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Women going strong in the Madison Police Department

MADISON — Although Women’s History Month is now in the rearview mirror, women continue to step up to the plate and dictate their own history each and every day. To the female officers protecting the community as part of the Madison Police Department, the future looks bright and promising for women in law enforcement—much different than it might have looked just 20 years ago.

MPD has fewer than 10 female officers with a wide range of experience, and many have received honors like Officer of the Month and Officer of the Year. Some have been with the department for less than a year while others have served in Madison for as long as a decade or more. Some have protected other communities before arriving in Madison, and some pursued other interests before realizing their heart was in law enforcement.

While some say the thought of being a woman in law enforcement doesn’t cross their minds, others remember a time when being a woman in a predominantly male profession was anything but easy.

“We had to do everything twice as good as the guy just to get rated the same as the guy,” recalled Cheryl Wooden, who has been with MPD about four months but has 17 years of experience in other North Alabama departments. “Our generation kind of paved the way for the ones that come on now. Women are a lot more accepted in this profession now.”

Shannon DeFazio, who has only been on the force for about a year, said she got into law enforcement to be an “active problem-solver.” While she is still finding her balance and building her own confidence, she said she appreciates the generation of female officers that came before her. “I’m grateful for the roads that they’ve paved for us to make it easier for us to be in law enforcement and be in roles like this and make it a better place to work,” she said.

For that generation, the change is “off the charts.” More women are choosing to go into law enforcement, and according to Christie Gover, they are better respected nowadays. Gover, who at 20 years on the force is the longest-serving woman at the Madison Police Department, said things could still be better. While this is especially true on a global scale, Gover said she is hopeful that things will continue to get better for women.

“We’re no longer the silent minority,” she said. “We’re right there, and we’re seen. We’re powerful. There’s still a lot of people culturally who don’t respect women, period, much less a female in uniform, but we’re becoming so much more prevalent in this job force. I think it’s only going to get better.”

Both Ruby Jewell and Jasmin Carthen said being a woman rarely impacts their experience on the force.

“I haven’t had any real conflict with being a woman,” Carthen said. “When I first started, one of my majors used to call me a pitbull because I would go much harder than the guys in the academy, so I didn’t really have anything come up about me being a woman when I first hit the streets.”

While Jewell said there have been times she felt the need to prove herself competent—either to other officers or even members of the community—those instances are few and far between. “When I first started here, I was like the only female on patrol for my shift, and I felt like I was having … to compete,” she said. Nearing her three-year mark at MPD in April, Jewell and many other female officers said they just feel like “part of the team” now. After all, the busy days that are never quite the same leave little room to dwell on such matters.

According to Officer Katie Gordon, the most routine parts of a shift deal with theft reports, alarm calls and domestic violence calls. At any moment, though, that can change—shots can be fired, or a robbery in progress—so officers must always be on their toes. Mental health and domestic violence are two more common, yet challenging situations officers face on a regular basis. Having served with MPD for about eight-and-a-half years, that’s all that’s on her mind.

“At this point, I don’t ever even think about (being a female officer),” she said. “I feel like part of the team. It was weird when I first started because I felt like I had a hard time fitting in because I was a 22-year-old little girl working with all these grown men, so fitting in took me a little while, but now that I’ve been here for several years and I’m one of the senior officers, I just feel like part of the team. It doesn’t even really cross my mind that I’m unique and different in any way.”

Gordon said she was one of the first female officers hired at MPD in a while, and since then, the number of female officers has doubled. One of the few women at MPD when she came on the scene was Stacy Thomas. Thomas now serves as the only woman in MPD’s investigations division and said she has a “very healthy” relationship with the men in her department. Though she is not on patrol anymore, her work is just as crucial now as it was when she started as a patrol officer with the Memphis Police Department, which has one of the toughest police academies in the country. In addition, working in Memphis gave her a healthier perspective on the future of women in law enforcement.

“Because my first experience was working with a lot of women in this capacity, I think it gave me a more positive outlook on women in law enforcement,” she explained. “I don’t think we have enough women in law enforcement, but I do think that we’re needed in law enforcement.”

Sharon Monk, administrative assistant to Chief David Jernigan, said she has seen the presence of women officers grow in the department in her 23 years working on the administration side of things at MPD.

