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Women in law enforcement

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In a field predominated by men, women in law enforcement still tend to stand out. It's a field defined by dangers and takes a toll on its ranks regardless of gender. We took the time to sit down with several women from different departments in the area about what the job involves, advice they have for women looking to get into the field and the very real challenges they face.

And though the percentage is small, there are some strong examples of women in the ranks in every aspect of law enforcement from municipal to county, state and corrections. We chatted with just a small percent of the small percent (in alphabetical order).

Patricia McLaughlin, deputy for Penobscot Sheriff's Office

McLaughlin started her career in law enforcement on the other side of the radio as a dispatcher for the Maine State Police in the barracks in Orono (Troop E).

'I didn't really want to be in law enforcement. I was working as a dispatcher for the Maine State Police when I did a ride along with Scott Hamilton, and after that, I knew that's what I wanted to do,' she said. She credits the adrenaline rush she experienced. 'We didn't even do anything that exciting, but it was being on the other side of the radio,' she said.

McLaughlin worked as a reserve officer for four to six months, but wanted to give the job her all. When a full-time opening came up for Lincoln Police, she jumped at the chance.

She went through the Basic Law Enforcement Training Program at 44.

'I was next to the oldest there was one older than me in the class. It was challenging, but at the same time it was very rewarding because I did very well academically and physically,' she said.

As the only female deputy in the Penobscot County Sherriff's Office, McLaughlin feels no strain in the relationship with her coworkers. She enjoys working there and says the staff is completely supportive. McLaughlin said that she has formed a small group of female officers that get together in their off time to socialize.

'Everyone at work is very supportive. And for the social end of it, we just found an outlet with other female officers. We talk about our days and our challenges,' said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin has four children (though three are adults and one is a teen), and she said her entire family was supportive and not terribly surprised at her career change. She has a track record of changing gears every so often, but feels that this time there is no need for a new career simply because she can't get bored in this job.

'It's something that challenges me on a daily basis,' she said. When asked what she would tell a woman considering working in law enforcement as a career she said, 'It's the best career choice they could make.'

Lori Renzullo, patrol officer for Old Town Police Department

Lori Renzullo has been working in law enforcement since she turned 18. She worked as a dispatcher for Washington County Sheriff's Office before realizing she wanted to be a police officer and took the 100 hour course and joined the Old Town Police Department. She is an instructor at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, a certified drug recognition expert, field training officer, and organized Old Town Police's Citizen Police Academy.

'I don't think of [being a female] as being different,' she said. 'You still have to prove yourself to yourself and the guys you work with.'

She noted that sometimes having a female officer on scene can help diffuse a potentially violent situation that may have escalated if only males had been there.

'If [a suspect] sees a male cop, sometimes they just want to punch [the officer] in the face. But they will just do what I say,' she said.

Law enforcement as a rule has to respond to various traumatic scenes, be it fatal or grievous accidents, violent domestic situations, murders, suicides or the effects of drug addiction and alcohol abuse the worst that humanity has to offer. Being able to have positive outlets in life is vital, not only to the job but also to live a healthy life. Renzullo draws on her faith.

'I see a lot of sad, hard, traumatic, messed up things. How do you deal with that and not go home and cry? I put it in the context of something bigger than myself,' she said. 'That's not to say things don't affect you, but you have to deal with so much tragedy and do what you have to do. Then you go home and process it.'

Renzullo said that women should evaluate their lives before going into police work. As much as she enjoys it, she notes that this isn't a simple career choice.

'It's not a job, it's a lifestyle. You really have to look at the family side of it,' she said. '[Women should] really take time to look at what the job is. Shadow people. It's a lot of training. Take into account the toll it takes on the family.'

Catherine Rumsey, sergeant for Bangor Police Department

Rumsey has been working in law enforcement for 23 years. She began her career in the Minot, North Dakota Police Department before returning to Maine and getting a job at the University of Maine Police Department in Orono. She applied for a position at Bangor 16 years ago and hasn't looked back since. She is heavily involved in a women's self-defense program, Rape Aggression Defense (RAD), where she is an instructor and trains other instructors for the national program.

