By Dave Ongie, News Editor
There is still a lot of talk in our society about glass ceilings when it comes to women in the workplace.
But sitting among a large contingent of female officers who serve in either the Johnson City Police Department or the Washington County Sheriff’s Office during a roundtable discussion last Tuesday, the concept of a glass ceiling never came up. The group of officers didn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of the job. The hours can be long, the work can be stressful and thankless and danger can spring up without a moment’s notice. And, yes, proving yourself to the public and your co-workers in a male-dominated profession can be a struggle.
However, the officers in attendance said those who are suited for police work and willing to stick with it have the opportunity to advance through the ranks just like their male counterparts.
Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner pointed to Major Debbie Botelho as a prime example of the opportunity available for those willing to work hard and never stop learning. From the time she went on a ride-along with a police officer in South Carolina as a teenager, Botelho knew what she wanted to do for a living.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to be a police officer,” Botelho said. “I applied around, and I didn’t have the experience and I didn’t have a degree, so I went into the military.”
After three years as an MP in the United States Army, Botelho fulfilled her dream of joining the police force. She has spent just over 30 years with the JCPD, starting out as a patrol officer before rising through the ranks. By 2003, Botelho had become a captain, and her promotion to major in 2016 made her the highest-ranking woman in the history of the department.
The lack of a degree may have thwarted Botelho’s initial attempt to become a police officer, but she has proven herself to be a life-long learner since joining the JCPD.
“I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree and two associate degrees while I was employed here because they offer assistance in education,” Botelho said.
While most of the women who gathered at police headquarters last week had a background in criminal justice, Leighta Laitinen, the Chief Deputy at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, started out as an emergency room nurse before switching gears and joining the police department as a human resources clerk.
Over 20 years later, Laitinen became the second-highest ranking officer in Washington County when Sheriff Ed Graybeal named her Chief Deputy last June. Laitinen said her early experience as an HR clerk helped her learn the ins and outs of the sheriff’s department.
“There were no job descriptions, no classification system, no pay scales,” Laitinen said. “So I started out doing that, which has really helped me because I started out having to learn every position and kind of got a crash course on the job.”
Laitinen said the transition was smooth because the motivation that drew her to nursing – a desire to help others – carried over to her new career. It hasn’t always been easy, but being an officer provides a challenge that keeps Laitinen excited about her job.
“This is my 24th year,” Laitinen said. “I fell in love with it. I think it’s a job that you either love, or it’s not for you. Nobody’s in it to get rich, but I don’t think you’ll find a more rewarding career, or a tougher one, especially for females.”
Turner said any good police department needs a diverse group of officers in order to properly serve everyone in the community.
“I think that the police department, the demographics should reflect the community, whether it be gender or race,” Turner said. “I think women in law enforcement, they provide a different perspective because, as a man, I can’t say what it’s like to be a single mother or a victim of sexual assault or something like that. I think they provide that perspective men don’t have, which is very valuable.”
Turner expressed his hopes that some of the younger officers in the room would follow in Botelho’s footsteps and climb the ranks within the department. Several of those in attendance last Tuesday are already off to a promising start.
Hannah Farmer spent two years receiving canine training on her own time and eventually became the first woman in the history of the department to become a canine officer. She works with her canine partner Rouzo and enjoys the challenge.
“The bond is incredible, and the training is literally never done,” Farmer said. “It’s the same with us in our own education. “There’s always something more you can teach the dog.”
Officer Ashley Ellenburg got started with the JCPD as an intern in 2013. She got her start in community policing and has since been promoted to Platoon 5 but still enjoys connecting with the community, particularly children.
“I do everything that people on patrol do, but I also get to do fun stuff like go and speak to kids about safety and things like that,” said Ellenburg. “I’ve never felt out of place. It’s a wonderful place to work.”
Like Ellenburg, Officer Naomi Juarez also enjoys developing a bond with younger members of the community. As a Spanish speaker, Juarez takes great pride in being able to assist other departments as a translator, which often helps resolve situations and sometimes expedites the apprehension of a suspect.
But she said one of her favorites parts of the job is handing a silver police badge sticker to a youngster, which helps build a bridge between the police department and the community.
“They start speaking to me in Spanish, and of course our department offers foil badge stickers,” Juarez said. “It’s always nice to be able to start establishing good relationships with the kids in our community at that young of an age.”