“We have always been interested in having female officers because they do bring a lot into the department,” she said. “I don’t know if we have more female officers now because we have more slots or if more females are getting interested in the profession in itself, but I find it very, very admirable for them to be able to do it, especially when they’re young. … I think they’re being received better and given an opportunity, but it’s like everything else. Once you prove yourself, then you’re in.”

This is a sentiment that Teresa Taylor-Duncan agrees with. With 17 years experience in law enforcement and MPD’s new public information officer, Taylor-Duncan said she once felt what many other women have felt going into law enforcement: that she had to be “better, smarter, stronger, faster, more skilled” than the men to prove herself competent.

“In my mind, I always had to do 10 percent more,” she explained. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing—that just means that the City of Madison got 110 percent instead of just 100 percent. I think it’s still true in this day and age—we as women, we still have to prove we can do that same job.”

Taylor-Duncan isn’t looking for special treatment for her or any other women on the force, though. In fact, she said it’s only right that women have to meet the exact same requirements as men: the same amount of pushups, the same distance run, the same amount of weight dragged and the same patrol car pushed. “That’s the way it should be because we have to do the exact same job,” she said. “There should not be a disparity between the males and the females. … I feel like we have certain challenges that we have to meet that maybe the men don’t, but for the most part, all of the women here will step up and do that … and they’re prepared.”

Of course, women have their own skills they bring to the table that make them more apt to deal with certain situations than male officers might typically be. This is especially true for domestic violence and rape cases.

“Especially with more sensitive issues, like rape and stuff, I think they would prefer to talk to a woman,” Carthen said. “… I know some men who can get in there and talk and get the information they need and stuff, but I’m just saying it’s probably a lot easier to speak with a woman, and that’s kind of a really good strength … because in that case, we can go out in the community and have rapport with some of the people that will be willing to talk to us about some of the things that’s going on in the community.”

In Thomas’ line of work, she said it is important to think below the surface and get to the root of why people are in the situation they’re in. “I think your life experiences and just maturity helps you to be a better police officer, period, but certainly, women are different, and we look at things from a very different perspective,” she said. “I think we tend to have a little bit more empathy and a little bit more understanding about people’s journey and why we’re dealing with them.”

For all the women, though, it all comes back to helping people in the community.

“Whether it’s between a teenage daughter and the mother or a domestic violence situation, I really like seeing them being resolved and knowing that someone’s life is better or helped,” DeFazio said. “It might not be permanent, but in that moment, their problem is better. It’s rewarding.”

While Taylor-Duncan said she has often been the only woman around—the only female at her S.W.A.T. school and the only female when she went through her pursuit driving instructor course—she no longer lets that make her feel uncomfortable. Most of the discomfort came from her own doubts, but despite what some may believe, she found that women are widely accepted in law enforcement.

For Taylor-Duncan and many other women in law enforcement, it all comes back to equality—having to prove yourself like everyone else. After all, women and men answer the same calls and face the same situations every day as police officers. Unity is essential to the success of a department.

“You have to have a very thick skin if you’re working with a lot of men,” Taylor-Duncan said. “You have to not take things personally, and you have to let water roll off a duck’s back. If you can do that, you’ll be accepted. If you’re going to come in here with a chip on your shoulder or feeling like you need special treatment because you’re a female, you need to find another job because you need to be treated just like the rest of the guys are. We all do the same job. We wear the same uniform. We bleed the same way. We cry over the same stuff.”

Gover said she hopes more women will continue to get into law enforcement, and the diversity is healthy for any department.

I just hope to see more and more people, both regionally and across the United States and around the world, seeing more women become in positions of power, from the level where I’m at as sergeant on up the chain, eventually making more chiefs of police,” she said before a Wednesday 2-10 p.m. shift with a few other women. “… It’s fair for the men as well because they need that. They need that diversity in their supervision. They need that diversity on the shifts. This shift has the most women on it, and a lot of people might see that as a challenge. I see it as the best thing that could ever happen because of the people that we deal with every single day.”

Gordon said people can always request a female officer to respond to the situation, and if any women are interested in joining MPD, “they can come talk to us anytime.”

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