Vermont Law Enforcement: A Wealth of Opportunities
by Cindy Hill - Photos courtesy of the Vermont State Police
Budget cuts have slowed law enforcement job growth, but the popularity of television shows such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) has sparked interest in law enforcement careers. That combination makes jobs slots, generally for well-paid positions with generous benefits packages, highly competitive. And the qualifications are tough to meet.
Ironically, though, competition gives women a powerful advantage. The male-female balance in law enforcement is so skewed, and the recognition of women's value so increasingly acknowledged, that qualified female applicants have a superb chance of scoring a job.
There's more good news: With the graying of Vermont's police departments, retirements will open many slots over the next five years. For Vermont women looking for a job that is anything but boring, with a wealth of opportunities for specialization and advancement—now is a golden moment to move into uniform.
Obstacles to Access
Nationally women comprise less than 15 percent of state and municipal police and they are mostly in large state police and sheriff's agencies, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics; only five percent of officers in small local police departments are women. At the federal level, most of the 20 percent of officers who are female are in the Inspector General's and Postal Service investigation offices.
The bottom line: Only about 12 percent of law enforcement officers nationwide are women, a statistic that has not changed much in at least 20 years.
Why aren't women flocking to law enforcement work?
"It's hard, " says Kristine Bowdish, a full-time patrol officer at the Middlebury Police Department (MPD). "The application is long. It requires information about your entire life. It's a strange process. The application asks questions, and you think, 'They can't ask me that, ' but they can. It's a little violating. It's rigorous. It funnels down the eligible population. "
Policing jobs also require a rigorous physical test, a medical exam, generally a written test, and interviews with an oral board and then with the chief. Training at the police academy means psychological exams, a lie detector test and drug screening.
"The academy is 16 weeks, and it's intense, " Bowdish says. "You have to be able to be yelled at and remain composed. That's really hard, and I hate to say it but it may be harder for women. But it's good, in a way, because people are going to yell at you on the job. I've been called every name—in several languages."
Training schedules can be prohibitive for single mothers. Vermont State Police Sargent Julie Scribner could not have made it without support from family and friends, she says. Her lifelong dream of becoming a police officer started at age six, when a man tried to pull her into his car. "I wanted to become a police officer to get that guy, " she says.
But marriage and babies occupied Scribner during her early 20s. After divorce, she spied a newspaper article about Vermont State Police hiring. When she told her boyfriend, she didn't think she could do it, he responded: "Yes, you can."
Her children lived with their father for the months she was at the academy "from Monday through Friday. Most trainees are Vermonters, so they can see their kids on the weekends. But whether you are a dad or a mom, it's a huge burden, being away from your kids for that long."
Opportunity in the Making?
Of the 42 people in Scribner's academy class, five were female. By 2011 the number had dropped to 10 percent. Vermont Works for Women's Step Up to Law Enforcement program offers some assistance. While it cannot provide child care, it can help women recruits navigate physical fitness hurdles and the minefields inherent in policing applications.
"Things are changing, " says Rachel Jolly, the Step Up program director, "but it's still a daunting career. Media and TV shows make it look glamorous, but the hiring process and the day-to-day work can be quite grueling. There are lots of hidden rules …[and] strong physical, mental and practical demands associated with the job. It takes a unique personality. "
VSP Lt. Dee Barbic had what it took. She started 21 years ago as one of a handful of female officers in the state, and is now Vermont's highest ranking woman in law enforcement.
Always athletic, she was working out at the gym, when a male friend mentioned that he'd applied for a police job to help fund his higher education. Barbic, who had a UVM undergraduate degree in education, thought it sounded like a good way to finish her graduate degree.
"It shocked my father when I told him, " she recalls, but she "loved it from the get-go. "
Single and childless at the time, Barbic found few obstacles, and enjoyed the physical fitness regime and learning about the law. "There have been challenges, not in the department, but outside, " she says. "Seeing a female officer show up at a scene, you get a lot of double takes. "
Work Life Balance
The hardest times "are the best days and worst days all at once. You are so tired after one of those days, but it feels good, " says MPD Officer Bowdish.
"You are always running worst-case scenarios through your mind, " she explains. Pulling over a car for a traffic violation involves calculating your response if the driver flees, or leaps out and runs, or pulls a gun.
