Meredith College hosted a panel discussion with women police chiefs from towns and cities in North Carolina on March 27, 2018. The chiefs shared their perspectives on challenges facing the field of law enforcement, how they have navigated being women in a traditionally male-dominated field, and how they have served, and continue to serve, as role models and mentors to younger women.
Six chiefs participated in the panel: Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown of Raleigh, Chief C.J. Davis of Durham, Chief Catrina A. Thompson of Winston-Salem, Chief Laura Fahnestock of Fuquay-Varina, Chief Winifred Bowens of Littleton, and Chief Patrice Andrews of Morrisville.
Breaking Glass Ceilings
All of the women on the panel have been pioneers during their careers, including serving as the first woman police chief, the first African-American police chief, and more. Nevertheless, they agreed that in order to succeed, doing your job well is critical.
“Instead of wearing ‘woman’ on your shoulder all the time, it’s important to just do a good job,” said Davis.
Deck-Brown agreed. “All of us have broken a glass ceiling. It may have been an assignment. It may have been pushing a maternity policy for the first time. Let your work speak for you.”
Thompson challenged the audience to “bring your own hammer if you have to…” in order to break the glass ceiling. “But realize the responsibility and obligations that go along with it.”
Nonetheless, Andrews said that in her experience, being a woman in law enforcement enhanced her ability to empathize with others. “As women we are nurturers. That is an amazing trait that you can tap into. You can easily see yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
New Challenges in the Field
Davis said that the prevailing issue facing law enforcement today is the need to be truthful about the use of force, implicit bias, and racial equity.
“We are doing everything in our power to implement practices that are procedurally just,” said Davis. “The uniform is what I do, it’s not who I am. We are humans. Good policing comes with a good heart.”
Thompson said that a need for a broader understanding of diversity is another challenge facing law enforcement. Often when people speak of diversity, they are referring to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity; Thompson sees a need to also include the homeless, special needs, and elderly citizens in her community.
“The Winston-Salem Police Department is here to protect and serve everyone. When you talk about building trust, when you say you’re building diversity, it’s important to be as inclusive as possible.”
As an example, Thompson said her son has special needs and would have difficulty responding to commands from a police officer. She has made a point of ensuring that her officers know how to engage sensitively with all populations.
Navigating Personal and Work Life
As women, the chiefs spoke candidly about some of the challenges they had encountered professionally. For instance, Fahnestock was the first officer to become pregnant in her department in Rocky Mount. She embraced the challenge as an opportunity to put policies in place to help other women who would be navigating maternity leave.
All of the chiefs on the panel are parents, and they talked about the experience of working in a demanding field while also parenting and being engaged members of their communities. They agreed that the key to success is building a strong support system that you can lean on during challenging times.
“I wear a lot of hats – sometimes it feels like too many. It is difficult managing your career and family,” said Bowen, adding, “God is the support system for me.”
Andrews said that her history included time spent as a single parent on government assistance as well as surviving domestic violence and sexual assault – experiences that helped to shape who she is.
“It’s your experiences that make you. In order to be strong, you must embrace all of it.”
The chiefs spoke of the importance of mentoring young women coming up through the ranks. They encouraged women in the audience, particularly the Meredith students, to seek out a mentor.
Catelyn Armstrong, ’20, hopes to work for the Raleigh police department after she graduates. She enjoyed hearing from the women chiefs, noting that many people still think of law enforcement as a male field.
“It was interesting to hear about their experiences, and their struggles, like navigating maternity leave.”
Madison Parnell, ’19, hopes to work as a counselor in the prison system. She was inspired by the panelists and the example they set for their communities.
“I didn’t know North Carolina was so progressive in this regard, that we had so many more women police chiefs than other states.”
Katie Sills, ’17, is a recruit in the Raleigh police academy and served as the moderator for the panel. If all goes well, she will graduate from the academy in August and go into the field. Her family has a history of public service.
“The support for each other and the respect for their families – everything that was said made me know this is the field I want to be in,” said Sills. “I am so appreciative to have been on the stage with such amazing women.”
The panel was sponsored by Meredith College’s Sociology and Criminology Department. One of the largest women’s colleges in the nation, Meredith prepares women to work in a range of fields, including traditionally male-oriented careers. As part of that effort, the College makes a point of introducing students to women role models who can share from their own experiences. The College also has a strong internship program with the Raleigh police department and other area organizations.
The panel was also sponsored by local chapters of ASIS Chapter 119 Women in Security (WIS).