Women in Law Enforcement: Trying to Survive Dirty Harry
A 1973 movie titled The Enforcer was one of the first films I remember where women in law enforcement played a significant part in films. It also foreshadowed what those in law enforcement were beginning to address—allowing women a greater role in law enforcement.
The movie starred Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, San Francisco homicide inspector Harry Callahan, and Tyne Daly, as Kate Moore, recently assigned to homicide after toiling ten years in the Human Resources Department. Dirty Harry and Moore first locked horns after the crusty Callahan is forced to participate in a personnel interview panel. He learns that three of the eight available inspector positions will be given to women regardless of qualifications. True to his name, Dirty Harry plunges into the interview in manner that inflames almost everyone. Unruffled, Kate Moore matches Callahan’s brashness. Later, they’re matched together as an investigative team when a group of terrorists begin a bloody extortion spree after emptying out an arms warehouse.
This role played by Moore—although highly overblown by Hollywood—seemed to capture the heart of the challenge women faced in law enforcement. There exists a closed culture in law enforcement, created by the nature of the job and the need to survive. This culture evolved over decades of tradition, political strife, and the basic need to stay alive for one more day. To thrive in this brotherhood, an officer must earn the respect of other officers. Women tended to be outsiders to this culture. They needed to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles in order to be accepted, struggles male officers never faced.
Some women survived. Many did not.
One of those women who excelled in this culture is our guest, Betsy Brantner Smith. She comes with exemplary law enforcement qualifications. She spent nearly three decades as a police officer, joining a large Chicago suburban police department as a twenty-one-year-old recruit straight out of college. Before retiring in May of last year, her law enforcement career included stints in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training.
A career change—rather than retirement—seems to more accurately describe Betsy’s life since leaving law enforcement. She and her husband manage Dave Smith & Associates consulting firm, a law enforcement training and consulting company based in Illinois. My last email caught up to Betsy in Phoenix, Arizona, on her way to yet another business engagement.
MARK: Congratulations on your recent retirement, Betsy. And thanks for taking time out of a busy schedule to share a little insight into this topic—Women in Police Work. Give us a thumbnail sketch of your police career and what you enjoyed most.
BETSY: Mark, it’s great to be with you! My police career actually began in 1976 as a dispatcher for the local sheriff’s department while I was a senior in high school. The “Dirty Harry” of that department immediately showed me the “book of death:” a photo album of every nasty death scene investigated by the county in the past 15 years. I believe the intent of showing me that book was to make me realize that police work was not the career for a nice young farm girl from rural Illinois, but all it did was fascinate me. I pestered the detective with questions until he eventually became one of my early mentors.
From then on it was college, more dispatch jobs, and finally a cop job with the Naperville, IL police department where I was fortunate to be able to do a little bit of everything, from detectives to crime prevention to training to supervision. The best part of all of my years in law enforcement? I never had one single day that was the same as any other; I don’t know many of my college classmates or neighborhood friends who can say that!
MARK: In looking back over your career, tell us what drew you to law enforcement and what challenges you faced as a new recruit.
BETSY: I’d like to give you a wonderfully altruistic answer here, but the truth is I became a cop because growing up on a farm in rural Illinois in the 60’s and 70’s my brother and I were pretty fascinated about anything on TV dealing with war and police work. We’d play “Combat” for hours out in the yard, and as I got older, I’d dream about working with Reed and Malloy from “Adam 12.”
When I started the academy in early 1981, it sure wasn’t like TV. I learned very quickly why there weren’t many women on the prime time police shows who were regular street cops. We weren’t particularly welcome, and there wasn’t much we could do about that except keep our mouths shut and tough it out.
MARK: How did you overcome these obstacles? How did you learn to survive?
BETSY: I didn’t know anything about sexual harassment or sex discrimination when I was initially hired. My very first patrol sergeant told me, before I was shipped off to the academy, “You know, I don’t believe in broads in police work.” Was I insulted? A little. Did it bother me? Not much. I just thought, “I’ll show you!” Having to prove myself over and over eventually made me a better cop, and I think, a better trainer. And that sergeant? He eventually became a good friend and mentor.
MARK: Many of our readers are mystery readers and writers. Good crime novels are about story and character, including those women who live inside this law enforcement culture. Can you help put a face to some of these obstacles women might face? For example, let’s use the Kate Moore vs. Harry Callahan example above from the movie, The Enforcer. How is Katie Moore ever going to be able work with a crusty old inspector like Harry Callahan?
