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Rock Hill's female officers defy stereotypes

When Kathy Harveston walks into a room with her gentle blue eyes, big smile and glasses, she's used to people asking if she's a teacher or a librarian.

She's even more used to their reaction when she tells them what she really does for a living - she's a sergeant with the Rock Hill Police Department, only the second female sergeant in the department.

"They say, 'I didn't know women police officers are supposed to look like that,' " she said, grinning.

It's one of the misconceptions she and other female officers face every day, some of which they say come from TV shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI."

Harveston and some of her female co-workers - detectives Trista Baird and Toshia Smith and master police officer Sarah Blair - know the misconceptions well, including:

That women can automatically enter the force as a detective.

That they can't have a family or a dating life.

And, most importantly, that they aren't "big enough" or "strong enough" to be in law enforcement.

"You don't wear heels to work," said Harveston, 58, laughing.

Women make up about only about 15 percent of officers in all law enforcement agencies, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. While that's an improvement from 20 years ago by about six percentage points, Rock Hill is actively recruiting more female officers.

Currently, the department's staff is comprised of 41 percent minorities, a category that includes women. The department couldn't provide specific numbers for how many women it employs.

"We want to continue to recruit quality people," said Police Chief John Gregory, "and we want a diverse pool to choose from."

'Not something girls do'

Harveston never considered being a police officer while she was growing up in Greenback, Tenn.

"It's a very small town," she said. "I think my (high school) class was about 45. In my community, law enforcement wasn't something girls do."

Harveston married, had two children and began to work in a bank. Later, as a single mother, she worked for an airline company.

When a friend told her in 1990 she should consider applying for a security position at the Knoxville airport, she laughed, pointed to her background as a mother and said, "That's not really me."

Still, she applied, fired a gun for the first time and got the job.

Working in public safety was "a good career," one she loved, she said.

"Then Sept. 11 happened," Harveston said. "When that happened, my husband (she had remarried) worked for U.S. Airways. We had to move to Monroe, N.C."

Wanting to stay in law enforcement, she joined the Rock Hill Police Department as a patrol officer.

Harveston laughed and shook her head talking about a major obstacle for her - her sense of direction.

"The hardest time I had coming to a different place was getting around the city," she said. "I knew I could do it, but I needed to be trained. I admit going home and crying about it."

Harveston became a detective in 2004, working in the sex crimes unit. She was promoted to sergeant last year.

Women "want to come in and be detectives right away," Harveston said, addressing a common misconception. "You need the strong background experience with patrol."

That's why every new hire begins as a patrol officer.

Being a woman has its benefits when talking to certain victims, Harveston said.

"It does make a difference being a mother," she said. "You have to think outside of your emotional box. You can't let your emotions affect your ability to do your job."

Harveston says her experience as a female officer helps her handle calls a little differently, helping de-escalate situations through words and not necessarily physical force.

She recounted one of the most rewarding times of her career.

A woman had reported being kidnapped, locked in a trunk, driven to North Carolina and raped. Police in Charlotte had caught a man who matched the suspect's description.

The victim told Harveston she had left a ring in the suspect's trunk for identification.

They found the ring.

"It was one of those times I could have shouted," she said. "I was so excited."

But what Harveston finds most rewarding is the big family she has found in the police force. Once, trying to break up a fight at a club by herself, she mentioned on the scanner someone had thrown a beer bottle in her direction.

Within minutes, more officers were on scene to help.

"There's always somebody there," she said.

Female officers, Harveston said, don't expect - and don't receive - special treatment because of their gender.

"You need to understand, you're just like your brother," she said. "Don't expect things just because you're female.

"But don't expect to be mistreated just because you're female, either."

'Compassion to help'

For 27-year-old Trista Baird, that strong sense of family saved her life in February 2010.

Baird attended Winthrop University to pursue a degree in psychology and sociology. She finished an internship as a victim's advocate and was working as a dispatcher. Then she thought she'd like to try being a police officer.

She joined Rock Hill police in 2007 on patrol and joined the street crimes unit two years later.

In February 2010, Baird was among officers and drug agents serving a search warrant at a home on Arlington Avenue where Tymon Wells lived with his girlfriend and her small children.

