Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Leslee Collins once considered filing a lawsuit against the sheriff's office because she couldn't get a job as a deputy.
Friday, 16 years after becoming a patrol officer, Collins, 36, was promoted to lieutenant and will serve as the first female watch commander in the department."This came as a surprise; it happened sooner than I expected," said Collins, currently in charge of a patrol division office in Kearns. "The rumors had been flying for a couple of weeks, but I didn't know if it would happen. It was a short conversation. (Sheriff Aaron Kennard) called and asked if I would take the promotion and would I take watch command and I said `Yes.' "
After hanging up the phone Collins wanted to "jump up and down."
"It's an accomplishment. I think it means something to other women in law enforcement," said Collins, who has also worked in administration and as a juvenile narcotics investigator. "I hope the young female deputies look at me and realize that now there's nothing holding (them) back."
Collins' promotion makes her the second woman in the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office to be named lieutenant. Karen Werner of the Corrections division earned the honor in August 1997. Two women hold the rank of sergeant.
Historically, the climb up the ladder has been slower for women in the sheriff's office than in other local law enforcement agencies.
Although the office hired its first woman deputy, Eunice Sagendorf Rider, in 1969, she was the lone female on patrol until 1974.
In 1990, only 10 women were serving the county as deputies. Since that time, the ranks have grown to 38. Another 60 women serve in the county's Corrections division, working in the jails. Until Friday, however, only four women, Collins among them, held a rank above deputy.
By comparison, the Salt Lake City Police Department, which also has 38 females among its officers, has one female captain, two lieutenants and three sergeants.
"I think (the sheriff's office) has been slower than some, but it's also a lot more accepted career now than it was," said West Valley City Police Sgt. Valeen Illsley, who has been in law enforcement for 22 years. "I can remember when you'd walk into a room and everybody would stop talking. Now (women in law enforcement) are the norm rather than the exception."
Getting past that bias with the public and with male officers has taken some time, said Illsley, who added she remembers working with male officers who said, "Well, I've never worked for a gal before."
Some 20 years ago, even the point-based tests officers had to pass before becoming certified, or earning rank promotions, were gender-biased. That system no longer exists, she said.
"It's been a good-old-boy network for years, but I think most departments now recognize the special strengths that (women) bring to the job," she said.
Werner and Collins agree.
"I remember being one of the first women and when they put us in the jail, I remember (the men) being really surprised at how well we were able to handle the violent prisoners," Werner said. "I've seen some major changes in attitudes."
Werner is thrilled for Collins and watched proudly as she accepted her promotion during a ceremony in the County Commission chambers Friday.
"I'm glad she's there," Werner said. "Now when we sit around the table at the lieutenants' meetings, there will be another woman. It will be different."
Collins can't wait to begin her new job.
"It doesn't matter what your gender is," she said. "A good deputy is a good deputy, and I think I can make a difference."