The future ‘holds everything’ for women in law enforcement, Douglas County’s incoming undersheriff says
photo by: Jenn Hethcoat/Contributed Photo
Douglas County’s incoming undersheriff, Stacy Simmons, was actually close to retirement “before Jay asked me to take on this journey with him,” she said, referring to Sheriff-elect Jay Armbrister.
Now she’s planning to stick around a while because she and Armbrister have the same goals, and they both want to fix problems in the community that they love, she said.
“I want to see it (the community) flourish — and not just some people, but all people,” she said. That includes the small, but growing, numbers of women in law enforcement.
Simmons is the highest-ranking female officer in the history of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. She will be sworn in as undersheriff Jan. 11, 2021.
A change in perspective
Simmons, 47, said that what she enjoys most about the job has changed over almost 22 years with the agency. At various times, she has worked in court security, patrol, corrections, training and special projects as she has risen in the ranks from deputy to corporal to sergeant to lieutenant and, now, to captain.
When she first started, she really liked working traffic and making car stops. Specifically, getting drunken drivers off the roads was rewarding for her, she said.
She didn’t want to “do the PR things” — rather, “I wanted to go out and make car stops and do those things that I thought cops were supposed to do,” she said.
Looking back, she said she didn’t see the big picture of being part of the community, and she regrets that.
“I feel like the things that I didn’t do 15 to 20 years ago (are) part of the problem that we have now with why the community doesn’t see us the way we would see just our neighbor, or anyone else you could talk to,” she said.
Now, she said, she loves doing events such as self-defense classes, holiday shopping events with kids and going to read to kids in school — things that she said will “bring us closer together and build that trust.” She wants to see a community where kids feel the same way that she felt about law enforcement when she was growing up in Manhattan.
“You would see a law enforcement officer and you would ride your bike as fast as you could to get to their car to say hi,” Simmons said, “and they would give us Chiefs cards and Royals cards back then, and you weren’t scared of them, by any means. … I could go up to any law enforcement officer, and they would just talk with me.”
She also said she is passionate about her current role as captain over the training division, and that’s a duty she wants to keep as undersheriff. She’s looking forward to working on projects in collaboration with Armbrister and the rest of the command staff, she said.
‘Every decision … is impactful’
Simmons said she thought the current landscape for law enforcement across the country was volatile. She also said the employees of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office do things differently; they don’t necessarily want to be lumped in with the other 800,000 law enforcement officers nationwide, and “those 20-second clips on the news” are not the reality here.
“We want you to know that those instances that you see on TV of literally police brutality and murder — that is not the culture of the sheriff’s office. That will never be the culture of the sheriff’s office,” she said.
She said officers were trained from day one that communication is the best tool they have.
“We are not just quick to take someone to jail or to use force or any of those things,” she said. “We will continue to talk as long as we possibly can, because we know that’s how to handle situations and problems.”
Her own perspective on the job continues to change as her experience grows, Simmons said.
“The older I get and the more experience I have in different areas of the sheriff’s office, the more I can see that every decision that a law enforcement officer makes is impactful to someone at some level,” Simmons said.
That includes decisions such as whether to take people to jail — realizing that could mean they lose their home, car, kids or job — and what actions officers take to get help for someone who is in a crisis, she said. She’s been having conversations with people throughout the organization about how the sheriff’s office treats the public, she said, and her desire to work toward solutions and help the community has made her want to stick around.
She said she wanted to know what the people of Douglas County want from local law enforcement, but some reforms may be a challenge. She said Armbrister would be in Topeka “jumping up and down on the desks” to push for reform that has to happen at the state level, such as changes to mandatory minimum sentences. However, this county is quite different from the other 104 in Kansas, she said, and it could be difficult to change the minds of many others.
The future ‘holds everything’ for women
Simmons is the highest-ranking female officer in department history.
There was a female sheriff, briefly, about 70 years ago. Gladys Johns took over the role as sheriff after her husband, Will Johns Jr., died from complications with pneumonia, and she held the role from July 1949 through January 1950, according to Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
“Upon taking the office Gladys stated the administrative duties would be handled by Undersheriff Travis Glass and she would not take part in any law enforcement activities but would continue her ‘duties as a Sheriff’s wife,'” Hethcoat said via email.
At the time, those duties included upkeep of the sheriff’s residence and cooking for inmates, Hethcoat said. Things have changed a lot since then, but women are still vastly outnumbered in law enforcement and in command staffs.
Simmons said that when she first started, the demographics were about 9% women, with just 1% in the top positions. Now, it’s closer to 13% and 3%, respectively, but she said that’s still a failing grade on any scale.
She noted several times during her interview with the Journal-World that she was not speaking for all women, but she said a career in law enforcement was not exactly conducive to a family life, which may be a deterrent for some.
She also said she thought recruitment overall needed to change. Brochures feature photos of SWAT teams, guns and cool equipment, she said — “it’s all very adrenaline-driven.” In reality, though, it would be more accurate to have a picture of two people talking, she said.
Report writing and communicating with people make up a large part of what law enforcement does, Simmons said, and she alluded to a quote from former Minneapolis, Minn., police chief Janee Harteau: “Women invented de-escalation; it’s called communication.”
Simmons said that female officers also tend to question themselves when it comes time to apply for promotions — “Why me? Am I good enough?” — but she said women need to trust and have confidence in their own abilities.
She is a member of NAWLEE, the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, an organization that aims as part of its mission to empower women at all levels in law enforcement to advance their careers.
She said the organization’s membership was basically the opposite of the ratio in the industry — about 90% female and 10% male — and that at the association’s annual conferences, you see 150 to 200 women in uniform who are chiefs, directors, lieutenants, captains and majors.
“It’s an eye-opening experience. And it actually sounds a little crazy, but it does change you,” she said. “You come back from that conference and you are inspired to do more for yourself and for your organization.”
Each year, she said, the sheriff’s office looks to see who has shown leadership and tries to send those women to the conferences, so they can see that “there are women all over the United States doing amazing, amazing work at the highest levels,” Simmons said, “and so they can achieve that, because they can see it.”
Hethcoat pointed out that Simmons has also served on NAWLEE’s board of directors.
“She’s provided this leadership and this mentoring not just for our agency, but to women across the country,” Hethcoat said. “This is deeply embedded in who she is as a person and what she’s capable of doing for women in law enforcement.”
The Journal-World asked Simmons what she thought the future held for women in law enforcement.
“I think it holds everything,” she said, “and not the next decade and not the next generation, but right now. Anything women want to do, any position that we want to hold, it’s available. We need to go and get it.”
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