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U.S. Women Break New Ground As Sheriffs

U.S. Women Break New Ground as Sheriffs

Susan Rahr started her career in the sheriff's department because it was the first place that offered her a job when she finished her undergraduate degree in criminal justice.

"I really started out in this career thinking it was going to be temporary and a means to make money for law school," she told USINFO in a recent interview. "However, once I got into it, I really enjoyed it."

She stayed with the sheriff's department, and 28 years later, in a more calculated move, she decided to run for election for the top job of sheriff. "It was a big decision," she said, "because I knew nothing about politics, had no interest in politics, so it was a very steep learning curve that first year to figure out how you run a campaign, how do you raise money."

But Rahr won the election and now oversees some 700 commissioned deputies, 400 civilian support staff and four division chiefs who help ensure the safety of some 1.6 million people living in King County in Washington state.

According to Fred Wilson, director of operations for the National Sheriffs' Association, of the 3,084 sheriffs now serving in the United States, only 40 are women. Their numbers are low, in part, because it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that women started to enter law enforcement professions in any numbers. Today's women sheriffs, Wilson said, "have had a full career in law enforcement, coming up through the ranks, and then became well-recognized enough to be able to run for sheriff and hold the office for a while."

Rahr took the challenge only after her children were grown. "I think the time commitment involved in political campaigning will be difficult for women who have other obligations outside their jobs," she said. And jobs for commissioned law enforcement officers don't offer a lot of flexibility. "You're either full-time or not," Rahr said.

In the United States, the sheriff is usually the highest elected (a few are appointed) law enforcement officer in a county. The sheriff's department's duties vary by location. Most run the county jail and ensure security in the courts. Some are responsible for search-and-rescue operations and serve as coroners and tax collectors. "Every sheriff's office in the country serves civil process," Wilson explained, "which means they have the capacity to service [give legal notice of] lawsuits, warrants and general civil process commitment papers."

For many Americans, the image of sheriff remains that of the gunslinger of the old "Wild West." But Susan Benton, who serves as sheriff of Highlands County in Florida, will tell you: "Long gone are the gun-slinging sheriffs."

"Today's sheriff has to protect the peace by using brainpower, not brawn," Benton told USINFO. "Sheriffs today have to uphold the public confidence by providing timely and original solutions to problems in the community."

In 2004, Benton became the first female elected sheriff in Florida. Benton overseas a $27 million budget, a 500-bed jail and a staff of 230 in a county of some 98,000 people. "Only about 30 percent of the sheriff's office work is about putting bad guys in jail," she said. "Really, our job is maintaining a [safe] quality of life."

Being a sheriff, Benton said, is like being the chief executive officer of a company in that a sheriff has to manage the resources to allow law enforcement to do its job.

Beth Arthur had no experience whatsoever in the "street work" of law enforcement when she joined the Arlington County Sheriff's Department in Virginia in 1986 as a budget technician. Despite staying with "desk jobs," she became the county's first-ever female sheriff when she was elected in 2000, and she recently won a third term with more than 82 percent of the vote.

"The sheriff's job is really more about administrative work," according to Arthur, who manages a $32 million annual budget, a work force of 274 and a detention facility that houses a daily average of 600 inmates.

Although the number of women in law enforcement is growing, they still encounter some resistance from their male counterparts.

Benton advises women to "confront" and "manage" discrimination. "Stay true to yourself -- to your integrity, to your values and to your vision of what you are going after, and don't let the negativity suck you in," she says.

According to Rahr, "the absolute key" to working in a male-dominated career field is not to expect any special treatment and master all the skills expected, even "some of the more unpleasant parts of the job."


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