The Leesburg Police Department’s female ranks have been hitting some major milestones lately.
The department boasts many female “firsts”—the first woman on its version of the SWAT team, the first female crisis negotiator, its first Latina officer, the first female K9 officer and first female K9, as well as two women who rank among the highest officers in the department.
Deputy Chief Vanessa Grigsby, who served as acting chief for much of last year as the town searched for a replacement for retired former police chief Joseph Price, is the second highest-ranking member of the department after Police Chief Gregory Brown. And Lt. Jaime Sanford, who for 14 years had served with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, is the highest-ranking female officer, and second in command, in the Criminal Investigations Division, which recently closed the 2009 cold case of the Jammie Lane homicide.
While the tasks the officers perform at the department vary widely, one thing binds them, aside from gender: humility. When gathered at the station earlier this week, the officers were more likely to laud each other’s accomplishments or place in the Leesburg Police Department history books, than their own.
For Grigsby, who in her 20-year LPD career has at times been the only female officer, the predominance of more female officers in the department is a positive sea change.
“It’s great to see so many women coming together. It was lonely here for a while,” she said.
“It’s actually getting crowded in the locker room,” Officer Kristine Rzewnicki said, to laughs.
Above and Beyond
Rzewnicki has served with the LPD for almost five years. A native of the area, she, like many of her counterparts, cites the opportunity to give back as a major reason for pursuing a career in public safety. She is the sole female crisis negotiator on the department’s Emergency Response Team and the Crisis Intervention Team. She also recently won support from department supervisors for the creation of a Peer Support Team.
“Everybody looks to find their niche; as you go through the academy you’re not sure where you’re going to end up. With crisis intervention training and in ERT as a negotiator, that’s where I’ve thrived,” Rzewnicki said.
The situations Rzewnicki finds herself in can vary—from a parent dealing with a missing child to negotiating with a hostage taker, and everything in between. It’s an area that takes a cool demeanor and strong resolve.
“It might be my every day, but it’s not their every day,” Rzewnicki said.
She is also an instructor at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Ashburn for crisis intervention training. It’s an important area of focus for the department, as the goal is to have 100 percent of its sworn officers finish CIT.
“We’re probably in the 60 percent range of having the department trained. The initiative in Northern Virginia was 40 percent [of trained department officers] and we’re well over that,” Grigsby said.
It’s not altogether surprising that the department is ahead of that benchmark, given its penchant for exceeding the minimum. Nationally, female officers represent one in eight police officers, according to 2013 statistics from the Bureau of Justice. In Leesburg, the department includes 10 female officers out of its current roster of 78, including one in training at the academy, as well as 12 female civilian staff members.
While it is in line with the national standard, it’s a ratio that has made big improvements over the last couple of years. But Brown hopes to do more.
“Law enforcement has evolved more in the last five years than the last 40, and that includes embracing diversity in departments that better reflect the community. When we talk about evolving [as a department] it’s not just technology. It’s how our agencies look internally, and the opportunities that are now given to individuals,” he said.
Brown has noticed that recruitment events are drawing out more and more women looking for careers in public safety, and they are certainly making their impact. Several members of the department’s female staff—including Rzewnicki, Master Police Officer Jessie Shields, and Officer Marina Santos—are on the department’s Supplemental Recruitment Team, which aims to cast a larger net to recruit others to the department.
“They are bringing the competition,” Brown said. “They’re coming out, they are contenders in the hiring and selection process. And when they go through academy they are showing tremendous leadership skills as well. They bring a challenge to law enforcement which again forces us to look at a more compassionate and humanistic side to how we police. They bring that balance.”
‘One of the Guys’
The women in leadership agree. They say they are treated equally to their male equivalents, and that the department leadership and staff treats everyone as officers, not men versus women.
“You read stories of women being treated differently … but [the male officers] treat us like one of the guys,” Shields said.
Shields is the department’s first female K9 officer and her partner, K9 Sally, a springer spaniel, also happens to be its first female dog on staff. She came to the department following a career as an animal control officer, and always aspired to be a K9 officer.
“Long gone are the days of ‘I can do it better than you can,'” Sanford happily reports.
Women do bring a compassionate approach to the job, as well as the mentality of “think smarter, not harder,” Officer Melissa Taylor said. Sometimes it’s as simple as checking to see if the door is unlocked before breaking it down in a tense situation, she laughs.
Taylor is the lone, and first, female member of the ERT. She has served with the department for two-and-a-half years. It’s the stressful situations she’s put in, by nature of her job, that she thrives on.
“I like thinking in high-level situations, preparing yourself, staying physically fit,” she said.
Pursuing a career in law enforcement was not a surprise for Taylor, as she has family that also pursued that path.
“I expect to be treated the same way as anybody else. I don’t look at myself any differently than the guys,” she said.
It was not the same for others, like Sanford, who grew up in a small upstate New York town where women in uniform were far from standard. She recalls when her father told the local plumber of her declared major—criminal justice. The plumber told her the department was always on the lookout for a good female secretary.
Undeterred, Sanford said she knew fairly early on in her law enforcement career that a supervisory role was the one for her. She set her sights on being a sergeant so she could supervise nine officers, then as a lieutenant so she could supervise 27. Now, she believes the sky’s the limit.
“I consider myself a force to be reckoned with. When I want change to happen I’m very passionate about what I do. It’s easier to get on board or get out of my way,” she said. “I like to push ourselves as an agency, to move in the positive direction to push ourselves to do bigger and badder things, and interact with the community.”
Santos’ hire two-and-a-half years ago was a particularly proud moment for the department, as she became its first Latina officer. Her fluency in Spanish and ability to identify with the town’s burgeoning Hispanic population has already been an asset.
“It’s a big deal to me and my family as well as the community,” she said. “I get the feedback from them how comfortable they feel.”
So comfortable, in fact, that dispatch staff members inform her that she has community members often calling in to ask for her by name. And often they are people she has never encountered, but were referred to her by another local resident.
Santos recently joined the School Resource Officer program and has quickly begun to ingratiate herself with the Smart’s Mill Middle School student community. An immigrant from El Salvador who came to the U.S. At the age of 10, she hopes to be the role model that others once were for her.
“Don’t let your current life situation define what you are,” she said. “It just takes one role model to push you in the right direction and give you positive feedback.”
Outside the Police Station
Integrating with the community has been a major tenet espoused from the very top of the organization, and something near and dear to the hearts of both Brown and Grigsby. The department’s women in blue appear to be just as passionate.
“As an agency, we’re always looking at ways to interact,” Shields said.
And that means their jobs often take them outside of the police station’s four walls. Sanford teaches a class on administration and leadership at C.S. Monroe Technology Center, and also coaches her son’s soccer team along with her assistant coach Rzewnicki. Taylor helps organize a department team for the Dulles Plane Pull, which was started by her mother. The department is also active in the Leesburg Explorer program, for kids interested in careers in the military or law enforcement, and the Adopt a Cop program, which visits town elementary schools. As if that weren’t enough, two of the officers profiled, Sanford and Santos, are also pursuing degrees in their spare time.
The group recognizes the important opportunity they have as female role models in a world with some heightened sensitivities to law enforcement.
“We all are a ladder for other females,” Santos said. “Another generation is going to come after us. We’re setting up the standards.”
Sanford credits her female counterparts with always looking to improve themselves and, by extension, the department as a whole.
“We have the perfect storm of a situation—not just the opportunity but the desire to make the change happen,” she said. “We’re really making something happen here.”