Allison Rogers knew she wanted to be a police officer, but others had their concerns: Did she consider teaching instead? Had she seen the most recent news articles about officers who were killed in the line of duty?
So Rogers pursued a degree in corrections instead.
“I had a lot of people telling me I wouldn’t want to be in the profession,” said Rogers. “More out of fear than that it wasn’t a noble profession. I’m a pretty small girl … I’m 5-foot-1. With my boots, I’m 5-3.”
In her second year at Minnesota State University, Mankato, she gained the confidence to switch tracks to law enforcement after speaking with an officer from her hometown of Waseca, Minn., where she served as a police reserve. On a recent Saturday morning, Rogers, 23, was among 88 people who packed an informational meeting at the Neighborhood House vying for a spot in St. Paul’s next police academy.
St. Paul is taking concerted steps to recruit and mentor women to counteract the messaging that nearly derailed Rogers. The new community engagement unit is fostering relationships with girls through activities like the East African girls swim team and a girls’ run on Harriet Island.
A recruitment video targeting women, starring many of the department’s female officers, will soon roll out on the department’s social media sites, the city’s cable access channel and at recruitment fairs.
“It’s something that we haven’t done before, where we’ve had a video targeting a specific group,” said Deputy Chief of Support Services Mary Nash, one of the department’s highest ranking officers.
“I think it’s good for us to showcase that we do have a lot of talent, we do actually have a lot of opportunities for women,” she said. “We become a stronger organization with the more women and people of color and diversity that we have, and diversity not just being women and people of color, but, ‘What are the life experiences people are bringing to the department?’ ”
It’s all part of Chief Todd Axtell’s push to hire more women, who he has said typically receive fewer use-of-force complaints than their male counterparts. Nash and Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen, the department’s second-highest ranking officer, said female officers are often skilled at de-escalation because they rely on words rather than physical strength.
“I always knew I was going to pretty much be smaller than everyone I dealt with, so you have to learn how to talk to people,” Nash said.
Nash led the Saturday session for potential recruits, giving them tips on how to prepare if they’re selected from more than 300 applicants to interview for one of 25 to 30 spots in an academy that could start this October.
“What are your experiences in life?” Nash asked the group. “Start thinking about that.”
Rogers was among about a dozen women in attendance that day. “Ideally, we would like to see more,” Nash said.
The number of female officers in the department has grown steadily, making up 12 percent of the force in 1995 and about 23 percent by late 2016. The growth in officers of color follows a similar trend.
Seeing female officers out in the community wasn’t lost on Rogers and her friend, Tierney Kelsey, 22, who also attended the event.
“It’s very important to see” officers like Nash, said Kelsey.
Kelsey and Rogers became friends while working as dispatchers for campus security at MSU. Both are now full-time security guards at St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown St. Paul.
“We can handle any challenge that the male guards can handle,” Kelsey said. “We’re trained the same.”
Although Nash and Wuorinen said the sense of isolation and the blatant gender discrimination they faced has all but disappeared, those memories remain vivid. Nash was the only female recruit in her 1989 academy class of 19 and was one of 35 female officers on the force that year.
Wuorinen became the department’s first female homicide detective when she joined the unit in 1998. “It was really made clear to me early on that I was the token female,” said Wuorinen. “It took a lot to prove to them that I could do the job, and I will say that some of them still, even though I did work my butt off — would still — didn’t appreciate me.”
“In 1998, which wasn’t too long ago when you think about it,” Nash added.
Today, the homicide unit is run by Senior Cmdr. Tina McNamara, one of four women in the department who qualified to run for chief when the job came up in 2016.
“If you’ve had some struggles in your life,” said Nash, “you can certainly have some empathy for the people that we have to interact with every day.”