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[whitespace] Women in Blue

Willow Glen--The man was handing in his application to be a police officer, when he looked around the room.

"I don't know what all these women are doing here," he said.

He was the only man at the San Jose Police Department's women's career day, held at Evergreen Community College early on a Saturday morning two weeks ago. Women officers were on hand to tell other women about being police dispatchers, data specialists and recruits, and to encourage them to give police work a try.

Willow Glen resident Sgt. Peggy Vallecilla, director of police recruiting, said the turnout of over 70 women was the best they have ever had since they began actively recruiting women with these day-long events in 1997.

"I hope we get some to sign up," she says.

Vallecilla and the recruiting department are especially looking for quite a few good women to wear the uniform of a San Jose police officer, and they know they are working against continuing societal misconceptions that women don't make good police officers.

They also know that recruiting anyone to work for less than a dot-com salary in this area is a stiff challenge. But while they watch the number of applications for the job dwindle, they are also seeing an increase in the number of women who think they have the right stuff.

They speak from experience when they say that many women do have the right stuff, because Vallecilla and her boss, Deputy Chief Adonna Amoroso, as well as four lieutenants and six other sergeants are all women who have made successful careers out of policing in San Jose. And their ranks are growing.

One of the newest members of the team is Officer Patricia Flemente, who recently began her required 3-year stint as a solo patrol officer.

"I love it," she says. "It's very challenging and very rewarding. I like the idea, when I go into this job, I don't know what's going to happen. It's my discretion how to solve problems. The job trusts you to make those decisions."

Flemente says she was interested in law enforcement for a while before she decided to make it her career.

"It was something that just kept coming back to me," she says.

Flemente graduated from Santa Clara University in 1998 with a major in psychology and a growing interest in forensic psychology. She says she thought about going to medical school and pursuing forensics, but wasn't sure she wanted to make the sacrifices necessary for five more years of school.

"My ultimate goal is to have a family," said Flemente, who is engaged to be married in December. "I wanted to do something to start my career now."

So Flemente did some research and found that, as a police officer, she could get involved in the field a lot quicker and take a job that would allow her more flexibility to be a mom.

Vallecilla says the department has two testing cycles each year to select recruits for the five-month academies that happen twice a year.

Applicants receive a background check, a psychological evaluation and take a lie detector test. They must also pass a physical test that includes running a 1.5-mile course in 14 minutes, scaling a 6-foot wall, completing an obstacle course of hurdles and a tire run in 25 seconds, and carrying an 85-pound dummy around pylons in 33 seconds.

Women must pass the same requirements as men, and if they fail at any of the physical requirements, they must reapply and begin the process all over again.

The 5-foot, 2-inch and 115-pound Flemente failed at her first attempt because she couldn't clear the hurdles on the obstacle course. After working with other women officers and attending the physical agility training the department provides for both male and female applicants, she was able to pass on her second try and was offered a spot in the academy in January.

Recruits spend 5 months in training and must continue to meet physical requirements. Women and men are held to the same standards and learn the basics of policing and techniques for subduing belligerent suspects.

"It makes it possible for a 5-foot, 2-inch person to take hold of a 6-foot, 5-inch person and control them," Flemente says.

Flemente and others point out that women do tend to have more limited physical strength than men and that can change how they approach the job.

"That's something that's definitely an issue, even for men," Flemente says. "That's when relying on training comes in."

Willow Glen resident officer Rochelle Goede says that the best police officers are the ones with good communication skills.

"I've talked my way out of a lot more things than I've fought my way out of," she says. "Women and men can very equally share those skills."

She also says that women can often have more success than men dealing with situations without resorting to violence.

"A lot of times women don't always think about a physical solution first," she says.

Flemente says that, although she's small, she has been able to subdue defensive people and command respect.

"I have a high-pitched, girlie voice, but it's still effective," she says. "Overall, when you put that uniform on, no matter who you are or what you look like, you get the respect, usually."

Flemente does admit that not everyone responds to her demands.

