Lecture at the NGV. The Chapter is also preparing for the University's 50th anniversary celebrations with the La Trobe University Museum of Art (LUMA).

Ms Nicholson has also studied creative writing at Oxford University. She now reviews books and conducts interviews for Sisters of Crime, an international group supporting female crime writers. And, Chairs the Westgate Branch Committee of the Blue Ribbon Foundation.

"My advice to all those I have mentored over the years is to keep studying, continue to enhance your skills and take opportunities whenever they are presented. You never know where life will take you."

Sandra Nicholson pictured at Claudia Terstappen's A Language of the Vanishing now showing at La Trobe University Museum of Art

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