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Females on the force

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GREENFIELD — When Nichole Gilbert joined the investigations unit at the Greenfield Police Department, she became the first female to serve as a detective in almost a decade.

Gilbert, 34, was added to the division in March when department officials felt there was sufficient manpower on the road to move a patrol officer to investigations to ease a growing caseload.

A detective position hadn’t been held by a woman since 2004.

Gilbert is currently the only female officer on the department. But that’s a distinction she’s become accustomed to over the years.

Gilbert, who joined the department in August 2009, formerly worked at the Cumberland Police Department. She was the department’s lone female officer there as well.

“I’ve been the only female pretty much my whole career,” she said.

Gilbert is one of just five female officers on police departments in the county.

Sgt. Christine Rapp, who oversees the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department’s D.A.R.E. program, is the most senior female officer, having joined the department as a deputy in 1992 after three years working in the county jail. Rapp is followed closely by Sgt. Bridget Foy, who started patrolling for the department in 1995. Deputy Christie McFarland was hired in 2007.

Lt. Audrey Sleeth joined the McCordsville Police Department in 1998.

Greenfield Police Chief John Jester hopes adding a woman to the department’s detective unit will ease the discomfort for sex-crime victims or children who find it easier to talk to a woman than a man.

“They’re going to be more comfortable, and we’ve already got them in an uncomfortable position,” he said. “… If we’ve got a resource we can use, let’s use it.”

Jester said the need for an additional detective had been building over the years as the caseload for the investigations division increased.

“The need got to the point where our guys were getting tons of overtime, and now we’re better able to space out the detective coverage that we’ve got,” he said.

Gilbert is no stranger to detective work, having investigated cases and served as an evidence technician for Cumberland PD. Gilbert first became a reserve officer in Cumberland in 2000 before being hired full time in 2002.

Gilbert said a natural sense of curiosity is behind her love of investigating. Road officers often take initial reports but don’t have the opportunity to conduct follow-up interviews after a case is handed off to detectives.

“A lot of times, you don’t get to see the investigation through, where as a detective, you can see a case from beginning to finish, and I like that part of it,” she said.

The last female detective at GPD was Linda Cain, who retired in 2004 and now works part time at Hancock County Community Corrections.

Cain came to the position not only as a woman but as a mother. It made a difference in how she dealt with victims, especially children, she said.

“I just think a mother has a different feeling, like the tiger and cub,” she said. “I still have people that I run into that’ll say, ‘You were the nicest cop. Why did you give it up?’”

But the reaction toward female officers isn’t always so positive.

In 2000, Foy responded to a domestic dispute only to be greeted by a woman who was clearly unsatisfied with the help that arrived.

The woman had called 911 when her husband and son began fighting. She doubted Foy, who by then had 10 years of law enforcement experience, would be of much help.

“She saw me get out of the car, and she yelled out to her neighbors, ‘They sent me a girl! They sent me a girl!’” Foy said.

Minutes later, Foy had the fight stopped and the son in handcuffs.

The scenario is one she won’t forget.

“I was very offended that she had that type of attitude,” Foy said. “She did apologize. She just thought that I wouldn’t be able to handle the situation. Seeing a female, it caught her off guard.”

While being a woman can put an officer at a physical disadvantage when dealing with unruly suspects, McFarland said in some cases she has an easier time diffusing angry arrestees because she isn’t a man.

“… Sometimes, with me being a female, they don’t have that competition they would have with a male deputy – who’s bigger, who’s badder,” she said.

Of course, being a female in a male-dominated profession can be a challenge at times as well, said McFarland.

But the reaction she gets from the public is more one of surprise than anything else, she added.

“Sometimes the look on people’s faces, seeing a female in brown, is humorous because they’re not expecting it,” she said. “You kind of get used to it after a while.”

McFarland said she’s been given every opportunity that her male counterparts have received during her time at the sheriff’s department, including the chance to go through training for special task forces like the joint city/county Emergency Response Team (formerly known as the S.W.A.T. team), which she joined in 2009.

Foy hopes that the strides made by women in law enforcement today will empower the female officers of tomorrow.

“I want to see females in chiefs’ positions or be a sheriff or be a deputy chief,” she said. “I hope they pick up the torch and carry it as far as they can.”

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