"There will always be those who won't," she says. She cited a situation where an older man wouldn't follow her directions. "That's his problem, not mine, because I have the authority in the situation. I'm sure I'll run into it again, but it doesn't happen that often."

After passing the academy training, the recruits are sworn into the department and then are assigned to a field training officer who goes out on patrol with them. This is the time when they are able to put what they have learned into practice in real situations, and they must score high enough in order to qualify to go out on patrol on their own.

Flemente says that the extensive training program, which is a model for training programs in other departments across the nation, made her feel completely prepared to go solo.

"It's the most exciting thing," she says. "You just feel completely prepared. It's wonderful to be a solo beat officer."

In the San Jose department, women make up 121 of a total 1,385 sworn police officers, Vallecilla says.

"Our percentage is still real low," she says, but adds that their number is growing. In 1999, the department hired only four women, or 8 percent of their total hires, she says. This year so far, however, it has hired 12 women, 28 percent of their new hires.

"That's pretty drastic," Vallecilla says. "I feel pretty optimistic that we're going to see those numbers increase."

She also says that women can enhance the department and provide qualities that aren't as common in male officers.

"We believe that women can make a difference," she says. "They can bring a certain sensitivity, a different approach in some cases. There are certain units where women are sought after."

Deputy Chief Amoroso, who also lives in Willow Glen, is in charge of the department's bureau of administration. She says the police department wants to increase the ratio of women to men from the current 8.6 percent to about 15 percent, a number chosen because it is more realistic than the ideal of having half the force be female.

"Our goal is 15 percent because of the kind of job it is," she says. "There are a lot of women who wouldn't want this job. We have a ways to go to balance it out."

San Jose hired its first female police officer in 1975, Amoroso says, after women who worked undercover for the department won a lawsuit to get the same pay as their male counterparts. Before that time, women in the department were called "assistant police women" and received a clerk's pay, although they did the same work as male police officers, she says.

Amoroso was one of the first women to enter the department when she started in 1976. She is now the highest ranking woman in the department and is the senior deputy chief, outranked only by the two assistant chiefs and the chief of police.

Because of her position, she says she has been able to make women police officers more acceptable in the department, although she says she would prefer to work more closely with the community.

"In order to really make a difference, you have to be in a position of power," she says. She says the influence she has is often just being a good example of a woman handling her authority respectably. But she also says it's hard to find women in the upper ranks, not because they aren't capable of increased responsibility, but because they are less likely to want it.

"It's hard for women to be competitive because we have so many other responsibilities," she says. "Women still have to go home and do mom-work. It's still not an equal relationship. That's why you don't see as many women going for promotions. When a man does it, it is much more acceptable."

She says she has seen a lot of positive changes in the department since she started 25 years ago.

"It's a much better place to work overall," she says.

Women officers say the benefits that San Jose provides can be very attractive to women. Officers work a four-day work week and do shift work, which can allow parents to arrange their schedule around their children's needs. There is also a variety of assignments that officers can take, allowing pregnant officers the option of doing less physical work.

"You don't get punished for having babies," says Sgt. Lorrie Rogers.

In addition, advancement and unit assignments are all made through testing and not by appointment alone, allowing a more unbiased way for women to move up the ranks, Amoroso says.

Willow Glen resident Goede started as a police officer in San Diego and moved to San Jose four years ago.

"There are a lot more women now than when I started," she says. "Women move up in the ranks as steadily as men. In all honesty, I've had nothing but positive and good experiences."

Women, like other officers, are able to advance as more officers retire. But the police department is facing a growing challenge of filling the spots that are left open.

There are only 12 people, six of them women, in the current academy, says Jim Tamaino, president of the Police Officers' Association. The academy usually has between 40 and 50 recruits, he says, and this one is the smallest ever.

Amoroso says the reason there are so few recruits right now is partially because she also hired seven "laterals," or officers who are transferring to San Jose from other police departments and who do not have to go through the academy (and because she was limited in the number of people she could hire by budgetary constraints).

