Women changing the face of Central Florida law enforcement

Females comprise 12% of police forces across the country

ORLANDO, Fla. – When you or your family calls police for help, chances are the officers who arrive are going to be men.

Law enforcement agencies in Central Florida told News 6 they have been working for years to recruit more women, but many said it has been a challenge.

The problem

U.S. Census numbers show women make up 51% of the country’s population, but they make up only 12-14% of law enforcement, according to the latest data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

According to BJS data, that number goes down to 9% in Florida.

At Valencia College’s Criminal Justice Institute, three women are currently enrolled in a class of 46.

[INSIDER EXTRA: A deputy shares how she told her family about her career | See a breakdown of Central Florida law enforcement officers by gender]

“I really didn’t think of any other career path that I wanted to do,” Brianna Dion said. “I set my mind to it, and here I am.”

“It’s very important for me to make a difference,” Yeishallee Berrios said.

“There’s obstacles throughout this whole 20 weeks,” Dion said. “Every week is an obstacle, and you just have to push through it mentally and physically. I mean, when we originally started, there’s a class of 46, and only three of us were female, so it’s a little intimidating going in with all those guys, you know what I mean?”

“What society sets -- we are the weakest sex, if you will, to do certain tasks,” Berrios said. “I want to be able to break that. I want to be able to, you know, teach other women and other little girls to actually be able to believe in themselves.”

Brianna Dion undergoes physical training at Valencia College's Criminal Justice Institute. (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“Historically, it has been a male-dominated career,” Orange County Sheriff John Mina said. “It’s a shame because you know, our country and the state of Florida -- we’re half female. So, you would think that we can get a little closer to half the workforce with females. So that’s why we’re trying to improve that.”

30x30 Initiative

A group of police leaders, researchers and professional organizations have joined forces with New York University School of Law’s Policing Project and the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives to launch what they called the “30x30 Initiative.”

More than 250 law enforcement agencies across the country have signed on, pledging to increase the number of women on their forces, so they make up 30% of the roster by 2030.

More than 250 law enforcement agencies have signed up with the 30x30 Initiative. (Courtesy: NYU School of Law Policiing Project) (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is one of three Central Florida agencies that have signed on, so far.

Orlando Police Department and New Smyrna Beach Police Department also made the pledge.

Recruiting more women

Mina said the secret to hiring more women is recruiting everywhere.

“We’ve traveled as far west as Texas,” he said. “We go to military installations all across the southeastern U.S., including Fort Bragg and Camp LeJeune. If you look at the military, the military is a diverse workforce. So, we do get a lot of females, we do get a lot of diverse applicants from the military.”

Their efforts also include large events, like Florida Classic Weekend in Orlando, which draws thousands of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M University football fans.

“We have different positions that we have available,” Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Cindy Zayas said.

Zayas works as a field recruiter for the agency, and she spent Florida Classic Weekend at a job fair at Amway Center.

“I see people that maybe were thinking about a career in law enforcement before, but they just didn’t know how to take the initial steps,” she said. “We can talk to them, reach out, and they have an outlet or they have somewhere and some way to engage with us.”

Zayas said female officers and deputies have an inherent skill that helps them more than men.

“Research has shown that we are better with the victims, especially with sexual assault and child abuse. We are very compassionate,” she said. “We have a really big role in law enforcement that’s very beneficial to the community, as well as our fellow officers.”

“Law enforcement has been calling me since I was little, and that’s when I decided to do it,” said Madison DaSilva, a criminal justice major at the University of Central Florida.

She stopped by Zayas’ booth at the job fair and expressed interest in joining OCSO.

“I’m like any woman that wants to know more women in law enforcement, but it’s more important to me about who’s right for the job,” she said. “You know, you do need women so that you can connect with other women in the community, but the most important thing to me is the safety of the community -- whether that be men or women.”

Confronting societal norms

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Kaira Simmons was sworn in almost two years ago.

“There’s at least one female on each squad,” she said.

She said she kept her application to the police academy a secret from her family because of how they might react.

“I actually didn’t tell my dad until the last minute that I was doing this, and he definitely had his reservations -- absolutely not,” she said. “(He) told me so many times, ‘you could just come back home,’ ‘we’ll figure it out,’ ‘you can work at my job doing something like security,’ and I’m like, ‘we can’t work together. We can’t do that.’”

Chief Deputy Denise Demps, who has served with OCSO for more than 30 years, had a similar story.

“I haven’t told my mom, I didn’t tell my grandmother. I didn’t tell my sister. I didn’t tell anyone in the family,” she said recalling when she applied to the academy. “I was afraid that they would try to talk me out of it.”

Now, she and her sister are both deputies.

Demps became the highest ranking women within the sheriff’s office when she was promoted to chief deputy in 2021.

“I’ve done everything you can think of in this agency, except fly a helicopter, canine and mounted (patrol),” she said. “Without women in law enforcement, we’re missing a critical aspect from what the community needs.”

As for the “30x30 Initiative,” Demps believes it’s a start.

