U.S. has 212 female police chiefs, still a vast minority

By Margie Ritchie
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Less than five months after taking over as Country Club Hills' first female police chief, Regina Evans was thrust into the spotlight this week when her small south suburban police force played a pivotal role in the investigation of Christopher Kelly's apparent overdose death.

But with 22 years experience in the Chicago Police Department working on the Far South Side, it's no surprise Evans has been handling the bizarre, high-profile Kelly case like a seasoned veteran.

Under Evans, a 46-year-old Chicago native, the Country Club Hills Police Department is turning up the heat on gangs, drug dealers, slum landlords and prostitutes.

She also re-established the suburb's neighborhood watch program, modeling it after the Chicago Alternatives for Policing Strategy (CAPS) program, and she and her staff frequently meet with residents and aldermen.

What she didn't see coming was the Kelly case, in which the former confidant and chief fundraiser for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich died Saturday morning of an apparent drug overdose hours after he was found disoriented in a Country Club Hills lumber storage yard.

"You can't have one agenda. You have to change with the crime and always be ready to change your focus," said Evans, who started as chief on May 1, becoming one of only eight female police chiefs in Illinois, according to the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

Other female police chiefs in the Chicago area include Pam Church in Western Springs, Lisa Womack in Elgin and Debra Boyd at Governors State University in University Park. Lori Lelis is currently an interim police superintendent in Cicero.

"In the 1980s, police departments were seeking diversity and it became easier to rise through the ranks. Police departments became more accepting of women in leadership roles," said Church, who became chief in Western Springs in 2005 after serving 22 years in the Downers Grove Police Department.

Major cities such as San Francisco, Detroit, Boston and Washington have had, or currently have, female police chiefs, said Womack, who serves on the executive committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In 2008, there were roughly 212 female police chiefs in the United States, less than 2 percent of the total number of chiefs, said Margie Moore, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Women and Policing, which conducted the survey.

In Country Club Hills, Evans has a confidant in Mayor Dwight Welch, who has retained his powers as a police officer from his days when he was full time with the department.

Often seen with Evans during the Kelly investigation, the mayor stood back on Tuesday as his new police chief led a widely covered press conference to update the media on the case.

Welch, who calls Evans a real "go-getter," said female officers have come a long way since he was a young cop 30 years ago. "In the '70s, women police officers were absolutely treated differently. Many of them were juvenile officers. ... Today, that has changed ... that is a good thing."

Traditionally, female police officers would advance by rising through the ranks of their own department, said Womack, a 44-year-old Texas native.

But she said it's not so rare now for a woman to be hired as a police chief despite coming from outside the department, such as she was when she was hired in Elgin in 2005 after being police chief in Sugar Land, Texas.

In Chicago, Assistant Supt. Beatrice Cuello and Tina Skahill, chief of the CAPS Project Office, are, respectively, the first- and second-highest ranking women in the city's Police Department.

A Chicago police officer for 26 years, Skahill took over as chief of the CAPS project office in March after serving as chief of the Internal Affairs Division, deputy chief of Area 2, commander of several districts and commander of the Office of Legal Affairs. She is also an attorney who attended law school while working as a police officer.

"The department recognizes the need for a well-educated and professional police force," Skahill said.

She is currently enrolled in the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., a government center school for homeland security.

With only a handful of female police chiefs in Illinois, many of them know each other.

Church, 55, who grew up in Decatur, said she knows at least five of them and often sees Evans and Boyd at informal networking meetings.

A mother of two, Evans said she hopes her hiring in Country Club Hills will encourage other women in law enforcement to reach higher.

"With [more] women police chiefs, women see that they can achieve the top position in the organization."

Copyright 2009 Chicago Tribune

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