career

'I'm small, I'm female, I'm Asian.' Karen Matias is changing what being a police officer looks like.

Victoria Police
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Growing up as a young child in the Philippines, Karen Matias never contemplated a career as a police officer. If her mum had anything to say about it, she’d be a nurse or a lawyer or a doctor instead, following in the footsteps of family tradition.

Yet when Matias migrated to Australia, spending her teenage years in Western Australia before moving to Melbourne, she decided she wanted to give back to the community who had given her so much. Having worked in a number of retail and hospitality jobs, she made the choice to switch to policing as a profession.

Matias had now been a part of the Victorian Police for almost eight years, firstly as a PSO (a protective services officer), and for the past four-and-a-half years, as a police officer.

Speaking to Mamamia, Matias told us exactly how she made the transition, what her job as a police officer involves and exactly what it takes if you’re considering policing too.

Here’s what Senior Constable Matias had to say:

What made you consider policing as a profession, after working in hospitality and retail? 

“I’ve never really been a ‘back of house’ sort of person. I’ve always been a frontline person. Where I am now in my career, you have to be able to do a bit of both. But I love the thrill of being at the front and dealing with all sorts of situations, that’s my drive. I also wanted to be able to do a job that’s not the same every day. 

“I’m so grateful to be in Australia, particularly when you see the way we’ve navigated COVID-19 and our response as a country. There’s not a chance I would have had these opportunities in the Philippines. Not a chance. To me, becoming a police officer was a way of giving back to the community.”

What was the first step you took in joining Victoria Police?

“I was working in Department of Justice in Melbourne’s Carlton at the time. My role there was going to all the prisons and managing all the admin staff and it didn’t have that ‘front of house’ appeal to it. It became more corporate and I was starting to lose interest, which is why I decided to explore the PSO opportunity.

“I thought I’ll give that a go and see what happens. I really didn’t think I’d get in. I thought, you know, I’m short, I’m a girl and they probably need someone younger [laughs]. I felt so old, I had to learn to study again, that was another challenge. Then I thought, am I going to get through this? Will I pass?

“By that time, I was in my mid-40s so I was full of doubts, but I went through the process and it rolled on from there after I got in. It was surreal for me when I turned up at the academy because I thought, is this really happening?” 

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What were some of your duties as a PSO? 

“My duty as a PSO was basically to provide the perception of safety at train stations. I worked at Flinders Street station in Melbourne and I was in the second squad that came through the academy. 

“It was an interesting time where PSOs were still not quite known and people couldn’t really differentiate between PSOs and police officers. Our purpose was completely different to police officers, we were there to provide the perception of safety and to make sure everyone could get on and off the train and get home safely.” 

"That’s the challenge I think, to make people see you for who you are outside of the uniform." Image: Supplied.

You’ve said your sergeant made you see you could take the step from PSO to police officer. What is the team dynamic like at Victorian Police? 

“It’s a very supportive and collaborative environment, even moreso as a PSO because you’re working with the same people most of the time. You get to know that person really well and there are times at the station where it’s very quiet so unknowingly you get to know your partner very well.

“Your own colleagues are the only people who have an idea of what you’re feeling or what you’re going through. We tend to normalise what we do even though often it’s not normal. Support has always been there from a lot of our senior members who would give us advice and they draw on their past experience and their knowledge to help us through our challenges.”

What did it feel like going from a PSO to a police officer and how did you make that step? 

“When I did go for the PSO position, I thought this is it, I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. I’m match-fit. I love it. We had a lot of people coming up to us saying they were so glad we were there to provide a safe environment in train stations. It’s really good feedback from the community. 

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“As a police officer, it’s very different. Being a PSO is nothing like being a police officer. Being a police officer depends on what situation you feel yourself in. I quickly found out it’s not you but the uniform people react to. That’s the challenge I think, to make people see you for who you are outside of the uniform.” 

What are some of the most fulfilling parts of your role as part of the Victorian Police? 

“It’s very rewarding to be a police officer because the feeling of helping someone is sometimes a bit of a high. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that often. Most of the scenes we attend to don’t have that effect. 

“But sometimes we deal with for example, an elderly person with dementia and we help them go home or a little child who is lost. They’re probably not the biggest jobs but they’re the most rewarding.” 

What are some of the challenges and how do you deal with them? 

“It’s been more challenging lately with the added pressure of COVID-19. There’s that worry in the back of your head whether you’re going to get it or not and then passing it onto your family. In saying that, we know all of the risks and we take all of the precautions to keep it at bay. We do everything we can do not to pick it up, but you still have to be out there helping the community. You can’t just stop everything.

