CLAY COUNTY – For many, the perception of law enforcement was shaped by what they saw on television, which often fed stereotypes of policemen with guns strapped to their hops chasing after bad …
CLAY COUNTY – For many, the perception of law enforcement was shaped by what they saw on television, which often fed stereotypes of policemen with guns strapped to their hops chasing after bad guys.
We thought to be a cop, you had to be tough and aggressive. And a man.
“Social and Entertainment Media really impacts people’s perception of Law Enforcement,” said Sheriff Michelle Cook.
Cook was elected in 2020. Before being elected as Sheriff, she served as Chief of the Atlantic Beach Police Department. She is Clay County’s first woman sheriff and is currently the only woman sheriff in the state. “Most people think the police spend all their time solving crimes and chasing the bad guys, but 99% of what we do is verbal communication.”
As a leader in law enforcement, Cook believes in having genuine care for the community and a willingness to communicate, even when things get difficult. She said transparency leads to an agency’s success.
“Leaders set the tone of the agency, she said. “When a leader deliberately communicates, that trickles down, and people see that. When they see their leaders being invested, forthcoming, and honest, our officers reflect that in their community.”
Det. Katherine Padgett, who has been with the sheriff’s office for more than 20 years, said the culture of the workplace has changed a lot since Cook’s election.
“She has been very transparent, which is refreshing to everyone. She means what she said. I look up to her and highly respect her because she is a leader and because she is a female. Even for people like me who have been in the field for a while, you look at her and say, “My gosh, you still can go farther.” It’s really good to see. It’s really uplifting for women to see a female sheriff who does so much good in her community.”
According to National Public Radio, women make up just 12% of the law enforcement officers in the country, with just 3% of them serving in leadership. Nearly 6,000 women police officers make up a small fraction of the state’s roughly 46,000 sworn officers. Today, there are more than 674 full- and part-time members of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, including 233 women. Broken down into different classifications, there are 195 full-time women employees and 38 part-timers. In total, women employees make up nearly 30% of law enforcement in Clay County, more than double the national average. While many of these women carry a badge, others work behind the scenes as Crime Scene Technicians, Human Resource Specialists, Records Specialists, Mental health Advisors and Victim Advocates, just to name a few.
Women make up significant portions of the rosters – particularly in command – at the Green Cove Springs and Orange Park police departments. Orange Park has four certified women officers, including Cpl. Samantha Frehulfer, while Green Cove Springs has six women officers, including Cmdr. Barbara Luedtke and Sgt. Tammy Perry, Sgt. Erin Vineyard.
Luedtke has been with the department for 18 years,
“There was only one other female officer, which was Tammy Perry, when I got here,” Luedtke said. “It was a man-driven profession and you had to earn your keep, which is the best way I can describe it.”
“I spent 5½ years in the Navy and I liked the military structure and the discipline and the ranking structure. And I don’t have to guess what I’m wearing every day. “
Hayley Flynn has been with GCSPD for 13 months. She said it’s a great job for anyone – man or woman.
“Growing up, I always looked up to cops,” she said. “I always love seeing how they helped people and seeing how they were able to make a difference. And you know, we get to put bad guys away and we get to help the good guys.”
Green Cove Springs has the distinction of hiring the first woman officer, Themla Hiles, in June 1975. Hiles retired in 1989, but not before serving with several departments – dispatcher, uniform crime report specialists, police officer and secretary.
Monday, Sept. 12, was National Women in Law Enforcement Day. It was designed to acknowledge and celebrate the women who protect and serve their communities. Women in Clay County, however, pin their badges and patrol our streets every day without acclaim.
While the percentages of women in law enforcement may be lower than the average workplace, the opportunities for women in the field are only growing, Padgett said. “From when I started, I think in law enforcement, we may have had three, maybe four agents, and now we have so many females I don’t even know them all. And it’s really refreshing that we are finally catching up with the times.”
CCSO Det. Heather Lanier, who’s worked for the agency for 19 years, agreed law enforcement is becoming more diverse and inclusive.
“Even in the background, you don’t see a lot of disparity. The possibilities and openness it’s huge. It’s awesome,” she said.
However, not everyone is accepting of women coming into the field.
“Sometimes being a woman in this industry is helpful, sometimes not,” Cook said. “For example, I’ve had people refuse to talk to me because I am a woman. I’ve had people tell me they wouldn’t vote for me because they don’t think there should be a female sheriff.”
But Cook doesn’t let this bother her. If anything, it strengthens her support for women in law enforcement.
“Women bring perspectives and life experiences that are needed in this profession. I encourage any young woman who wants to make a difference in their community to consider a career in law enforcement,” she said.
Lanier and Padgett said women are needed in the field.
“No matter who you are, everyone has something to bring to the table. Everybody has something they are good at and really, it’s a team effort. And I think women are just such an intricate part of that team,” Padgett said.
“We bring that nurturing vibe,” Padgett explains. Padgett, a member of the Sheriff’s office for over 20 years, came into law enforcement at an early age after being removed from an abusive home. Since then, she has always wanted to be the kind of person that a child can look up to for protection.
“We are protective of the people that we are trying to represent. We are better communicators,” Padgett said. “Men have always been ‘do what I say and that’s it’ and I think women are a little bit more empathetic and understanding. I guess it’s in our genetic makeup.”
Lanier shares a similar perspective.
“When I first started in this line of work, even though it’s only been a short amount of time, I knew that this line of work was predominately male,” Lanier said. “We were very short-handed for female deputies back then. There were only three of us.”
However, she has seen a huge push for women in law enforcement over her career.
“I think, in a lot of instances, we bring a softer side to law enforcement and that’s needed,” Lanier said. “It allows us to build trust in our community. But we are not afraid to handle business either.”
Cook said women bring needed insights.
“Women have to rely on their words more often than physical strength, which I think helps build trust and respect,” she said.
To the future female law enforcers, Lanier said: “Go for it. I knew what I wanted to do, but I was nervous. I was scared. But my best advice to give is, stay level-headed. Stay true to your strengths. Build on them. Never stop learning because that’s all this job is. And never be afraid to stop learning and stay humble. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. We’re at a higher expectation of maintaining professionalism, but it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong. Learn from your mistakes, move on, and get the job done.”
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here