Women in rural law enforcement
From chief to CHP officer to game warden, female cops patrol some of the most rural spots in the nation
There are nearly a million sworn officers in the United States; less than 12% of them are women.
In small towns, in remote counties, in the woods and mountains, that fraction varies from less than 5% at South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to 19% in the ranger division of the National Park Service.
Chief Julie Mathews in Thermopolis, Wyoming – population 2930 – presides over a tiny agency in a tiny town where more than 40% of the officers carry two X chromosomes. Thermopolis Police Department is composed of herself, one sergeant and five patrol officers, two of whom are women.
Chief Mathews, 54, grew up in nearby Riverton where her law enforcement career began in dispatch. She fell in love with the field, attended the academy and began working patrol. Riverton’s proximity to the Wind River Indian Reservation meant an unfortunate, steady trickle of violent crime. It’s hard on the community, but it was a rich training ground.
“While I worked in Riverton there were 18 homicides, and a lot of sexual assaults. I was loaned out to a task force with Wyoming DCI, which investigates everything from dope to officer-involved shootings, and runs the state’s crime lab. I learned a lot about assertiveness, self-advocacy and about calling other agencies, whether federal, state or local to ask for information, or help with resources,” Mathews said. “There were four chiefs during the 14 years I worked in Riverton. I learned about leadership, good and bad.”
Mathews had left law enforcement to work in business when she was approached about the open chief’s position in Thermopolis. Compared with the larger, grittier Riverton, Thermopolis is slower-paced and more tourist-oriented.
There's Hot Springs State Park right in town. There’s the Wyoming Dinosaur Center for kids, big game that draws swarms of hunters, and the Bighorn River awash in fly fishermen and rafters all summer long.
“All my officers carry ring buoys in their patrol vehicles because of that river. It’s too late by the time we call out SAR,” Chief Mathews said. After a moment she added, “And all of them carry halters too.”
After all, it is Wyoming.
Being chief is a challenge, Mathews admitted. She adjusted to the town’s slower pace, and built relationships with local businesses and other agencies. Within the department, her aim is officers who are proactive, professional and approachable.
Raising training standards while staying in budget requires her to use every contact she’s developed over the years to find trainers in nearby agencies, conduct classes in-house and keep down overtime costs by cross-training. Since the police department also hosts communications for the county, fire and EMS, even her secretary is certified to dispatch in a pinch.
As in most small departments, Mathews is her own recruiter, and she’s creative and aggressive about it. One of her new hires is a bilingual female officer; another female patrol officer is assigned to a mounted unit. Patrol on horseback, she notes, is great PR in a western tourist town, but also very practical in a foot pursuit. Horses are fast, tall enough to see over crowds, and can fit down narrow alleys and footpaths.
Like any effective small-town chief, Mathews works the streets as well as performing administrative tasks; from covering a shift so an officer can attend training to felony car stops at the end of an inter-agency pursuit, she’s there.
When I asked what she’s learned specifically about being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated career she replied, “We don’t train male officers or female officers, we just train officers. I knew I’d arrived years ago, at the end of a big car pursuit and arrest. Amid all the high fives and backslapping, the other officers forgot I was ‘a girl.’ I was just as blue as they.”
And what would she tell other women considering law enforcement?
“Either go all in or don’t go at all. If you want it bad enough, go get it. This is who I am. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“To be able to bring some calm when everything is a mess? I love that.”
California Highway Patrol covers more than 100,000 miles of road and responds to 6 million 911 calls in a single year.
Like all California law enforcement, CHP's 7,616 sworn officers have authority throughout the state, both on road and off. Only 442 of them are female. Only a handful of those work in rural settings.
In California’s Emerald Triangle CHP Officer Sara Compton, 34, patrols the narrow, winding state highways and side roads. Raised in the mountains, Officer Compton got her first taste of law enforcement working for a sheriff’s office so small that she doubled as a corrections officer and dispatcher. When she wanted to advance, her local options were few.
However, CHP was actively recruiting female officers, and she became the first female cadet to enter the CHP Academy from her county in 2013. Her first assignment was in Redwood City, on the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. Learning to drive in a city was part of a larger culture shock, she admits.
