When Sharon L. Rood started at the Rome Police Department in August 2003, the worst blowback she had to deal with from male officers was that they were sometimes too polite and skittish around a new female officer.
She took care of that quickly.
“They would apologize for swearing. I just had to have a few foul-mouthed conversations, to make them feel more comfortable around me, instead of me comfortable around them,” Rood described in a recent interview.
“I think they were trying to be chivalrous. I kind of had to make my way into being one of the boys, which wasn’t a difficult feat.”
Rood, 39, of Rome, is only the second woman in the history of the city’s police department to be promoted to the rank of sergeant, the next highest rank above patrolman. She has taken over the Juvenile Aid Division after four years as a school resource officer.
Six out of the department’s roughly 70 officers are women, marking the most female officers the Rome Police have had at one time.
The city’s criminal element might have a few choice swear words of their own when dealing with women, but the female officers said their gender has not been a detriment to police work.
“Is it a boys’ club still? Absolutely. But it’s not like there’s still that sign, ‘no girls allowed’. We’re just as welcome as all of them, but it’s still a boys’ club,” said Officer Alexzandra S.M. Carletta, age 29. She joined the force in 2014. Carletta is also the department’s first female K9 officer, fulfilling a dream she’s had for as long as she can remember.
“You can’t expect everybody to change just because all of a sudden you work in a place. This job isn’t always rainbows, unicorns and butterflies. Some days we have fun and some days are really tough,” she said.
“You can’t take offense to some of the things the boys do. You’ve got to be able to joke and laugh right back with them. It makes the camaraderie better. It makes the friendships with them better.”
But such acceptance within the department has not always been the case.
Back in her day
Sandra L. Gerhardt was the first female officer hired by the Rome Police in 1978. She was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant in 1991 and retired in 2008. During her 30 years on the force, Gerhardt said she was passed over for other promotions 15 times.
“I never was told why,” Gerhardt said in an interview. The lack of an answer still bothers her to this day.
“There was a lot of that discrimination, in different forms” when she was hired in the late 70s, Gerhardt said. “It was not too pleasant, no.”
Gerhardt said most of her fellow patrol officers treated her well enough, but the administration at the time was especially hard on her as the first and only female officer. She said she was skipped over for calls while working patrol and was often assigned to desk work.
“They never really wanted me there, that was evident,” Gerhardt said. “Every little thing I did was looked at.”
Gerhardt said that one of the police chiefs she worked under would come up to her several times a week and show her articles of female officers in other departments quitting.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to be here when you retire’,” Gerhardt said. “And I was.”
The former sergeant said her treatment began to improve when her male colleagues complained that since she was being paid the same as they were, she should have to do the same amount of work and no longer be passed over for calls. She said there were improvements over time, and the department was better when she was joined by female officers Melinda Money and Shelley Rotolo about eight years later.
Rotolo would go on to be the first female officer to be in charge of the Juvenile Aid Division. She was appointed to the rank of senior investigator.
“I probably would do it all again,” Gerhardt said of her three decades with the Rome Police. “Though I didn’t really like” the treatment.
The discrimination that Sgt. Gerhardt faced decades ago has all but been erased, according to today’s women behind the badge.
“I’ve never seen any differences (between men and women) over the years. Basically, you’re just one of the guys. Everyone accepts you as you are, as being a police officer and working side-by-side with them on the street,” said Officer Hollie B. Kennedy, age 33. She joined the department in 2008.
“They trust you to be there for them. I’ve never had anyone treat me different just because I’m a female. I think, at times, people are almost more accepting that you’re a female.”
According to FBI law enforcement employment statistics from 2016, sworn female officers make up just over 12 percent of law enforcement, a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past few years.
“Since I’ve started, if you show up to the scene with the right demeanor, nobody’s going to try to press you or anything,” said Officer Alexis Perry, age 27, one of the department’s newest officers. She joined in June 2017.
“Everyone has been respectful. They treat me like one of the guys, and that’s what I wanted most. I didn’t want anyone to have to tiptoe around my feelings.”
While their fellow officers and the top brass have been accepting, the female officers said they face a wide range of reactions when it comes to the city’s criminal element or citizens asking for help.
“I’ve been in situations where, maybe, they think because you’re a female that they’re going to be able to either get away with a little bit more or they’re going to try to just not give you as much respect as a male officer,” said Officer Kelly L. Lupinski, age 30. She joined the department in 2011 and is currently out on maternity leave for the second time. Lupinski will return to regular patrol duties next month.
She said being pregnant did not stop her from doing her job, though she was assigned to more desk duties.
“You kind of have to, not necessarily prove yourself, but you have to make it known that you have the same authority as any male on the job and you’re not going to be treated any differently than anybody else,” Lupinski said.
Sometimes dealing with a female officer can have a calmly effect on dangerous individuals.
“When they go to calls and there’s a male that’s out of control or upset about something, they’ll try to fight back with the officers. But when we’re there, they’ve never done that. They kind of calm down,” said Officer Stacie R. Skidmore, age 24. She joined the department in 2016.
“I’ve never had someone come after me, angry.”
Whatever the reactions they’ve received, the female officers said they must personally remain aware of the limitations they face.
“It’s a big thing with being a female, you have to know your physical limitations. You have to know what you can or can’t do,” said Lupinski.
“We have to use other forms. So in a lot of cases, the fact that sometimes females can talk to people better, you have to utilize that strength, being able to talk to people. You can calm a lot of people down just being able to talk to somebody and being able to relate to somebody instead of coming in with an attitude.”
Not that any of the city’s female officers would let the physical limitations hold them back.
“If you want to push us to that point, we’re going to go to the same level as any man that works here. If you think otherwise, then you’re probably in for a rude awakening,” said Officer Carletta.
Being a police officer, she said, “is something you have to mentally prepare yourself for. And women, you have to mentally prepare yourself a lot more and a lot differently, probably, than men do. You’re outnumbered in this field, not just in this department, in this field.”
The annual police department budget for 2018 is roughly $7 million, according to city records.