BETSY: I’ve worked with more that a few Harry Callahan’s in my life! Kate didn’t react to Callahan in the way that he expected. He expected indignation, emotion, drama. Kate knew enough not to feed into Harry’s attempts to run her off. In fact, she learned an important skill that we teach women in our classes; she learned to “banter.” That’s how men communicate and bond, they banter with each other; they tease, they taunt, sometimes they get downright mean, but they always seem to have each other’s backs when the s—t hits the fan. Katie got right back in Callahan’s face and she was a damn good cop; once they figured each other out, they made a great team.
MARK: Your web site shares information about the Dave Smith & Associates consulting firm which you and your husband run. Tell us a little about this business and what you provide.
Dave is well known in the law enforcement community as “J.D. Buck Savage,” a character he created in the 80’s to teach police officers essential survival lessons using humor. Because of Buck and Dave’s notoriety in law enforcement training and the work we’ve done together on the Law Enforcement Television Network and with Calibre Press and the “Street Survival” seminar, we started Dave Smith & Associates to better pool our talents and resources. We’re both authors, consultants, expert witnesses, trainers, and speakers. We’ve been involved in reality television; we’ve consulted on law enforcement fiction (read Shane Gericke’s new book Torn Apart
, the third in a series of police thrillers featuring some amazing women cops! http://www.shanegericke.com/
), we make regular media appearances, and we get to travel the world hanging out with cops and other great folks!
MARK: One of your Winning Mind Seminars is titled “Career and Tactical Survival for Women.” Is this program created for women in law enforcement? What information and training do you try to convey?
BETSY: I started in 1989 teaching a class called “Career Survival for Women.” At that time, it was all about surviving harassment, hazing, and learning to get along in a male dominated profession. Fortunately, that class has evolved into an intense, one day program, “Career and Tactical Survival for Women” where we talk about everything from tactics and equipment to pregnancy and communication. Our motto is “Don’t Whine, WIN!” We use the science of brain function, physiology, and physical performance combined with defining and emphasizing personal responsibility, intestinal fortitude, and warrior values. It’s a terrific program, and one that’s very unique to law enforcement training and we update in continuously based on our research and the changing nature of the police profession. In fact, I’m currently writing a book based on the course.
MARK: Can you share some of the questions you might get from your audience during this training? Is there one particular area of interest that seems to crop up more than others? Why does this seem to be a re-occurring theme
BETSY: My number one question is “why aren’t’ you teaching this stuff to men!” This is something I’ve started doing in the last couple of years. I teach a class titled “Managing and Training the Female Crimefighter,” and it’s been so popular that I’ve had agencies change their entire firearms programs based on what their trainers learned from our research.
MARK: Some of this information must come from your own experience in law enforcement? What do you share with these officers that’d help our readers understand what women police officers are up against? Officer safety issues? Internal department survival?
BETSY: Nobody likes to sit in a training class and hear someone else’s “war stories.” Women are especially turned off by trainers who spend most of the class telling you how talented and tactical they are. I mostly share with my students the mistakes I’ve made (there’s plenty to tell!) both in the station and on the street. Like most cops, I’ve made some significant tactical and administrative mistakes. The difference is, I just admit them and use them as training points. I also use a lot of humor, and I’m pretty politically incorrect. People really respond to that.
MARK: Issues of sexual harassment are not uncommon among law enforcement agencies. At one time there seemed to an unusual number of these law suits leveled against police agencies. Have they been able to contain this problem through training, policy and discipline, or does this continue to be a growing issue? How would you advise a police chief or a sheriff to address this issue?
BETSY: I used to teach sexual harassment prevention to police managers until it got to the point that everyone was so “sensitive” that we could barely talk to each other. It’s true that sexual harassment was rampant in police work in the 70’s and 80’s and it still happens today, but there’s a big difference between a co-worker saying “baby, you have a nice ass” and “hey, you look nice today.” We need to learn to choose our battle wisely. If someone says something ignorant to us, instead of running to HR or getting a lawyer, we first need to call them out and tell them what they said or did was inappropriate. Training needs to be realistic, stressing professional conduct, not overly sensitive, robotic behavior. Cops live in a rough world, and we’re going to say and do stupid, coarse things. Policies need to be straightforward and clear, and discipline needs to be fair and consistent. What we’re seeing now is instead of sexual or racial harassment is outright “bullying” of each, and both men and women are guilty. Police administrators need to get a handle on the bullies in their agencies and realize how they affect morale, productivity and ultimately, officer survival.