“I grew up in the country with two brothers,” Compton said. “I grew up without a TV, reading, riding horses and driving ATVs. The city was a necessary learning experience, but I am so glad to be back in my hometown.”
While CHP policy requires officers to patrol with a partner after midnight, on other shifts Officer Compton is on her own. Backup can be an hour or more away, especially in remote “resident officer” assignments. Therefore, Compton places a high value on maintaining good working relationships with officers from other agencies; cooperation and reciprocity are vital when sheriff’s deputies, game wardens and tribal police officers are closer to her location than another highway patrol officer.
“I have to be able to do anything, assist with any kind of call. Yes, I had to prove myself, to show other officers I’ll bail into that fight, or that working with a girl doesn’t mean instant drama. I think that’s normal in any male-dominated profession,” Compton said.
“I’ve learned to assess a situation right away, to use ‘verbal judo.’ And I’ve learned there are times when it’s actually advantageous to be female. In interviews, sometimes I can learn things that especially women and children don’t want to say to a man. I just don’t worry about it. I haven’t had a problem with anyone who wasn’t going to be a problem anyway.”
When asked what was hard about her working environment and what she liked best, the answers came easy.
“I’m working in my hometown. The job is going to overflow in my personal life. Everyone knows me, and everyone knows my family. There’s not really much outside socialization for me because of that. But what I like best about it? Maybe it sounds strange, but I really like working accidents. I’m usually the first one on scene, and there’s always a way to help. To be able to bring some calm when everything is a mess? I love that.”
“What difference does it make being female? No difference.”
It’s 2020. Women patrol the streets and highways – and also the woods, the swamps, the beaches and deserts. They’re game wardens, conservation officers, and fish and wildlife officers: different titles, different uniforms, sharing a mission to take care of wildlife, the land and the people who use it.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service calls its mission the “Big 6” – hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, photography, interpretation and ecological education.
Officer Nicole Prescott, 33, is one of 17 females out of 222 total commissioned USFWS officers. Now working in Florida at the 10-year mark of her career, she’s a federal game warden, an Advanced EMT and a SCUBA instructor – and she loves her job. “I’m in for the long haul, till retirement. Then I want to be a SCUBA instructor – somewhere warmer than Maine.”
Maine is where Prescott grew up, and her first SCUBA instructor’s day job was with the Maine Warden Service. From there she learned that she could make a living in the outdoors, and she never looked back. After graduating from Unity College with a bachelor’s degree in conservation law enforcement, Prescott pursued a career as a federal game warden, training first in North Dakota, and then gaining experience in the rangeland of Montana.
“I much prefer a rural setting to urban,” Prescott said. “In Montana, I got used to being self-reliant. There were no radio comms, no cell service in most places. If there was any backup, it could be hours away. Now that I’m working in Florida, I realize that I was incredibly lucky. Here, I have tools and toys that tell us background about subjects before I contact them, access to dispatch through Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, backup a maximum of a half-hour away – and usually more like 5 to 20 minutes.”
Prescott sometimes rides along with a local ambulance company on her time off to keep her EMT skills sharp.
“It’s a different way to make a difference, to give back. The license is valuable in the case of an OIS or a school shooting, as well as in the field,” she said. “Volunteering as a medic and teaching SCUBA provides a tangible sense of accomplishment sometimes missing from law enforcement, where the work never seems finished. This is a fantastic job in a lot of ways, though, especially on the conservation side and on successful SAR operations.”
And what about being the rare female in her field?
“Well, that’s a double-edged sword,” Prescott said. “In some ways, I have to know even more than my male counterparts. There are certain contacts who want to challenge me more on hunting and fishing knowledge, things like that. They don’t really expect a female to have that depth of knowledge. But working now in the South, there’s a tendency toward basic respect for a female. I can use my gender to advantage that way. Good Southern men are brought up that ‘you don’t wanna lie to your mama’ and I don’t mind using that sentiment in an interview. Here or in Montana, it really isn’t unusual for a contact to be less confrontational with a female officer, not more.”
Further north in South Carolina there is only one police academy that all law enforcement trainees attend. Game wardens then go on to another five weeks of Wildlife School; coastal officers add still more training as the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SC DNR) has a joint agreement with the Coast Guard and wardens may find themselves patrolling as far as 250 miles offshore.
