1998. Heather Margaret Ritchie had just turned 19 when her auntie got her a job as a part-time dispatcher in the North-West of Virginia. Having moved around for school and college, home was where the heart was.
Soon, she fell in love with the job and subsequently attended the police academy in Grottoes, VA, in 2003. She served with pride throughout her years in the police force until her temporary departure in 2012.
When she first started, it was not only the nature of the job that was challenging, getting the job was already a challenge on its own. Straight out of the academy, Heather was 25 when the chief at the time expressed his concerns.
“He sat me down and was worried that I would start a family, get pregnant and not be able to work for three months,” Heather recalled as she laughed off the incident.
The day-to-day battle to prove yourself
“Masculinity” was the image circling the police force, this image was especially vivid in small towns. The “good old boy system”, as they put it.
Being one of the very few female officers in the department, the evaluation of Heather’s work was often judged by her gender, instead of her performance. Women were constantly sexualised.
In one instance, the mayor saw her sitting in a car with a man. An unidentified vehicle was next to theirs. Immediately, the mayor started saying, “Heather brought a guy here and is having sex with him.”
The “unidentified car” turned out to be the cleaning lady’s. And the man, he was a newbie officer Heather brought along to his first felony warrant.
Dealing with male colleagues who relentlessly put her efforts down was a part of the job. Heather recounted a night where she was dispatched to a drunk call. By the time she arrived, two officers were standing next to the suspect. They looked at her as if they were waiting. Yet, no one was making an arrest.
“Strange,” Heather thought to herself.
The officers waited for Heather to make the arrest. As Heather did, she said to the corporal, “it took a girl to make your arrest.”
“It does damage your self-esteem. People make all these assumptions about you because you are a girl. You have to go the extra mile to prove yourself. And some people choose to not see your effort, You get really depressed. It’s just a really sad, worthless feeling,” Heather said.
Dealing with the suspects
With her 22 years in the police force, Heather has dealt with people on both ends of the spectrum. She found Hispanic gang members hard to arrest as they had no respect for females. They would ignore her completely. Occasionally, she got questioned about her officer status. Some people used to tell her, “‘you can’t be an officer. You are a girl!’”
Despite that, she described most of her arrests to be “rather smooth” because “most people did not want to fight a girl”.
“I arrested this big-time drug dealer, who everyone else said was hard to deal with. He would fight anyone. But with me, he just went nicely into the handcuffs, because he didn’t want to fight a girl,” Heather smiled.
“It’s a good-and-bad situation,” she continued. “On one hand I got people that showed complete disrespect because I was a girl. On the other hand, I didn’t have to fight arrests as much. When I did have to fight people, it was much harder.”
Filing a complaint could end your career
In larger federal agencies like in LA, there is the IA (Internal Affairs) department investigating complaints from one officer to another. Smaller departments usually have the policy set up against discrimination as well as to handle complaints. However, the IA work is done by general investigators that also handle other crimes, meaning you are being investigated by the very people you work with.
“You are expected to take more because you are a female. No agency will want to hire someone who sued another agency,” Heather gently shook her head.
A female officer she worked with filed a sexual harassment complaint against a firefighter and had him arrested.
“She is still a police officer till this day, good for her. But she was ostracised for having him arrested.”
Many fear a complaint form will effectively end their career. They also do not want to be labelled as “the girl who complains”.
“Over the last 22 years, I have seen improvements but even today, if I get assaulted, unless I’m seriously injured, I don’t know if I would mention it still,” she said hesitantly.
What is the way forward?
As frustrating as not having a well-developed system, it can be even more exhausting to deal with people that take advantage of it.
“I personally have never investigated a legit rape complaint. Most of the time they just slept with someone and didn’t want their boyfriend to know so they filed a sexual harassment complaint. It’s taking credibility away from the true victims out there and making them even more hesitant to speak up.”
Heather believed the #MeToo movement had changed the landscape a lot for women in professional workplaces. However, the journey is far from complete.
“As hard as it may be, keeping an open mind is the most important in this journey. Males can get harassed too. The system in place is not kind to victims of harassment as they often get dismissed.”
No one should get shielded because of the “good old boy system”. The system and policy set to protect its employees should function to do exactly that.
“Doing what I do, you see the worst of things. You’d start having trust issues, one of the reasons I was never married,” Heather shrugged her shoulder as she made her final remarks.