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Women find their niche in law enforcement

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Editor's note: This is the first of a two-day series profiling women serving in law enforcement positions here in southeastern Connecticut.

Women in law enforcement have made great strides over the past 30 years, but challenges remain.

About 12 percent of the nation's police officers are women, and they bring important skills to the table, according to Barbara O'Connor, chief of police for the University of Connecticut and president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives.

"There's a lot of concentration now, at the national level, about warrior (police) versus guardians," O'Connor said. "I think women fill the guardian role more naturally because we're inclined to nurture."

O'Connor, who started her career as a patrol officer in the 1980s and went on to serve as chief of three departments, said it's nice to see an increase in the number of women in ranking law enforcement positions and the closing of the gender gap around pay.

Departments have started to actively recruit women, she said, but there's more to be done. Police work rigid schedules and are sometimes forced to work double shifts, she said.

"If you look at President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the conversation about recruiting women, part of the conversation is that we haven't gotten flexible about scheduling for families for both women and men," she said. 

The five female law enforcement officers interviewed for this series perform different duties for their respective agencies, but similarities in their styles emerged as they told their stories.

They are team players who don't dwell or rely on their minority status as women.

They pass agility exams and carry guns and gear, just like their male counterparts.

Their gender works to their advantage on the job when it comes to interviewing female sexual assault victims, searching female suspects and de-escalating tense situations in a non-threatening manner.

They find the time to coach their kids' softball teams and go to parent-teacher meetings.

They love their jobs.

Groton Town Police Detective Heather Beauchamp is driven and detail-oriented. On the job since 2001, she became the department's first female detective six years later, getting promoted to "the back room" in near-record time.

She loves to do forensic work, like dusting for fingerprints at the scene of a bank robbery, but says the most useful skill for solving crimes is talking to people. In 2009, Beauchamp became the lead detective of the region's Cold Case Unit.

"You're a cop," Beauchamp said. "You're not a girl, not a boy. I don't want to be held to a different standard. You work as a team."

New London patrol officer Deana Nott is feisty, physical and compassionate. She comes from a law enforcement family, but didn't get into police work until she was in her 30s.

During her 15-year tenure on the city police force, she has collared bank robbers, posed as a prostitute during reverse stings and taken in children when their parents were unable to care for them.

She serves as a crisis intervention officer, helping to defuse cases involving the mentally ill. She is a training officer who has plenty of advice for new recruits and for the people she helps in the community.

"You treat people the way you would want them to treat you," she said.

East Lyme Police Investigator/Youth Officer Jean Cavanaugh is wise, passionate and dedicated. She started her career with the Stonington police, but in 1993 a full-time job opened up in her hometown and she jumped at the opportunity. 

Cavanaugh worked the midnight shift for years because it enabled her to spend her days with her two kids. She said it was on the overnight shift, where police deal with a lot of drunken drivers and motor vehicle issues, that she learned the art of interviewing. 

She is a member of a regional multidisciplinary team that collaborates on sexual assault cases and is often called in by other police departments to interview child victims. Cavanaugh said she feels respected by the men on the job.

"As a female, you've got to have a little, 'Just let it roll off your back,''' she said.

Judicial Marshal Sgt. Melissa Roode is diligent, caring and motivated. At 34, she is younger, by far, than some of the marshals she supervises at the juvenile courthouse in Waterford, but has earned their respect with her quiet and steady manner.

She has worked in three of the New London County's state courthouses, transporting prisoners to and from their court dates, monitoring them in the courthouse lockups, tracking prisoner movement from the marshal's control center, manning the metal detectors at the courthouse entrances and keeping order in the courtrooms. 

She tolerates the endless sports talk among her many male colleagues and finds the opportunity, now and then, to talk shopping with other female marshals.

"Working mainly with men, it's almost like they're a big brother figure," she said. "A lot of the guys I've worked with have many more years in than me. I've learned from them."

Lt. Elizabeth Wagner of the state Department of Correction is confident, practical and professional. As a newly divorced mother of two with security and auxiliary police experience, she applied at age 38 to become a correction officer because she needed the salary and benefits.

She spent the first 14 years of her career working at the state's only prison for females, the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, and was promoted to lieutenant in 2007.

She transferred to the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville, a complex that houses more than 1,000 male offenders, in 2011.

Wagner said she and her co-workers have each other's backs, regardless of gender. 

"Women are nurturing by nature," she said. "We have the ability to de-escalate a situation. Male offenders are not pumping their chest at you. They know they can beat you, so what's the point?"

Twitter: @KFLORIN


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