“Outside of that, a lot of the challenges I face are related to the religious or cultural values of offenders. For example, when they say they don’t want to deal with me because I’m a woman. It makes me question where they’ve come from and what makes them have this sort of an attitude. But if we’re not getting the outcome we need, there’s no point trying to make a point. At the end of the day it’s about getting a peaceful outcome. 

“Health is another aspect because you’re always eating on the run so you’re not usually eating something healthy even though we try. For me, the most important thing to look after is my mental health. I do something about it because so many times, a lot of police officers just fob it off. But it will hit you when you least expect it. Mental health is one of those things you need to pay attention to. We’re lucky we get a lot of support in regards to it at Victoria Police.”

How has policing helped to give your perspective and purpose in your career? 

“There are so many aspects to being a part of Victoria Police. You start off as frontline, that’s the foundation of the job but we have a network of several departments from planning to HR and administrative services who are non-sworn people. It depends on what is the right fit for me. I like the rush. I’m pushing 50 next year so it will depend on my body and if it will let me be a part of the frontline.

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“To me, it’s being a visual representation in the community. I’m small, I’m female and I’m Asian. It’s not so unusual now but I think of other girls of Asian backgrounds and they look at me in my uniform and go ‘oh’. You are making that impact by changing perceptions of what it means to be a police officer. Little girls when I was working as a PSO wanted to have their photo taken with me.

“There was a little Filipino girl once and I spoke to her in our language and she was so excited. That is my perspective and my purpose. I feel like I’ve met some of them already. I like being useful in the community where I can provide that perception and drive to younger girls who probably wouldn’t ever think about joining the police force.” 

What sort of qualities do you think are important for a police officer to have? 

“You need have a drive to get out there and be amongst it. You need to be patient. Empathy is huge. Empathy and patience. I always go out of my way to think the offender has done something wrong and he’s been arrested but you still have to treat them with respect. They soften up when I talk to them about it, it’s usually the case with me. If you treat them with respect, they treat you with respect too.

“I read up a lot on emotional intelligence. That’s the only outcome I really want. Every time I deal with a situation, I try to understand who I am dealing with and what I am dealing with. My equipment is the last thing on my mind. The fact I have a gun on me is the last thing on my mind. Strong communication skills are important. You need to be community minded, a team player and be able take constructive criticism not just from your boss but your colleagues too. You need to be flexible too. 

“People are already doing all of these things and they don’t know they’re doing it. To be a mum, you have to adapt and be resilient and have a strong sense of personal integrity. People already have these qualities, they just don’t know it.”

Image: Supplied.

What would you say to any women considering joining the police force?

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“I would tell them that it’s rewarding to be a police officer. There are some hard days. Unfortunately, there’s more hard days than easy days. But you adapt to it, it becomes second nature you have to allow yourself a bit of leeway too.

“You need to ask yourself, where do you get the idea of what a police officer is? Do you get it from Google? Or do you actually get it from a female police officer? If you see female police officer, go up to them and talk to them. I get that from a lot of Asian girls.

“I have to remind myself it’s not the norm. That I’m not the norm. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, why I get that reaction from people of Asian backgrounds.

“If you really want it, sometimes you can organise to do a ride along at the police station. If you don’t feel comfortable going to the station and speaking to the officers there, if you see them on the street, talk to them. They’ll tell you exactly what it’s like. It’s great we have the internet and we can look everything up but talking to people who do the job is the best way to find out what it’s like.

“You need to have confidence. For me to get the PSO position, I had to apply twice. Some people have to apply three times. It’s really up to you if that’s what you want and there has to be a reason to wanting to do it and you have to be prepared to do the work. If you’re prepared to deal with the community, not just your own but basically the whole state. 

“We need more females in Victoria Police. Just because you’re a female police officer it doesn’t mean your role is always to comfort. It’s not always the case, you approach it in a case by case basis and bring your own strengths to the role, whatever they might be.”

For more information, visit Victoria Police's Careers page.

Victoria Police
When choosing an exciting new career, it’s not just about who you are, but who you’ll be. General Duties Police Officers are always first on the scene at any reportable crime or public need, and provide their service to the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While the role and duties of a Police Officer are challenging, they are also rewarding. As a Police Officer you will make a difference to the Victorian community every day. Do you have what it takes to be a force for good? Search Police Careers today.
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