Woman promoted to top police ranks

23-year veteran to be commander of Northern District Woman joins top ranks of Howard department

January 06, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

For the first time in its 50 years of existence, the Howard County Police Department will have a woman seated among the high-ranking officers at its weekly command staff meeting - a move some have called overdue.

On Jan. 15, Nancy Yeager, the first woman in the department to be promoted to captain, will pull up to the table alongside the police chief, two deputy chiefs and six other captains when she assumes her role as Northern District commander. She rose from lieutenant to captain New Year's Day.

Police Chief Wayne Livesay said the department was slow to bring a woman onto its command staff.

"This was a great opportunity for diversification," he said of Yeager's promotion. "It's just as important as anything else we're doing as a department."

Yeager will oversee about 90 police officers as Northern District commander. She will succeed Capt. Alan Ferguson, who will retire at the end of the month after a 36-year career, the longest of any sworn officer in the department.

"When I look at some of the district commanders I've worked for in the past ... I've got some big shoes to fill," Yeager said.

Yeager, a 23-year veteran of the force, views her promotion less as a step forward for female police officers than as the realization of a personal goal.

"At this organization, you make your own career," Yeager said. "It is made very clear what you need to do here to succeed, and if you do it, eventually you'll get what you want."

Livesay, whose rise to captain took about 24 years, said the department identified Yeager's leadership potential years ago.

"She has demonstrated her ability to lead troops," he said. "She has long been a rising star in the department."

State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, one of the first female police officers in the county, called Yeager's promotion "an extremely encouraging move."

"Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking that it was unusual we didn't have higher-ranking female officers," McLendon said. "It broadens the perspective of the command staff and gives younger women in the department a role model."

Yeager's career illustrates the changing gender makeup of police work. When she became a police officer in the late 1970s, women did not have their own uniform trousers. They had to hem the men's version to fit, Yeager said.

Photos from the Howard Police Department's archives show women in the late 1960s and early 1970s wearing police skirts that hit just above the knees.

Police vests to fit women had not been designed in the 1970s, Yeager said last week, wearing a perfectly tailored uniform.

`Like a family'

Yeager's first obstacle to becoming a police officer was her parents. When she applied to the Howard County department in 1978, she had to talk her father into making sure her mother stayed calm during Yeager's background check.

"It was `Not my daughter' at that time," Yeager said. "Sure, some women were police officers then, but most parents couldn't imagine their daughters in that role."

Former Howard Police Chief Robert O. Mathews hired Yeager. About four other women were in the department at the time, she said.

Yeager was the first woman to become a lieutenant in the Howard Police Department when Chief James N. Robey promoted her to the information management systems unit in 1993.

Her promotion to captain leaves two women among the 17 lieutenants in the department.

Yeager, 46, said she never intended to be a police officer for so long but added: "This has become like a family. I met my husband here."

John Yeager retired from the department in 1992 to take care of their daughter, Abby, now 11. The family lives in Harford County.

Yeager is not the department's longest-serving sworn female officer. Pfc. Karen Davis, who joined the department in 1976, works in patrol.

The early years

A review of the department's history reveals few women during its early years, when police departments were just beginning to include women.

Al Hafner, chairman of the department's history committee, found in researching the early years of female police officers in the county that:

Betty Maris became the first sworn female officer in the county when she joined the department in 1960. Maris stayed two years.

Nine years after Maris was sworn in, the second woman joined the department. Lee Makowski, who became an officer in 1969, retired in 1984 - as Lee Hajek - with the rank of sergeant.

In 1974, two more women, Linda Halle and Marna Cress (now McLendon), joined the force.

A fraction of the force

Although women are an increasing presence in police academies, only 60 - about 17 percent - of the 360 Howard police officers are women.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department, which has an authorized strength of 666, has 70 female officers, one of whom is a captain. Capt. Athena Baker, who was hired by Anne Arundel County in 1986, was promoted about a year ago, a police spokesman said.

Baltimore County - with an authorized strength of about 1,760 - has a woman in the second-in-command position of colonel. The department also has a female major, two female captains and about 220 female sworn officers.

Baltimore County promoted its first woman from lieutenant to major in 1976, skipping the rank of captain.

`Not terribly behind'

McLendon said other area departments seem to have promoted women more quickly than Howard County has.

Carol A. Mehrling had been with the Montgomery County Police Department for 23 years when she was named police chief in 1995.

"We're not terribly behind," McLendon said. "Just probably somewhat overdue."

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