Lt. Amy Staton, 41, and LCpl. Kendall Lownsbury, 39, are two of the 12 female game wardens working for the SC DNR. Both are accomplished and experienced officers, leaders in their field.
Lt. Staton has a master’s degree in criminal justice and public administration; she was the first female in the agency to be promoted to first sergeant over a male candidate and the first female field lieutenant. She is a certified diver, part of a team that added female officers for the first time in the early 2000s.
LCpl. Lownsbury, also on the dive team as a team leader, is a water survival instructor who often returns to the state’s wildlife school as a role player.
Both women are mothers, one with two girls and the other with two boys. Working in an emergency response agency and living in small towns, a nearby family support system is indispensable in the case of shift changes, disaster call-outs, SAR operations and hunting or recreation seasons that seem unending. Nevertheless, both Staton and Lownsbury remain enthusiastic about their careers.
“I have the BEST job,” Lownsbury said. “It’s everything – flexibility, independence, an agency that’s mostly very family-oriented. What difference does it make being female? No difference. I’ve worked with many different supervisors in different locations, with no problem. ”
Staton agreed, adding, “I have had every opportunity I could want. I’ve had promotional opportunities, attended the FBI LEEDA Trilogy course. Being a female in this job now is an opportunity to demonstrate that this is a job for all, that it’s never been a hindrance.”
Both officers spoke of the need to be willing to work outdoors and work alone.
Like all game wardens, they are nearly always outmanned and outgunned; learning to deal with that requires projecting command presence and maintaining a businesslike demeanor. Communicating clearly matters. So does just plain being nice.
“In the field I will still run into people who have never seen a female game warden,” Staton said. “We can’t bank on being big or strong, so women have to work smart. You approach a group alone, no cell service, no radio coverage, you’d better be tough, and you’d better be a good communicator. Officers who don’t know how to talk to people get themselves in trouble. That extra step of explaining can make all the difference.”
Lownsbury added, “If something happens to me, it’s likely the public that will be the ones to help me. It’s disconcerting to ask for backup and then watch those blue lights roll on by because the dirt road you’re on doesn’t even have a name. So, it can make a difference to just be nice; most people I approach are really very respectful. They’ll sling their weapon, or set it on the ground when I approach. I appreciate it, and it keeps everyone safe. Mostly, our contacts are good people, who maybe made bad decisions.”
Staton finished, “This is the best job in the world. I believe I’ve saved some lives over the years. To get to ride around in a boat, a truck, a four-wheeler for 25 years, to get paid to work outdoors? How do you follow that?”
What’s the final word on being a female, and a rural officer?
First, understand what you’re getting into: you will work alone.
There will be challenges by other officers and the public; expect to work harder, know more and react less. The stereotype of “girl drama” lingers, and fair or not, it will be on you to defuse it.
Second, the burden of arranging childcare still falls disproportionately on women, even when they wear a badge.
One deputy I interviewed was in the process of changing agencies to find more regular hours, in anticipation of starting a family.
Others told me of coworkers who left the field entirely because finding flexible, affordable childcare in rural areas was impossible in the absence of family nearby.
Third, let’s just say it: it’s hard for a female to pee in the woods. Every single officer interviewed for this article, including some who aren’t quoted, was terrified of her backside ending up on a random game camera and expressed a deep distrust of those “feminine funnel” gadgets.
Fourth, in the words of Lt. Amy Staton, “If it’s what you really want, don’t give up. Law enforcement, in general, is hard for females, but it’s what you make it. We can’t get bigger or stronger, but we can get smarter. Get an education. And if someone tries to make you doubt, stay your course. They will leave, and you’ll still be here.”
Finally, a deputy in Wyoming sends this advice for aspiring female officers: “We need you. But come prepared – physically, mentally, emotionally – because you’ll be tested and pushed beyond your boundaries. Know your job, keep yourself healthy, don’t take anyone’s BS and strive every day to be the best you can be.”
I can’t state it any better than that.
NEXT: How LAPD's first female SWAT officer broke the glass ceiling