And despite a long and distinguished career, she didn't set out to become an officer.

She was promoted to sergeant four years ago and was on nights until Sgt. John Roach retired. She took over his duties, including fleet maintenance, computer maintenance, department function, parking enforcement and clerical staff, radio maintenance, taxi cab inspections and more.

'I started college to be a school teacher,' said Rumsey. '[The college] was offering classes for criminal justice and one just struck me as interesting and I signed up for it. I had good memories of police interactions and once I started taking the classes I got drawn into it and changed my major.'

Rumsey also influenced her brother's career choice. Charles Rumsey was going to college to become a journalist. He would visit her on weekends and went on a ride along during an active night. Shortly thereafter he changed majors and is currently the Deputy Chief of the Waterville Police Department.

Rumsey noted that Bangor Police Department had always been progressive when it comes to hiring women.

'It was the first Police Department with women before I was hired. They kind of paved the way. I never had challenges with harassment in any police department. Here, I run into more problems with the public,' she said. She noted that sometimes someone who calls police will tell her to 'send me a real cop.' While she was working at another department, a man had locked his keys in his car and told her that when she arrived. She said it was too bad, because she was one of the better ones at getting doors opened. She noted that younger people aren't phased by seeing a female police officer, and attitudes across the board have improved with time.

'I had to prove myself until people realized that I would do my job and pull my weight and they don't have to take care of you,' she said. 'Each time I started in a department I had to wait for people to realize that.'

In a department of roughly 74 people at the time of the interview, there have never been more than three females working there. Rumsey noted that this isn't a problem with hiring, but rather a lack of qualified applicants of both genders.

'In general, there's not a lot of people applying. When I was hiring there was a written exam and 127 people applied. Last time we did oral boards we had 30 people,' she said. 'There is an integrity level that we have to hold to. You still have to prove you're a good candidate. We can't hire you just because.'

Rumsey said that if you're looking to go into police work, you need to be serious about it and live your life in such a way that you won't be concerned when someone does a background check. Drug use and criminal convictions (especially for charges such as theft) are disqualifiers for this field.

Rumsey said that there are many advantages to having females on the force, including comfort for female victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Also, if a female suspect needs to be searched, many male officers prefer to have a female conduct the search if possible.

'The guys enjoy having a competent co-worker that can help out,' she said.

She noted that it was nice to have her brother in law enforcement, because it gave her an outlet - someone to talk to who completely understood where she was coming from.

'I don't think people understand what we see. We see the worst that people have to offer. We see people inflict damage on children, spouses cars damaging human bodies. It affects you and changes you. It's good to have someone who understands that completely,' she said. 'A lot of people here do outside work. Go to a public school, teaching classes, doing community events. That kind of stuff helps you stay sane and have positive interactions with the public. People generally don't call 911 when they're having a good day. For us to interact with people on a good day when they're in a good mood is important.'

Rumsey is looking forward to a day when being a 'woman in law enforcement' isn't unique enough to be a news story.

'I'm proud of my career path. I always tried to work hard and do the right thing even when no one is watching. For years, I taught a women's self-defense course (Rape Agression Defense, RAD). That's one of my biggest things that I know for fact I had a positive impact in people's lives,' she said. 'My involvement with RAD programs is a huge part of my life.'

Kim Sawyer, patrol trooper for the Maine State Police, Troop J

Originally from Brocton, Mass. Sawyer started her career in law enforcement as an animal control officer in Massachusetts. When she met the police captain she recognized him as a man of integrity, and he sparked her interest in becoming a police officer. She got a degree in criminal justice and was looking for work throughout New England when she was hired by the Maine State Police. She went through the basic academy that year, but there wasn't to be a trooper academy until 2006.

She says her favorite part of the job is helping people.

'The funny part of that is a lot of times people don't think you're helping them In the long run, you're helping them. You're slowing people down hoping to prevent accidents. People getting pulled over don't see it in that light,' she said.