“I think it is a good solution. I think we could do more, but we have to start somewhere,” she said. “It’s going to be challenging, of course, but I think it is an initiative where we are focusing on a great need.”

Other Central Florida agencies

According to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, women make up 15% of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s sworn officers.

Despite not signing onto the “30x30 Initiative,” the Rockledge Police Department and Davenport Police Department are already close to the 30% initiative goal with women making up 27% of their departments.

Much smaller agencies, such as police departments in Ponce Inlet, Umatilla, Indialantic and Howey-In-The-Hills have no female police officers, according to the FDLE data.

Most agencies acknowledged more women need to be hired.

Deland police said they have been partnering with Stetson University’s athletic program to put them through physical and agility courses. Spokesman Chris Graham said the women’s soccer team was next to go through it.

“Our department is led by a female, Tavares Police Chief Sarah Coursey,” Tavares police detective Courtney Sullivan said. “Our Criminal Investigations Division is entirely made up of females. I would say we are definitely close to the 30% and hope that in the next several years we will see more females become part of the department.”

“As a female police chief, hiring female officers is always a top priority,” Belle Isle Police Chief Laura Houston said. “It is difficult at best. I have been a police officer since 1987 and truly know the value of having female police officers on every squad/agency. We currently have two female officers in addition to me, and they are absolute rock stars.”

Palm Bay police spokesman Lt. Michael Roberts said his agency may have fewer than 20% female officers, but they are searching for the best candidates.

“The department strives to hire the best applicants possible to ensure the quality of policing for the citizens of Palm Bay meets both department and citizens’ expectations,” he wrote in a statement. “As the city and department grow, these standards will not be sacrificed.”

Many agencies pointed out there is already a recruitment crisis within the ranks of law enforcement separate from male and female.

“The goal of the Orange City Police Department is to select the best possible applicants for employment to create a balanced and diverse workforce,” Lt. Sherif El-Shami wrote. “We promote equitable hiring practices and support all applicants in the hiring process to create a more unified police force that collectively will be prepared to protect the community, which is our ultimate goal.”

“We have never made it a point to exclude someone that is well qualified just because they are not of a certain age, sex, religion, etc.,” wrote Lt. Paul Bloom with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. “For us, to miss a great candidate, whether that candidate is male or female, would be a mistake. The obvious concern for us with a program like this is that it would keep a good candidate away from pursuing a career here just because we are trying to comply with a program.”

“It is important to note that the Oakland Police Department surpasses the national average of 12% sworn female officers, and in fact, nearly doubles it,” said spokeswoman Elisha Pappacoda. “The Oakland Police Department currently has 19 sworn members. Of these, four are female; a 21% rate. The Oakland Police Department welcomes diversity in hiring and encourages anyone interested in an honorable profession such as law enforcement to submit their application for review.”

“We are proud to say our percentage of women deputies is 25% of our force(161 out of 644), more than double the national average,” said Bob Kealing, spokesman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “We are always looking for opportunities to increase those numbers. We’re not familiar with this particular initiative, but we’re not opposed to looking in to it further.”

“The Kissimmee Police Department will formally join the initiative,” said spokeswoman Samantha Scarp. “We have been unofficially participating for several years, with our percentage of female officers increasing every year since 2017. We have concentrated our efforts on recruiting more women to join the organization. KPD believes in having a team that mirrors our demographic in the City of Kissimmee, and our ideal goal is to have women make up 50% of our department. Women currently make up 23% of our sworn staff, and our leadership roles comprise 29% of the women at the Kissimmee Police Department.

The Altamonte Springs Police Department offered this:

“We hire the best people we can, irrespective of their gender or race,” wrote Senior Police Officer Michelle Montalvo. “We are proud of all of our officers. As you know, it is illegal to hire (or not hire), promote (or not promote) someone because of their gender or race, or other characteristics like those.

“I want to take the opportunity to share with you our hiring process and philosophy. We strive to provide our community with exceptional, well-trained professionals. We only hire the most qualified individuals. The Altamonte Springs Police Department hiring process includes passing a physical fitness test, a written examination, a psychological examination, and a background check. Our agency hires only those who complete this rigorous process. Once hired, the candidate is immersed in the field training process. They spend several months on patrol with experienced police officers learning about our agency’s culture, the City of Altamonte Springs, and the ‘Altamonte Way.’ The candidate’s performance, attitude, capabilities, and personal safety habits, are constantly reviewed and scrutinized – up to the very last day before an officer retires. It may sound like hyperbole, but it is not: If an officer has a training class or physical fitness test on the day before their retirement, they are required to attend. You may ask why. The answer is as simple as it is obvious. That officer may have to respond to a call for service on their last day of employment, and our officers will be trained and ready to serve.

“We believe that it is incumbent upon us to ensure that all of our officers perform to the same exceptional level, irrespective of gender or race, tenure, or rank. Our residents deserve nothing less, and that forms the basis of our philosophy,” she wrote.

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About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.