Think it’s tough being a police officer in 2020? Try being a female cop. Here’s what we’re up against.

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Since my first job as a teenager working at a supermarket, creating a healthy work/home life balance has always weighed on me. While still in college, I started my eventual life-long federal career as a U.S. Customs Service inspector at Newark Liberty International Airport.

It was not the easiest environment to enter, with unpredictable schedules, mandatory weekends, holidays and overtime, and a competitive workforce. The expectations were high.

Unlike my peers at Customs, I also faced the added challenge of being a young, single mother.

I was blessed to have the job since it was my sole means to support my daughter. It was a great career that came with a price. As one of only a few female inspectors, I was often required to stay late to ensure there were always two females on duty to assist with female travelers.

I depended heavily on my parents and sister as babysitters. This itself was nothing new. My parents and sister have always been there for me: as a teen mom finishing high school, then through college, and then as a federal law enforcement officer.  

Despite a strong family support system, I know the job took its toll on my daughter, who didn’t get nearly enough “mommy time” and I suffered as well from not getting enough time with her.

It’s a common complaint of so many in law enforcement, male or female, the lack of family time, but when you’re a single parent and there’s no partner to make up the difference with your child, it makes the challenge all the greater.

I, like so many other parents, often felt there were not enough hours in a day to meet all of the responsibilities at home and in the workplace.

With limited time with my daughter during those years, I did my best to make the time I had with her count. It helped to have planned activities, something we could both look forward to, and that helped get us through the tougher times when we knew we might be separated for a couple of shifts or longer. 

Birthdays, holidays, and just getting together for a barbecue with extended family gave us both the sense of connection and support we needed.

A few years into my career, 9/11 happened and changed everything, including my career path.

The U.S. Customs Service was restructured under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Post 9/11, our mission shifted, and I eventually became an intelligence research specialist within the ICE Office of Investigations, which eventually became ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Our purview was quite wide and included drug smuggling, child exploitation, human trafficking, financial fraud, and, of course, national security. While the job was both demanding and rewarding, it was also my first time in many years that I was able to have, more or less, a nine to five workday.

It was a godsend for my daughter and me, but it was short-lived.

A few years later, I had a difficult decision to make when the opportunity arose to apply for the HSI special agent position. My predictable work schedule as an intelligence research specialist  had made life for my daughter and me so much easier, but the career opportunities this new position offered were hard to resist.

I enjoyed working alongside special agents as a customs inspector and intelligence research specialist and knew there were endless opportunities for my family with this career change. With the support of my family once again, I took the special agent position and entered back into the world of unanticipated shifts, long hours and travel. 

I have largely focused on gang, drug and weapons smuggling investigations. I’ve arrested scores of bad guys, traveled around the world and had amazing, sometimes surreal, life experiences with HSI.

Working with the supportive men and women of HSI, I was able to strike a balance between work and home and excel, recently being promoted to the rank of assistant special agent in charge of the Newark field office.

I appreciate HSI for the opportunity and how they recognize the value in women in leadership positions. Being a senior manager has given me the opportunity as a leader to foster a welcoming, supportive environment for the next generation of agents.

I particularly value recruiting a diverse workforce and giving opportunities to those that may have been overlooked in the past or had to overcome adversity, as I had. 

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I would be remiss if I did not mention another key to my success—having a supportive spouse.  At the same time I made the move to special agent, I met the man who would become my husband and with whom I had my second daughter.

My husband’s understanding and support has been crucial in my career. That support included taking care of our young daughter, with the help of our older daughter, while I did an 18-month tour of duty (TDY) on a DHS task force in Washington, D.C.

It was very tough on my family life and left us with just weekends to spend together, but we all made the best of it. It was my husband who held us all together during that time.

Coming full circle, my oldest daughter, who is now in her 20’s, has decided to pursue a career in law enforcement. Within weeks she will start as an intelligence research specialist with HSI, where she can make a difference as she protects the community and supports criminal investigations.  

If I could give any advice, if you’re a young woman considering a career in law enforcement, go for it! 

There has never been a better time to be a woman in law enforcement, whether it’s at the federal, state or local level. Law enforcement organizations want more, not less of us, as we have much to offer in terms of perspective and work ethic.

If you, like me, all those years ago, feel the odds may be stacked against you personally and professionally, just know that stepping out of your comfort zone could lead to success you never imagined.

If helping hands are available, reach for them. Don’t feel weak or guilty for accepting help, because, like me, you may be in a position one day to pay it forward many times over to the community and to the next generation of law enforcement officers.

 

Written by Vicki Parrish, who is an Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations, Newark, NJ.

 

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