Pioneering woman sergeant battles in the behalf of all troopers

November 23, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

For Virginia Lewis, the first woman elected president of the Maryland Troopers Association -- and the only woman to head such a group in the nation -- breaking barriers is nothing new. She was among the first six women to graduate from the state's training academy.

"That was nearly 20 years ago. We're just now starting to get women in administrative positions," said Sergeant Lewis, who is assigned to the state police barracks in Frederick. "I guess you could call me a pioneer. I look at it as progressive."

Sergeant Lewis, who is 42, began her police career in 1974. She has worked at state police barracks in Rockville, Forestville and Waldorf, and she was assigned to Frederick about a year ago.

As president of the Maryland Troopers Association, she represents some 2,000 retired and active troopers, dispatchers and secretaries on salaries, benefits and working conditions.

QUESTION: We're past the point where women police officers are unique, as your own job and now professional office testify, but what's your perspective on women police officers in general -- how acceptance has been overall, not only among Maryland troopers, but in general?

ANSWER: The police population and the public recognize that ** there is a place for women in police work. Twenty years ago, many people felt police work wasn't for women. There may still be some who feel that way, but I think they're becoming fewer and fewer.

I don't think my gender was terribly important in my election. I think it was based on my merits. I established a reputation as being a good trooper.

In my election, you would have thought that the metro areas would have been more supportive of a woman president, but I received more support from rural areas. Some old-fashioned ideas seem to linger in rural areas, but that wasn't the case with my election.

Q: How about acceptance by the general public? What have you found in your own experience of stopping speeders, etc.? How about the court system?

A: The public is more accepting because a portion of the population has seen women police officers for 20 years now.

They're not seeing you as a male or female trooper when you pull them over for speeding or whatever. You're a trooper. It's not much of an issue for the public.

We still have people who don't like women troopers. You have good women troopers and bad women troopers. Unfortunately, if you have a bad experience with a woman trooper. you might think we all are that way. I think we have a lot of good women troopers.

There's no problem with acceptance in the court. Your acceptance as a credible witness is based on your own reputation.

Q: You work in a part of Maryland where troopers often are the local police force -- unlike in more urban areas. What do you see as the evolving role for troopers in that situation?

A: Agency-wise, we're always looking for ways we can provide a service. We're unique because we have statewide powers. Our training has always been good -- second to none as far as I'm bTC concerned.

Frederick is a transition county. We have shared responsibilities with the sheriff's department.

In 17 other counties, we're the primary law enforcement agency. But there are things we can do that local police cannot. We can handle interjurisdictional crimes. There are task force and strike forces we've formed to handle crime and drug problems.

There is plenty of work here for everybody. We can always use more manpower.

Q: You work in one of the main trucking corridors in the state of Maryland. What's your opinion on how faster speeds, larger trucks and smaller cars are mixing?

A: I spent 15 years on the Capital Beltway. In general, trucks and cars don't mix.

The courtesy of drivers has changed drastically. People used to call the police because someone gave them an unusual hand sign.

Now, they run each other off the road and pull handguns on one another. People are overreacting with violence. I don't see as much of a problem on the Interstate 70 corridor. We could use some more lanes.

There are still problems with trucks and small cars. Large trucks need more distance to stop. A lot of car drivers don't realize that. It's not necessarily the trucks that are at fault in many accidents.

Q: You represent your organization on such issues as salary, benefits and working conditions. You've mentioned that more manpower is needed. Why? How are working conditions?

A: Manpower is an extremely big issue. We need more people out there.

Safety can't be overlooked.

We had troopers fired two years ago during budget cuts. We did manage to hire some of them back. But during that dark time, troopers gave up a lot of benefits. We haven't had pay raises in two or three years. We haven't gotten pay increments that were in place.

We have an awful lot of patrol cars with over 100,000 miles on them. We used to turn cars over every two or three years. Now many cars are 5 years old.

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