Bowdish balances this out by going "very off-duty when I'm off-duty. " She cultivates outside interests and hobbies, including ice hockey and gardening, and "I try not to hang out with other police officers, because all you do is talk shop. "
VSP Lt. Barbic also advocates an active off-duty life. She shares parenting two sons and a love of competitive running with her husband, who is not in law enforcement. He is "willing to change schedules on the fly, " she says, and will "hand me lunch as I'm flying out the door. "
Barbic recalls that during her academy orientation, a sergeant warned new recruits that "[you] will develop very close relationships with the people you work with, but don't forget your friends outside law enforcement. I've taken that to heart, and been very diligent maintaining my close friendships outside the job. "
"You are limited in the type of people you can hang out with, " counters VSP Sargent Julie Scribner, whose husband is a game warden. "Female cops are often in relationships with other law enforcement officers. "
But the thin blue line runs through every day. "Even before you sign on, you have to transition from who you are at home—mom, spouse, caregiver—into the mindset of being at work now, " says Scribner. We sign on when we leave the driveway. We might drive around on motor vehicle violations, or come into the office and do paperwork. A sergeant will assign a patrol area, and any calls for service in that area, any type of complaint you can think of— we get.
"If it's in your area, you have to respond. Hopefully, you have a day where you get to eat lunch or dinner, but sometimes that doesn't happen. Then when you get home, it's the reverse. You need to take the Stetson off, and put on the mom hat, or the baseball hat for your son's little league game. "
Even at home, police are often on call, and may be called out in the middle of the night. Scribner bought a house next to her mother so her children would have a caregiver if she got called out at 2:00 a. m. "I literally could not have done this without the support of my mom."
Despite the complications, women can compensate with a lot of determination. "My kids are now 16 and 21, " Scribner says, "and they are very self-sufficient. I was a single mom for a lot of years, and they've learned good skills. " She only missed one of her son's high school football game, and "never had issues getting leave approved, not because I'm a woman, but because the department is very supportive of family schedules. "
"Our society has changed, and men are becoming caregivers more. We have several single dads, " Barbic notes. "It's not just a women's issue, it's a family issue. There are ways to make it work for everyone."
Police work is "not a 9 to 5 job, " says Barbic. "You are out sometimes dealing with horrible situations. It's nights, weekends, holidays, birthdays. Not everyone is excited to strap on a bulletproof vest and gun every day. Some of the things I like best about the job may be what other people don't like: You're not behind a desk, no two days are the same, and you are constantly adapting, constantly changing. "
With a degree in sports medicine, Bowdish found police work after facing a flooded job market. She took a job at a state prison in Arizona. Although she had never considered it before, she began thinking she could handle law enforcement work, and became the only female police officer on a force of about 100.
Raised in the Addison County, she came back to Vermont and joined the MPD in 2009. "I like to get out of my car and talk to people. I like getting to know so many people in the community, and being able to help them, " she says. Her father owns a farm, and she and her sister operate the Weybridge Corn Maize. A community toy drive she organized delivered holiday gifts to 33 Middlebury-area kids, and she recently fixed up found-property bikes for two youngsters in need.
Her present position on a smaller police force also has career advantages. "We investigate every case that comes in, no matter what size, " Bowdish says. She can develop a broader range of skills by following cases from beginning to end, without handing them off to a separate investigative unit.
Female Assets and Diversity Women police provide needed diversity and different skills. Nationwide, women cops receive fewer use-of-force complaints. "You are more likely to reach more people on the scene with officers of different characteristics and abilities, " Bowdish points out. Diffusing conflict is considered a large part of a police officer's duties, whether between two feuding neighbors, or between the officer and a late-for-work speeder. "Women are more likely to try to fix things, rather than arrest people, " says Bowdish, and they can be a "calming on the scene. "
Jamie Kiley, a new part-time officer at the MPD, with a master's degree in psychology, agrees that "Women can relate better to some people, " but warns that it "it goes both ways, " with some people not wanting to deal with a female cop.
"You'll have guys who don't want to fight a woman, " VSP Sgt. Scribner says, but notes that the academy trains officers "to deal with someone who outweighs us by 200 pounds."
Still, the inherent dangers of the job worry many would-be women police officers, and cause anxiety in their families. "I text my dad each night when I get off shift to let him know I'm safe, " Kiley admits.
