Skip to content

ANZSOG EMPA alumni profile, Karen Webb, from country town to NSW Police Commissioner

19 September 2023

News and media


ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) has a twenty-year history of equipping public sector leaders with the skills and strategic thinking they need to take the next step in their careers. Our alumni include many senior leaders in all jurisdictions across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. This profile looks at the career of NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb, who was part of the 2012 intake of the EMPA. The 2024 EMPA program is currently open for registrations. For more information visit the EMPA FAQ page or email: programs_team@anzsog.edu.au. Alternatively, submit an expression of interest to be contacted by a member of the Programs team. 

As Commissioner of the NSW Police Force, Karen Webb leads more than 21,000 people, including more than 17,500 police officers. Each day those officers face diverse challenges, engage with people from many different walks of life, and navigate constantly evolving situations.

The life of a police officer and commissioner today is very different to what it was back in 1789 when Governor Arthur Philip created Australia’s first civilian police force – known as the Night Watch – to guard the then Sydney Town.

Following in those footsteps, Karen Webb made history in February 2022 when she was sworn in as NSW’s first female police commissioner. Aware of the significant weight of responsibility on her shoulders, Karen relies on her 35 years of policing experience to help her make decisions and stay closely connected to the officers that she leads.

Her ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) has given her a broader understanding of government, and an ability to think strategically about her role and its importance in delivering public value to the people of NSW. She also gained a network of fellow public servants, from a wide range of fields to give her new perspectives on the challenges of leadership.

Karen’s journey to the NSW Police Force began in her hometown of Boorowa, 340kms southwest of Sydney. When she was in her late teens, a local police officer inspired Karen to join the force herself.

“That officer was a very decent person. He was softly spoken and very engaging – he listened to people to get an outcome and he reflected the kind of values that I felt were important,” Karen recalls.

But her police career didn’t begin straight after high school. Karen spent three years studying accountancy at night school while working for a local accountancy business before joining the police in 1987. At the time, just 10 per cent of the force were female – she is encouraged that today the number of women in the police ranks has risen to about 28 per cent.

“Although I have to say that when I joined the police, I didn’t think about gender,” says Karen.

“I grew up in a family of boys and was surrounded by boys in my street. I didn’t see a big gender difference because I was used to being around males, so it didn’t bother me that there were so many men around. But I’m glad the force is becoming more representative of the community we serve, although we’ve still got a way to go.”

In her decades of service, the Commissioner has performed general duties and criminal investigations in metropolitan Sydney and Regional NSW.

During her police career she has worked within the Child Mistreatment Unit, Drug Enforcement Agency and Detectives Training Unit, and also held command roles at Forensic Services Group, Local Area Commands, Operations Manager, North-West Metropolitan Region Command and she has been Assistant Commissioner Police Transport & Public Safety Command and Traffic and Highway Patrol Command.

She says rather than having a clear career path within the police mapped out, she has taken opportunities as they have been presented to her.

“Sometimes you are given opportunities that you don’t always choose and I’ve always adopted the attitude of seeing a positive in everything I’ve been given. On average I’ve spent three to five years in a particular role before going on to do something else because I reached a point where I didn’t feel challenged anymore and the role was becoming routine,” she says.

“I never set out to be Commissioner — but I never discounted the fact that I could be Commissioner. My focus during the recruitment process was my ability to do the job and my gender wasn’t something I made a point about. Saying that, becoming the first female NSWPF Commissioner is a very significant milestone and now I am the first woman in the state to do this job, I hope I’m not the last!”

Inevitably, the nature of policing is a blend of rewarding and harrowing experiences and that has remained the same throughout Karen’s career.

“The death or murder of children, people being killed in car accidents, dealing with the death of officers – that is incredibly difficult. As Commander, you have to support your colleagues, an officer’s family and your workplace and when you are dealing with the raw emotions of people, it is tough,” she says.

“During different operations, investigations and command roles there are many times when you have to do something that you haven’t done before. But you work with a team of people to take on that challenge. In my various roles I’ve always realised that I need to work with the team and understand the skills and abilities of the people around me and what they can contribute. Good communication to get the best out of your people is always key to any situation.”

The Commissioner nominates a number of key crime challenges facing NSW Police today.

“Silent crimes like cybercrime and sexual and domestic violence that happen behind closed doors are a challenge. It takes a lot of work to build confidence so people come forward and engage in the justice system,” she says.

“Another challenge is youth crime – we are seeing an increase in youth violence at a young age and that is hard to tackle. Organised crime isn’t new but it’s becoming more sophisticated and we need to tackle and consider new technologies and new ways of doing things.”

Karen is proud to have been in public service for 35 years and she wears her uniform with tremendous pride.

“Making a difference in different ways attracts me to public service. For me, a good day at the office is knowing the community is satisfied with the way the police force does what it needs to do and knowing the officers and staff in this organisation feel rewarded,” she says.

The Commissioner has continued her career and progressed to increasingly senior roles while raising two children, now aged 24 and 25. Family is paramount to her, which is why she opted to be sworn in as NSW’s first female police commissioner at her old school in Boorowa.

“I wanted to have that ceremony back where it all began. That’s where my values were formed, Dad is buried there and Mum is in aged care in the town,” she says.

“I wanted to show to the young people in that small community that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can achieve anything.”