Short Subjects


"Lotus Blossom" by Patricia Mae Young

An Officer and a Gentle Woman

Debra Littlejohn Shinder

Copyright 1997

Had I not seen someone else do it first, I probably would never have entertained the notion that I, at thirty years of age, would or could become a police officer. And I certainly would never have dared dream that I would advance to the rank of sergeant within two years, much less be selected as an academy instructor around the same time, much less become one of the first two females in the country to be certified as an ASP baton instructor and the very first female to be certified as a police nunchaku instructor.

In fact, when I told my then-husband that I was thinking about going to the academy, he laughed at me. His words were "what makes you think you can do that?" and my reply was "what makes you think I can't?" The answer: I was "too little, too weak, too old, and the wrong gender." He predicted I would never make it through to graduation. I did, though -- and I was valedictorian of my academy class.

At the time I decided to make this new and drastic career change, I had already done a few things to upset his expectations of what a woman/wife "should" do. I gravitated from paralegal work (he approved of that) to city government and worked as a department head and an assistant city manager, until that position made me privy to the unethical and illegal practices of my boss, the CM, and sweet little me turned into a whistle-blower who resigned my job and single-handedly organized a campaign to have him fired. It succeeded, and my exposure to politics and politicians convinced me that I was at least as capable as any of our "city fathers." So I ran for city council (which shocked my husband and most of my friends and relatives) and won.

I served a two-year term and during that time became closely involved with the municipal police department. I was fascinated by the law enforcement world, and the Mayor appointed me Public Safety Commissioner, responsible for developing policies governing the PD and Fire Department. The more I worked with the officers, the more I wanted to really be "one of them."

But that seemed like an unrealistic fantasy. I wasn't particularly athletic, I had never fired a gun in my life, I certainly didn't think of myself as "aggressive." I didn't have much in common physically and intellectually with the twenty-one year old male "typical" academy recruit. I'm sure I would never have pursued my dream, if it hadn't been for Sarah. More than a decade older than me, a grandmother, and a woman who had been raised to fit the typical female stereotype, she was the Chief's secretary. She was also a reserve police officer, having gone through the academy in night classes at the age of forty, at the encouragement of her husband and our exceptionally progressive Chief of Police. I looked at her in uniform, watched her outperform many of the male officers on the firing range, and knew that if she could do it, so could I.

The academy wasn't a piece of cake, but it was by far the most valuable learning experience of my life. Not because of the actual course content; the penal code and the laws of search and seizure were, in large part, things I already knew. The physical defensive tactics skills and the ability to comfortably and competently use a firearm were more immediate and practical. The experience I got in proving myself to male classmates and instructors who in some cases expected less of me because I was a woman strengthened my self-esteem and character.

But the greatest lesson the academy taught me was that the biggest factor in succeeding at any venture is daring to try. Thanks to Sarah's example (and those of a couple of dedicated female academy instructors I encountered along the way), I learned that if I really wanted to do something, if I set my mind on it and was willing to work hard for it, if I didn't listen to my own fears or anyone else's doubts, I could do things that neither I nor others thought was possible.

I've been doing so, ever since.

About Debra Littlejohn Shinder.

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