A badge is a badge, no matter who is wearing it.
And while for some, it may seem different to see an increased number of women donning the blue, to those officers and those they serve with, having more women on the force is a benefit. But ultimately, regardless of gender, what makes a good officer is a heart of service and a will to sacrifice.
Two of the newest female officers in the county are at the Canton Police Department. Officers Tonya Chaney, 38, and Taylor Harkins, 22, graduated from Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) — which is taught at the Haywood Community College — less than a year ago. Their class had five males and five females, a makeup that was unprecedented.
Unlike some other organizations, such as the branches of the U.S. military, women who go through BLET are held to the exact same standard as their male counterparts.
“Either you pass or you don’t,” Harkins said.
One member of Harkins’ and Chaney’s class was Brittany Trull, who is now an officer with the Waynesville Police Department. Trull, 25, said the growth achieved by the women who completed the BLET class was incredible.
“If you would have seen the five of us at BLET then and now, you’d see a big difference,” she said.
Trull, who also has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Western Carolina University, said that because they are held to the same standard, women have to push themselves harder to make the grade.
“You gotta want it because it’s not going to be given to you at all,” she said.
Harkins said her mentor while she was at Pisgah High School was school resource officer Jennifer Robertson. Robertson, 35, has served as K-9 handler and is now a patrol shift supervisor for the Canton Police Department. Robertson said she is proud that she was able to mentor the future officer.
“I feel like I made an impression on her,” she said, adding that she also mentored plenty of other students, male and female.
A mentor chain
Robertson’s role model early on was Paige Shell of the Waynesville Police Department, who has risen through the ranks during her time there and has been a member of the criminal investigations division for the last six years, where she has handled some of the departments largest and most high-profile cases.
As spectacular as that is, Shell’s most impressive accomplishment may be her time spent on the department’s special response team (SRT), which serves high-profile warrants and handles risky situations such as hostage standoffs.
“I was very proud of that,” Shell said of her time on SRT.
Like going through BLET, Shell, 35, said she was required to meet the same physical standards as male SRT members.
“You have to have the heart and will to do it,” she said.
And Shell isn’t shy about discussing her future ambitions.
“I’d love to be chief someday. I won’t lie,” she said.
Shell’s accomplishments and ceaseless ambition have trickled down throughout the ranks.
“Well, Paige did it, and she’s a girl, so I think I can do it,” Trull said of Shell’s time with SRT.
Local police chiefs are also embracing the hiring of more female officers as they graduate BLET. Along with the recent hires at Waynesville and Canton, Maggie Valley Police Department has also recently hired a new female officer.
Canton Police Chief Shawn Gaddis said he has been thrilled to hire the women he has simply because he believes they’re the right people for the job.
“For me, I want that diversity,” he said. “If their heart is in law enforcement, I want to extend the opportunity to them so they can succeed.”
And he has equal faith in all his officers, regardless of gender.
“There is no given situation where I wouldn’t feel 100 percent confident going into it with one of my female officers,” he said.
Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed, whose department has employed several other females over the last few decades, agreed and added that he believes there are some situations where victims may be more willing to open up to a female officer during investigations.
“One is certain investigations involving women and children victims, sometimes the female officers can develop a rapport quicker with those victims,” he said.
“Female officers working in patrol are needed to adequately and safely search females that are taken into custody,” he added.
“We have an advantage being able to connect with certain victims,” she said.
However, Shell was also quick to point out that she doesn’t show special favor to anyone. She recalled one situation where she responded to a domestic dispute between a man and a woman, and the man groaned when he saw a female officer arrive.
“He automatically assumed I was going to take her side, and I said, no, that’s not how it works,” she said.
Robertson said she has had similar encounters.
“I don’t go in feeling sympathetic for one side or the other,” she said firmly.
In fact, it seems that the people who see a difference between male and female officers are only ever folks who’ve never worn the badge.
“I’ve had guys ask that sporadically … why aren’t you at home with your kids?” Chaney, a single mom, said.
However, Chaney believes that being a mother makes her just that much better at serving her community.
“I wanted to do something my kids would be proud of,” she said.
Chaney also said she has been happy to serve as a role model for the community’s youth.
“The little ones will say, ‘I want to be a girl officer like you,’” Chaney said.
“Even the little boys,” Robertson quickly added, and Chaney agreed.
Because they’ve been serving in law enforcement for over a decade each, Robertson and Shell were able to discuss how they’ve seen law enforcement change. Basically, the strategy has evolved to put an emphasis on de-escalation over using force.
“Before you had to show you had a pair,” Robertson said.
“Not to say I wouldn’t jump in if there were a fight,” Robertson said. “But that’s not as much how it is anymore.”
The officers’ advice for young women looking at a career in law enforcement was simple. Before making a commitment, speak with a local officer to gain an understanding of how the job really works. And most of all, be bold.
“Don’t be scared because you’re a girl,” Robertson said. “Step outside of your comfort zone. At least go through BLET and see what you think.”