The importance of diversity recruiting is increasingly acknowledged. "It's important that we are representative of the communities where we work, says VSP Lt. Barbic. "And different people bring different perspectives to the job. "
Chief Tom Hanley of the Middlebury Police Department concurs. His 17-person staff has three females — well over the national average for small departments. "We don't specifically try to recruit any gender or race. We look for qualified individuals and are open to anybody, " he says, his goal to reflect the community. "But we don't say we need X amount of females. We try to get all the pieces to fit: Are they a qualified applicant with skills sets that we need? And are they interested in a long term position? "
A former president of the Vermont Chiefs of Police and the New England Chiefs of Police, Hanley cautions against over-broad generalities. "There are some stereotypes out there that women are more sympathetic to victims, or better with juveniles, but not all women are. And there are men who are empathetic with victims and juveniles, and quite good at working with them.
"We don't generalize that way. We hire people who provide the best quality service to the community. We are race, ethnic, religion and gender neutral, " he says. "The best we can do is find good quality employees who don't bring their prejudices in the door. "
Like many rural small towns, Middlebury has difficulty recruiting suitable police of any gender. The department's flyer notes that the job is not for people who want to wear mirrored sunglasses and engage in high-speed car chases. "We do pull guns on people, and pepper-spray people, and wrestle with them, but that is not our primary job by any means, " Hanley says.
Hanley wonders why they historically don't get a lot of female applicants. He says, "Most female applicants that we do get come in asking for very specific specialty assignments, like juvenile work, and we can't accommodate that in this department. "
And most of the women don't stay long, he notes. "The female officers we've had here are generally not long-term employees. Many men come in and are content with a job in patrol work, but the women are not. I don't know what it is, exactly. "
Um, Problems with Uniforms…
Over the last few years, Hanley has combed his department's policies to ensure gender neutrality. Yet pregnancy and uniforms are sticky issues. "We don't address pregnancy specifically in the department, and we don't distinguish between men and women in our uniform requirements. We just say we will provide you a uniform, we will provide you a ballistic vest. We say we will get the uniform you need. "
Most female law enforcement officers agree they just don't ever fit right. Officer Kiley isn't planning a family yet. "This is what I want for a career, " she says. "But an interesting thing to look at is: What departments even have a pregnancy policy? What do they do with the uniforms for pregnant officers? "
"We transitioned to women's pants, " Bowdish notes, "but the pockets don't work. They are those fashion pockets that you can't put anything in. And the thighs are cut so narrow. I'm not jumping over a fence in those pants. "
With a small, narrow figure, Bowdish finds that men's pants continue to work for her, but she did find a contoured women's duty belt that fits better at the waist. Rookie Kiley looked at it with envy, unaware that the option existed. "I just took whatever was in the closet, " she says.
State police also recently went to new pants, specifically designed for women for their Class-D uniforms. "But it turns out they are low-rise, " Sgt. Scribner says. However fashionable, they don't work well with guns. And women's often smaller waists mean utility belts cannot easily accommodate all the gear.
"Who comes up with these things? " Scribner asks, in a voice clearly conveying that uniform design companies aren't consulting women police.
Go For It
The Vermont State Police are about to launch a major recruiting campaign to replace the 105 officers retiring over the next five years, and many municipal departments also have unfilled openings, despite funding cuts. For the first time, the state police recruitment poster will include a female trooper. Sgt. Scribner is heading up the recruiting drive.
"Go for it, " she says, and "have a job where you can wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh good; I get to go to work today, I can't wait to go to work today. '"
The pay is also a draw. According to Salary.com, the median salary for a Vermont cop is about $49,000; a VSP trooper's starts at about $42,000, rises to $52,000 after three years and caps at $74,000 a year. Senior troopers may also qualify for time-and-a-half overtime.
"It's got challenges, " Bowdish says, "but there are a lot more women out there who can do it, who don't realize they can do it. And older women, as well: Life experiences are great for policing. There's an increase in the population of female offenders, and it's preferential to have female officers to search them and work with them. Don't be afraid, just do it. Don't be intimidated. "
"Keep your nose clean and start working out, " Kiley advises. "If it's your passion to work in policing, keep going for it. If you get turned down at first, keep trying. Sometimes more education, some maturity, may be what's needed before you get in. "
"I'm incredibly proud to be part of this organization, " VSP Lt. Barbic says. "The department has given me so many opportunities. It's allowed me to grow as a professional and as a person. I've seen people at their worst and at their best. "
Law enforcement has evolved, Barbic says. "There are so many specialties you can go into, so many opportunities, teams you can be part of. We rely on science so heavily now. It's an IT and computer and digital world. …There are so many possible roads. You need to look at what's deeper in police work. There's a wealth of opportunities. "
|Contributing editor Cindy Hill lives in Middlebury. An attorney, she writes regularly about Vermont's justice system.|