By Maggie Seybold
Sgt. Angel Poole broke ground for women when she became the first female law enforcement officer at many departments in the Rockbridge area. But even after she opened the door, the number of female officers and deputies has stayed low.
“I was told that the old Rockbridge County Sheriff threw my application in the trash without even looking at it,” Poole said.
She was the first female officer in the Buena Vista Police Department, the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia Military Institute Police Department, and she’s the first woman to be a town sergeant in Glasgow.
“I’ve been in it for 24 years,” she said. “For a long time I was the only woman.”
Her experience reflects a national trend. An FBI survey from 2011 shows that only 12 percent of sworn in officers are women, with the majority of women working for large federal agencies.
Small rural departments are even less likely to have women in their ranks.
A Department of Justice study from 2008 found that small local police departments are only 6 percent women and small local sheriffs’ departments are only 4 percent women. With only one female deputy out of 40, at the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, Rockbridge’s percentages are even lower.
Poole started looking for a job as a police officer in 1990. She quickly realized that getting hired was going to be an uphill battle.
“It took three or four tries to get hired in Lexington,” she said. “Back in the old days it was a little different for women. You had to go beyond what the men did to prove yourself.”
Poole had to work hard in her first few months at the Lexington Police Department to gain the respect of her male peers.
“They don’t care if I’m a man or a woman as soon as I show that I’m not going to back down,” she said.
After she left the Lexington Police Department for a job in construction, Poole realized that she really missed being a police officer. There was a spot open at the Buena Vista Police Department.
“I thought I didn’t have a chance because Buena Vista had never had a woman,” she said. “But when they gave me a chance, I had to prove to the old-school gentlemen that I would always be the first or second one on the fight call.”
Poole and a few of the other Buena Vista Police officers started a Mixed Martial Arts fight club to get extra training experience.
“Back in the days it was called Ruckus in a Cage, just like MMA on TV,” she said. “You get in a cage, and you fight.”
She trained with VMI cadets and with her fellow officers at BVPD. After a while, she got pretty good.
“As soon as I got in the ring, word spread like wildfire. Over 800 people came from Rockbridge area to watch me fight,” she said. “That’s when I gained a lot of respect.”
The match lasted three minutes; Poole beat her opponent.
“The most important thing for women is confidence,” Poole said. “Without it you can’t control a 300-pound, 6-foot man. You can be scared, but you can never show it.”
She served for 13 years at the Buena Vista Police Department before taking a job with the VMI Police Department. She later became a deputy for the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.
“I’ve dealt with kids, that grow up and have kids. Then I deal with those kids, and then they grew up and had kids, and then I dealt with their kids,” she said, laughing. “Crime is vicious and wild.”
Poole retired from her position at the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office in December and became Glasgow’s town sergeant. Dressed in her black Glasgow uniform, it’s clear that she has some experience.
But while Poole may have opened the door, people aren’t walking in.
In many ways, she is still out there on her own. She is the only woman in the Glasgow Police Department, and there are currently no female law enforcement officers for the Buena Vista Police; one female law enforcement officer at the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office; and four female officers at the Lexington Police Department, including special enforcement officers.
Rockbridge County Sheriff Chris Blalock wants to see more women in the applicant pool.
“Like many agencies, we have seen a decrease in the number of applicants overall, and we seldom have a female apply,” he said. “I would like to add to the number of female deputies working at the Sheriff’s Office, but they have to apply to be considered.”
Buena Vista Police Chief Hartman agrees.
“We only have one woman and she’s in administration,” he said. “Sometimes women are better.”
According to the National Center for Women and Policing, women in law enforcement rely more on communication and less on physical force. As a result, women are less likely to be involved in occurrences of police brutality and more likely to effectively respond to calls regarding violence against women, the NCWP says.
Most of the 911 calls in this area are domestic violence calls, in Poole’s experience. She said that having a female presence can make a difference.
“I noticed that men sometimes responded better to me than some of the male officers,” she said.
Lieutenant Kathy Painter, chief of security at the Rockbridge Regional Jail, agrees.
“I think because women are perceived as less aggressive, inmates give us less trouble.”
In Painter’s 12 years at the jail, more women have risen into leadership positions.
“Having more female officers at the jail would help tremendously,” she said. “But we have more women now than we did when I started.”
The Department of Corrections mandates that each jail has at least one female officer per jail shift. The Rockbridge Regional Jail has four shifts, and four women. Of those four women, three are in leadership roles.
“Angel was out there by herself,” Painter said. “Thank God for those pioneer women like her that lay the way.”