Seven female recruits are scheduled to graduate from the College of Central Florida’s criminal justice institute this summer. They’ll be in the minority—nationally about 15 percent of sworn officers are female—but the women who came before them have set them up for success: women like Kat Kelley, the college’s criminal justice coordinator.
“We’ve come light years,” says Kelley, who graduated from the state police academy 39 years ago this month. She vividly remembers her first pair of uniform boots, which symbolized the challenges female officers faced in the 1980s. Because they didn’t come in women’s sizes, she had to stuff the toes with paper towels. And she’ll never forget the permanent bruising that came from a service belt that wasn’t made to fit women’s figures. However, none of the challenges deterred her, and she would go on to have a long, successful career with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
When another young female officer, Peggy Park, was murdered in Pinellas County in 1984, Kelley was compelled to shift her focus, devoting the next two decades of her life to advocating for appropriate equipment for female officers and traveling around the country on her time off to train both male and female officers to do their jobs as safely and effectively as possible.
“I told Peggy’s mother her death would not be in vain.”
While earning her master’s degree in education, Kelley learned a lot about the physiological and psychological differences between men and women, which helped her develop defensive tactics training curricula as well as the first female officers’ survival course.
“All officers should play to their strengths whether they’re male or female,” Kelley says, adding that mentoring is crucial.
“Mentoring is so important, not just for women officers. Male officers could have a female supervisor. No matter what your social feelings are about a woman’s place, it’s important to mentor good, strong, ethical females, for everyone. Here at the academy, we support all our officers. But is there a soft spot in my heart for the females? Yes. You make friends for life.”
Kelley points out that both the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and Ocala Police Department have female officers who’ve worked their way up to the rank of major and who she says are excellent role models for young women: Tara Woods, major of special operations for OPD, who’s been on the force for 29 years and in 2011 was the first black female to advance to the rank of lieutenant at the agency; and Major Alicia Walker of MCSO, who’s been in the field for 28 years and is now the bureau chief of the law enforcement bureau.
“Women bring a different dynamic set of skills to the law enforcement profession, and it is truly a benefit to their agencies,” Major Walker says. She has sound advice for young women: “If you are looking into becoming a law enforcement officer, I implore you to never lose sight of why you chose this honorable profession and never second-guess your intuition. Always remember to treat everyone with respect because they will always remember how you treated them, and that is the positive impression you want to leave.”
It’s been 23 years since Sandra Duryea, lieutenant of evidence services at OPD, graduated from the academy at CF. She remembers there were two other females in her class, but she doesn’t remember being intimidated that she was choosing a male-dominated field.
“I don’t know if it was my age, being naïve, I didn’t realize that I may have a hurdle to overcome by going into a male-dominated role,” she says. She does remember someone telling her she was hired just because she was a woman and that “they were just waiting for her to fail.” Her response? “I’m not going to fail.”
Duryea says she was lucky to have a mentor in Major Robin Ford, who has been her supervisor at various times over the years.
“She’s helped me a lot. She would tell me if she was disappointed in me, in a very constructive way. I totally trust her, and I would go to her because I knew she was going to be straight up with me.”
As a single mom, Duryea says the support of her family was paramount.
My parents were totally supportive,” she remembers. “Without their support I couldn’t have done the shift work and gotten my son to daycare and school and extracurricular activities.” Duryea’s son, Michael Fernland, now 27, graduated from college and works at an Ocala insurance office. He knew even at a young age that law enforcement was a tough career path for his mom, but he also knew she loved it.
“Even though she had to sacrifice her time with me, she never sacrificed opportunities for me,” he says. “I remember my mother waking up and shining her boots and medals, pressing her clothes and working long hours. My mother doesn’t believe in quitting, and she instilled that in me growing up. Because of her boldness, I know I can do anything I set my mind to, and I appreciate her so much for being who she is.”