Wells opened fire. Baird was outside, in front of the house. When officers returned fire, she was struck in the wrist.

A fellow officer who had some medical training stepped in immediately and helped stop the bleeding.

"Had he not done what he did," Baird said, she would have lost a lot more blood and might have bled to death.

It took a metal plate, six screws and two weeks of recovery before Baird was able to return to work.

"It was amazing to see how all the people I work with came together," she said. "I had a huge support system."

In fact, so many of her co-workers visited her in the hospital that the nurses told her no more visitors were allowed.

The experience didn't deter her from her job. She returned more thankful than ever.

"You come into this job knowing you can get hurt," she said.

But that shouldn't keep anyone from joining, Baird said, adding that she hopes to eliminate the misconception about not being "tough enough" or not "taken seriously" as a female officer.

"What we do have is compassion and personal skills," she said.

Today she is a detective investigating the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, working with the Department of Social Services and Safe Passage, the nonprofit organization that provides services to abuse victims.

"The most rewarding case was, I think, three little boys," Baird said. "Their stepfather was abusing them, and they were always scared to talk because they didn't want to get taken away from each other."

Later, after she had helped them, all three boys ran up and thanked her.

Baird is expecting a baby boy this month with her husband, who is a Fort Mill police officer and a Marine.

"All of the victims I help, I have a compassion to help them," she said.

"With my own, I think that'd encourage me more to help them so they'll be safe."

She scoffed at the notion that female officers can't have a family, citing misconceptions seen with the TV character Olivia Benson, a detective who is portrayed as having practically no personal life on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Baird said Chief Gregory insists that family has to be a top priority.

'Making a difference'

Family is a huge priority for warrant officer Sarah Blair, 32.

Blair moved from Michigan to Rock Hill to be closer to her parents. She was working at the Cracker Barrel when some officers came in. She asked them about dispatcher positions.

Instead, she ended up at the police academy in 2001.

"About two weeks in," she said, "I knew I wanted to help people."

Since Blair has come on board, she has served more than 15,000 warrants.

Blair is credited with helping streamline the process police use to serve warrants.

She started sending out letters to people with outstanding warrants, encouraging them to turn themselves in.

Once, she said, a truck driver out on the road turned around and traveled back just to turn herself in. Several people have thanked her for giving them that chance.

"If you help one person, it feels like you're making a difference," Blair said. "I try to give everyone the opportunity to do the right thing, even if they do make one mistake."

Blair has a daughter, but manages her job, family and taking classes at York Technical College. She has aspirations of becoming a judge.

She points to herself as evidence that police work is not just "a boy's job."

"I'm 5-foot-1 and not a whole lot of people push me around," she said.

"You can wear your lip gloss, carry a gun and balance your life."

'So many opportunities'

Chance meetings brought detective Toshia Smith onto the force.

The 34-year-old from Florida attended South Carolina State University to pursue a criminal justice degree. She was working in probation and parole back in Florida and enjoyed it.

Smith moved to Rock Hill with her husband, an elementary school teacher, and continued probation and parole work here.

The father of one of her husband's students was a police officer, who suggested she join the Rock Hill Police Department.

Smith began on patrol in 2005 and later became a school resource officer at Rawlinson Road Middle School. She also was a youth services officer at several elementary schools and worked with the Worthy Boys and Girls Camp.

The camp began in 1949 when 48 acres of land was donated to the Rock Hill Pistol Club. One of the conditions of the donation was that a camp for children be developed.

Going on its 64th year, the week-long camp is operated by Rock Hill police. It provides boys and girls ages 9 through 12 the chance to fish, swim, learn about plants and animals and take trips.

It's also meant to teach children how to serve.

Working with the camp was a touching experience for Smith.

"You have so many opportunities to do so many different things," she said.

"You have the opportunity to be a mentor. You're able to...see the kids grow up and go to college."

Smith became a detective last year.

"You don't have to be here 10 years to have an opportunity open for you," she said. "The opportunities to advance are tremendous."

As a detective, another of Smith's rewarding moments was getting a murder confession from a suspect.

"You look at the victim's family and are able to say, 'We know what happened to your loved one,'" she said.

Smith agrees with Harveston - you can have a family and a career.

"If you don't feel fulfilled and want to do something that means something," she said, "this is the place for you."

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