She says that January's academy could have as many as 49 recruits.

But all agree that it is getting more difficult to hire police officers.

In 1998, the department received nearly 2,000 officer applications and hired 92 people, Vallecilla says. In 1999, it received 800 applications and hired 50 people. There were a little more than 200 applications for the first testing cycle of 2000, and 43 hires.

She attributes this drop off to the economy and the cost of living in the area.

"[Potential recruits] have the ability to make more money and get stock options in private industry," she says.

And those who do choose to be San Jose police officers still can't afford to live nearby.

Vallecilla, Amoroso and Goede live in Willow Glen, as do many other older officers, they say. But recent recruits are living as far away as Tracy, Manteca and Hollister where they can afford homes and a better quality of life--although they must endure long commutes.

One of the biggest problems the department faces is that over 60 percent of the force lives outside San Jose, Police Officer Association president Tamaino says.

"The newer people are living further and further away, and we're going to see that number grow," he says.

Tamaino says that isn't a good thing, because officers are further from their job when emergencies happen. Also, San Jose prides itself on its emphasis of community policing. But when most of its officers don't live where they work, the enthusiasm in being a part of the San Jose community goes down.

As a response to this problem, the city recently signed a new 3-year contract with the police that will give officers a 6 percent raise each year from 2000 to 2003, Tamaino says. Now, a newly sworn officer earns a starting salary of $48,360 a year; next year they will start at $51,264, he says.

Police recruits also earn a salary of about $46,000 while they are in the academy, he says.

A major concern is that San Jose maintain the high standards it holds for its recruits, that set it apart from other departments across the nation.

"Everybody around here is totally opposed to lowering standard because we don't want to get into problems that other agencies have," says Vallecilla. "But we are still finding the most qualified applicants. We're just hiring less."

Flemente, who is from San Jose, says that she and her fiancé, who is also a police officer, bought a home in San Jose in 1999. She says they can afford to live here now, but she's not sure about the future.

"It's doable, but it's hard," she says. "I'm probably going more and more to where it's not doable."

But she says that she chose to be a police officer for the job satisfaction and accepts that she will never be rich.

"We're not in this for the money; we're in this for the fun," she says.

The recruiting department stays busy keeping people interested in considering police work. Vallecilla says that while they do have to actively recruit both men and women, they offer the women's career day because women are a lot less likely to consider the job themselves.

"Women don't sometimes think about law enforcement," Goede says. "It's a good profession for women. Do not think for an instant that because you're a woman that you can't do this job."

Helen Doan of San Jose was at the women's career day because she is interested in being a police officer someday.

"I've always been interested in law enforcement," she says. "Society needs more people that care about the environment."

She says she hopes to be a role model for her younger siblings, especially because her older brother hasn't been a good role model.

"I want my younger siblings to look up to me," she says.

And she isn't deterred by the hard work or the low pay or the lack of respect that she may receive.

"It's the job that interests you," she says. "Otherwise, it's wasting your life. It motivates me because they think I can't do it. I think I can."

Goede also says that her view of the world is broadened by her work.

"This is a really good job because you get involved in a lot of things," she says. "You do get a tougher skin. I've seen a lot of bad, but I've seen an awful lot of good, too."

Flemente says she has already been changed by her job, but that she will always hold on to the parts of herself that are moved by the things she sees.

"I'm a very sensitive person and that's never going to go away," she says. "That's a part of my personality."

She says that her friends were surprised at her decision to be a police officer, because she is interested in fashion and cosmetics.

"A lot of women think that they're too feminine for the job," Flemente says. "But when I'm working I have to do what needs to be done to get respect."

She adds: "The most crazy thing is to think where I was a year and a half ago. You change so much because you learn so much."

And she says that she looks forward to being a police officer with children of her own.

"I'm going to be so proud to have children who have a mom in law enforcement, to be a role model for a boy or a girl." she says.
Kate Carter

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