Troopers in Maine have to patrol large swathes of the state, and Sawyer is certainly no exception to that rule. She said that her assignment is proof positive that she doesn't think females in the State Police get special treatment.

'I don't really think they treat us any different. I don't see any difference. My area is Robinson to Danforth. It's a remote area and I could be waiting for a while [for backup],' she said. 'I don't think they'd stick me here [for special treatment].'

Sawyer said that her mother was initially concerned with her choice of occupation because of the dangers inherent in it.

''Why do you want to do that?' And at first she didn't want me to do it. She was very worried that I could get killed,' said Sawyer. She noted that at the time she was living right outside of Boston and once she pointed out to her mother she could realistically get killed just about anywhere. 'And then she was all gung-ho about it.'

She said it was her mother he helped her make it through the stressful times at the law enforcement academy. Sawyer, who had her own condo and schedule, found the rigid structure of the academy to be somewhat daunting.

'She was my lifeline. They only gave us two minutes to talk, but that was kind of my rock. I think she was excellent in helping me get through,' said Sawyer. 'We're very close.'

Sawyer said that when she went through the academy she was 'an old lady' at 34. She noted that the other female who was older than her dropped out she became the oldest woman in her class. She noted that even though physiologically females are built different than men, the women need to be able to do the same things.

'Women aren't built the same, but have to go through the same thing. They make us fight at the academy, and you have to fight like anyone else. They don't make it different for you,' she said. 'Anything can happen on the side of the road.'

Renee Stupack, corrections officer for Penobscot County Jail

Stupack started her career at the Penobscot County Jail in January 2007. She has a degree in criminal justice from Husson University. Her grandfather was a police chief and she always had an interest in forensics and criminal investigation, though she said her intention wasn't necessarily to work in the corrections fields.

Corrections officers deal with the other side of the arrest. From the booking process up to and including long-term incarceration, Stupack sees a different side of people being brought in by the officers. The dynamic for jail personnel is different than it is for patrol officers it's long term.

'The biggest thing is being taken seriously, working as a woman there,' said Stupack. 'That's been a big struggle for all of us. Being a female is definitely a challenge. There are a few of us, and there are more male inmates [than female], and men in general tend to work in this field more so than females.'

She said one of the other challenges, especially for the older workers, many of whom have children, is to watch the people who come in predominantly in their late teens and early 20s and not compare them to their own children.

'One of the hardest things is seeing younger people or kids in jail and having to separate being parents,' she said. 'It's really hard to see some of the things that these kids go through.'

One of the major differences between patrol and corrections is the interactions with the inmates. Stupack said that it is key to build a respectful and professional working relationship with the inmates.

'There are those few inmates that are good people and had really bad luck. It isn't that they haven't done bad things. I'm not sure how everyone deals with it. You have to keep up boundaries,' she said. 'I deal with it through staying busy and healthy.'

Maintaining a respectful relationship with the inmates can be challenging, but can also be rewarding when she can connect with someone. She said that some of the inmates have a code of honor when it comes to women (i.e. never assaulting or hitting a woman), while female officers have to stay completely separate from others.

'I had an inmate write and say thank you for making him feel human. There are those moments that make [the job] tolerable,' said Stupack. 'You think back to that and it makes you smile at the end of the day. Because sometimes it seems endless. You see the same people day after day.'

Stupack said that she is empathetic, which allows her to deal with those on the inside as inmates and people, which can sometimes be a fine line to walk. She knows that some of her fellow corrections officers take a harder line. She notes that the job has changed her, hardened her somewhat, something she thinks is true of all her coworkers.

'It takes a long time to get to know somebody here I'm hugely protective of myself and what goes on in my life. You really have to have a sense of humor,' she said.

She advises that if a woman is interested in corrections, have a plan of action where you want to be in so many years. And try to prepare for the mental toll the job can take.

'It's surprising the things you get used to,' she said. 'It's things you wouldn't mention. Like a doctor or a nurse seeing the inside [of a patient] it's the same thing in here.'


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