Lynne Owens – In Command
She was the woman in charge of security on the day of the Royal wedding. And now, as Lynne Owens prepares for a busy summer in London, she explains her love for her highly pressurised job.
She had more weight on her shoulders than anyone in the country the day Prince William married Kate Middleton. Lynne Owens, the new Chief Constable of Surrey, was in charge of security for the Royal Wedding with 5,000 officers under her command. She walked the Royal route the night before and on the magical morning. This year she brings everything she learnt from that momentous occasion to the security planning for the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in Surrey.
43-year-old Owens, who comes from a family of dedicated police officers, rose up through the ranks in the force as a detective specialising in major crime and says her analytical brain helped with solving difficult murder cases.
She holds a Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished service, and is now in charge of her own force in the county where she was born, and where her 14-year-old daughter goes to school. Needless to say her daughter is brimming with pride at her achievements, though she does manage to critique her mum’s hairstyle and TV appearances. A woman at the top of a traditionally male world, Owens pinpoints her enormous energy, sense of public service and ‘wicked sense of humour ‘ as markers of her success.
At pains to tell me that she rarely gives interviews and is not a self-publicist, Owens says: “I care about people, am very focused, quite humble, but above all I’ve got a wicked sense of humour and in this environment that’s what you need.”
“It felt like a massive responsibility and I had tremendous trepidation the night before. I didn’t want to let the country down for such a significant national event”
Clearly, her daughter has inherited this when she says, ‘You really don’t rock the bun look, mum’. With a wry smile this likable, articulate Chief Constable says: “ I have to wear my hair up for work so it’s in a bun and that is her inimitable phrase, but of course she’s really supportive of me, especially for the delivery of the Royal Wedding. She was very frightened during the London riots when I didn’t get home for a good few days.”
The challenge of keeping the country safe for the Royal Wedding involved 22 weeks planning. Owens had a Gold Commander and significant command team working to her and personal responsibility for the regular briefing of the Home Secretary, Metropolitan Police Authority and Mayor, assuring them the Royal family would be protected and the public able to celebrate.
"I walked the route the evening before and on the morning of the wedding and it was amazing to both interact with the crowds and to see my officers doing the same. People really helped us, pointing out things they thought were amiss and this was an amazing asset to security.
“It felt like a massive responsibility and I had tremendous trepidation the night before. I was under no illusions about the level of public expectation. I didn’t want to let the country down for such a significant national event. The chief concerns were a terrorist attack, protesters who may move beyond peaceful protest into criminality, and the chance of the crowd surging and there being a public safety issue.
“It took a huge amount of energy and drive but I was confident we could keep everyone safe. When people were congratulating us on the day’s success they didn’t realise that for us it went on overnight with the celebrations at the Palace, until the Royal couple flew off on their honeymoon.”
In her new role as Chief Constable of Surrey Owens will be commanding an Olympic force, as Surrey includes the cycle race, a village where the rowers will live, and it is the last county the torch goes through as it makes its way to London.
Owens says: “Surrey has its own Gold Commander for the Olympic force reporting into the national structure led by the Met. We’ll have policing plans for a whole bunch of scenarios exactly the way we did for the Royal Wedding, so I’m hoping I can bring that experience to this. The Olympics and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee make it a really big year for the country.”
In Surrey approximately 50 percent of new police recruits are now female and Owens insists there’s nothing to stop women rising up in the force to meteoric positions such as hers. She admits to being hard on herself and people around her in the pursuit of ‘excellence’, working a 12-hour-day, often 6-day-week. Wholly responsible for the Surrey police force, her strong aim is to give officers more of their own decision making.
“I feel we over-complicate policing,” she says candidly. “I think the public want three things from us-to keep them safe, feel confident we’ll be there when they need us, and relentlessly pursue the criminal element in society. I’m trying to simplify things in Surrey to achieve this and put the Surrey public first.
“Not all our staff will be visible. For instance we’re engaged in covert techniques in our fight against drug dealers. The visible enforcement is when we go and kick in the front door and make the arrest.”
As a detective in a major crime unit dealing with murder, she saw a lot of dead bodies in gruesome circumstances, and her focus was always on the family and loved ones left behind. “One cannot imagine a worse scenario than finding out a member of your family has been brutally killed. My role was to be the level head, the only thing you can do for the family at that stage is to find the perpetrator and give them some explanation.
“I’ve come up against extreme violence and it frightens me as much as it would the next person.
He truly is my rock, wholly supportive when I shoot back to work at 11pm when something happens or I don’t appear home for days”
“In an ideal world I’d like to have a wholly unarmed force but the reality is the public expects us to respond to events and regrettably the criminal element is armed. I sincerely hope we never get to the stage where we have to be a totally armed service and think we’re a long way from that. At the moment we have teams of highly specialised armed officers prepared to engage with the most difficult threats.”
Owens believes the London riots will change British policing forever. She was horrified as she watched events unfold from a special control room, and admits: “Never before have we seen what started as a peaceful protest, developed into violence directed at police and then widespread looting and criminality . It showed that the police service needs to be very agile, move at short notice, and must look at protests differently.
“The Met was well-supported by other forces around the country, and it was the quick thinking by a Superintendant to employ the Marine support unit from the river to deal with many logistical issues arising from deploying so many officers.
“This level of violence doesn’t make me worried for my daughter because I feel Britain is generally a safe country and Surrey a safe county. I give her feedback about not using her phone on the streets, not carrying much money, and if somebody should try to steal her bag to give it to them.
“I‘m always alert to crime. People have told me they find it quite irritating going out with me because I’m so attuned to what’s going on. If there are raised voices in a pub, or I see someone running down the street who doesn’t look quite right, I’m aware.
But there’s a difference between people wearing hoods and standing on street corners, and stealing phones. I do think as a society we sometimes join things together that aren’t naturally connected. They might feel intimidating but it doesn’t mean they are a criminal element. The police must be there and ready to intervene when the one moves into the other.”
None of this extraordinary dedication to policing would be possible if not for Owens’ house husband, Neil, a former policeman who gave up his career to look after their daughter.
She admits: “I couldn’t have achieved what I have in policing were it not for him and his personal sacrifices. He truly is my rock, wholly supportive when I shoot back to work at 11pm when something happens or I don’t appear home for days. It’s meant I can be entirely selfish in my career because I know he is always there for our daughter. He enjoys being a dad so he sees it as a real privilege that he’s been able to stay at home. He cooks during the week but I’m a lover of a Sunday roast so I try and make sure I do that and put back into the family.”
By Sharon Feinstein