Top Women in Law Enforcement

Women leaders are breaking the “brass ceiling” in law enforcement.

Decades ago society classified women as caretakers and housewives. Earning an education, getting a job or pursuing a career in criminal justice was uncommon for women, and law enforcement officer positions for women were unheard of, as women were hired to do clerical duties or guarding women prisoners during the first half of the century.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that law enforcement agencies saw the number of women double.

In 1985, the first female chief of a major police department was appointed in Portland, Oregon, but only served for about 17 months before stepping down following a formal recommendation to resign. After her resignation, former chief Penny Harrington filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the mayor and the city, but lost. Later, she continued her fight for women’s equality in law enforcement by founding the National Center for Women and Policing.

Today, women across the country face similar challenges, but have overcome adversity to become leaders who’ve followed in Harrington’s footsteps.

Trailblazers in Law Enforcement: Police Chiefs Past and Present

Cathy Lanier, Chief of Police, Washington, D.C.: In September 2016, after serving as police chief for nearly a decade, Lanier stepped down after accepting a position as the head of security for the National Football League. Lanier’s tenure as police chief saw a general decline in crime for Washington, D.C., including a record low of 88 homicides in 2012, and 23% drop in violent crimes in recent years, according to The Washington Post. However, some of her programs drew criticism, such as instituting a neighborhood checkpoint system in one of the city’s highest-crime areas in 2008, according to the Washington Times. As the department’s first female chief, Lanier has been called a role model for women. At 14, she dropped out of high school after becoming pregnant, later earning her GED, bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, before completing a 26-year career in Washington, D.C. As head of security for the NFL, Lanier is in charge of all operations and activities including working with International, federal, state and local entities to ensure the security of the NFL’s venues, players, fans, staff and infrastructure, according to The Washington Post.

Jane Castor, Chief of Police, Tampa: In May 2015,Castor retired after 31 years of service with the Tampa Police Department, including six years as its police chief. Castor’s tenure includes a crime reduction rate of 69% over the past 11 years under Castor and the previous chief, as well as executing large-scale events such as the Republican National Convention in 2012 and Super Bowl XLIII in 2009. Castor is also praised for redefining community policing in Tampa by becoming involved with local organizations to educate officers and the public, and provide resources to those in need, like the opening of the Police Athletic League, which serves more than 300 at-risk youth. Today, Castor operates a law enforcement consulting firm and in February 2016 was chosen to monitor a four-year program overseeing the Miami Police Department, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Jeri Williams, Chief of Police, Phoenix: In October 2016, Williams, who was appointed the department’s first female police chief of the nation’s sixth-largest city, oversees nearly 4,000 employees in a metropolitan area covering 500 square miles, and operates a $475 million budget. Williams began her career in 1989 as a patrol officer with the department and after 22 years with the force, she left to become Chief of Police at the Oxnard Police Department; a city of about 200,000 in California. Williams returned to Phoenix with the goal to become more active in the community and change any negative perceptions the public may have of the police force.

Erika Shields, Chief of Police, Atlanta: In December 2016, 21-year-veteran Deputy Chief Erika Shields was named Atlanta’s new Chief of Police, following in the footsteps 35-year-veteran Chief George Turner. Shields joined the department as a patrol officer in 1995 and held several leadership positions, including Deputy Chief in the Support Services Division before being named chief. During her time as deputy chief, Shields managed daily activities at the chief’s office, led the roll out and expansion of the department’s Video Integration Center, and helped research and identify new technology in support of the department’s crime analysis process. As chief, Shields plans to continue strengthening the department’s community policing efforts and continue improving Atlanta’s crime rate, which has dropped 27% since 2009 under her predecessor’s leadership.

First in Federal Government: Female Criminal Justice Leaders

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: In January 2009, Napolitano was the first woman in charge, overseeing a $60 million budget and more than 240,000 employees that work for the Homeland Security agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard before stepping down in September 2013. Napolitano led efforts to protect the nation against various types of threats from smuggling to natural disasters and terrorism. Napolitano resigned from her post to take over as president of the University of California system.

Stacia Hylton, Director of the U.S. Marshals Service: Hylton, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, was appointed director of the Marshals Service in 2010. Prior to retiring in 2015, Hylton oversaw more than 5,600 employees and was responsible for fugitive operations, prisoner operations and transport, witness security, asset forfeitures and judiciary security. Hylton began her career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal more than 30 years ago and has served in a variety of roles including Marshals Service Special Operations Group member, training academy instructor, witness security inspector and Emergency Response Incident Commander after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Michele Leonhart, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration: In February 2010, Leonhart was appointed to lead the DEA in 2010 after serving three years as acting administrator. After a 35-year tenure with the agency, Leonhart retired in 2015. Leonhart was responsible for 10,000 employees across the U.S. and in 83 foreign offices in 63 countries. Leonhart, who has a criminal justice degree, was a police officer in Baltimore, Maryland, before joining the DEA as a special agent in 1980. She was the first woman to be named a Special Agent in Charge. In 2005, she was honored as an Outstanding Federal Law Enforcement Employee by the Women in Federal Law Enforcement Foundation.

Julia Pierson, Director of the U.S. Secret Service: In March 2013, Pierson was appointed the first female director of the U.S. Secret Service. After more than 30 years of service with the agency, Pierson stepped down in October 2014. Pierson started her career as a police officer in Orlando and joined the Secret Service in 1983, working out of the Orlando and Miami offices.

Despite the challenges women have faced in the past and may face in the future, female leaders like Lanier, Castor and Napolitano are making their mark in criminal justice. In a profession dominated by men, women are making an impact, from becoming police officers to leading some of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies.

With careers in local law enforcement and federal agencies, a degree in criminal justice can lead to future opportunities that may not even exist now. Women who are earning a degree in criminal justice today may position themselves to lead tomorrow.

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