MARK: Can you share one of the more harrowing experiences you faced as a police officer? What happened? How did you deal with it?
BETSY: I’ve been shot at, hit by a car, shoved, punched, spit on, you name it, but I think my time in narcotics was the most harrowing, although it was also the most fun. There was one high level deal that I was working on with a partner from another agency. We were undercover as a couple, I was in my mid-20’s. The boss of this well-run cocaine operation was a middle aged woman who had significant ties to state government resources and she was able to get information that my partner and I might be cops, not fellow drug dealers. We got wind of this right before we were to meet with her and “her boys” for the final deal, what we call the “buy/bust,” but we decided to go ahead with the deal. When we got into the apartment and the bad guys started to have my partner strip down to show that he wasn’t wired, I broke into tears and threw my arms around “the boss lady.” (none of this was planned in advance, so my partner was pretty surprised) Apparently her mom instinct kicked in, and she pulled me into her kitchen, away from the guys. I told her how my “boyfriend” was cheating on me and that he was going to use all of my money to buy this last big load of cocaine and then leave me. She was incensed! She plotted to get me out of there with the whole load of coke so I could get away from my cheating boyfriend and make a fresh start. She was so nice, right up until the entry team kicked in her door, tossed her on the ground, and handcuffed her.
MARK: Many cop movies and novels are replete with incidences of humor and wry wit. Are there any incidences during your police career that come to mind? Something that still makes you chuckle?
BETSY: As a patrol sergeant I used to end my roll calls with “…and let’s go out there and try to have some fun!” Police work is nothing if not incredibly entertaining, but what most cops find funny, “normal” people would view as kind of sick. I can think of 1000 funny things, but there’s not one of them that I can put in writing!
MARK: Many of our readers are novelists. They are trying to create interesting characters while trying to write with authenticity and realisms. Where would you suggest they go for help in understanding women in police work? Are there sources of information these writers might be able to access?
I’ve worked for years with journalist-turned-novelist Shane Gericke, who happened to live in my city. Shane wanted to write a novel about primarily female cops in or near a city, but he was a guy, and a reporter, so he had a lot to learn. He enrolled in our Citizen Police Academy, something I highly recommend, and then he spent an awful lot of his free time riding along with me and other cops in my department, both male and female, so that he could develop his characters into people you really care about. I also recommend making frequent visits to all of the major police websites, Police One, Police Link, Law Officer and Officer.com, and signing up for the Officer Down Memorial Page email updates (www.odmp.org
). Learn about how we live, how we die, and what we’re thinking about and dealing with day to day.
MARK: What are you going to miss most about police work? What are you going to miss least?
BETSY: I miss the people; the people I got a chance to help, and those dirtbags I got to send to jail. I miss the rush of a high risk call, the belly laughs at roll call, the camaraderie; most of all, I miss my blue brothers and sisters. What I don’t miss are those 12 hour shifts!
MARK: What does the future hold for you, Betsy? Where is Dave Smith & Associates headed?
: Our training and speaking opportunities increase every day, we’re very fortunate to be so busy in this economy; we’re booking well into mid-2011 with talks and training conferences all over the world, and we’re not just talking to cops. We really enjoy taking the lessons learned from law enforcement and applying them to the corporate sector. We’re also diversifying. Dave has a new book out, In My Sights
(which you can buy on Amazon, Police One Books, or on our website, www.jdbucksavage.com
) and I’m working on one for women cops who really want to be successful in all aspects of their lives. We’re just discovering the marketing and networking power of Facebook and Twitter, and we’re working with Police One Video (www.policeonetv.com
) to produce some excellent e-learning for cops as well as stories that are interesting to everyone, and we’ve been appearing frequently on various Blog Talk Radio shows. I’m hoping to eventually mentor other women to be able to come into my business and train using the same methods I do so I can slow down and do a bit more writing, it’s a passion!
MARK: Can writers reach you through your web site if they have further questions?
: My website, www.femaleforces.com
, is the best way to get in touch with us, and you can “friend” us on Facebook as “JD Buck Savage” and follow me on Twitter as SgtBetsySmith.