Female police officers make an impact valley-wide
When asked to picture a police officer, many might conjure an image of a tall, strong man in uniform. However, female police officers throughout the valley subvert expectations, proudly vowing to serve and protect their communities.
One female officer that serves in Eagle County is Avon Police Officer Colleen Gaspard. Gaspard said she had always been motivated toward service, which motivated her decision to join the military at 17. So, even before her tenure in law enforcement, Gaspard navigated her entire professional life in largely male-dominated spaces.
“In the military, I was a Black Hawk crew chief, so out of 50 people, two of us were female. It was pretty lopsided,” Gaspard said.
Gaspard started her career in law enforcement in Illinois. She explained that the cutoff to join was 35 years old. Gaspard turned 35 while in the police academy. At the agency in Illinois, Gaspard was one of two female officers on the force.
Before joining the Avon Police Department, Gaspard worked for the Eagle Police Department. She said working within the valley before joining the Avon Police Department allowed her to get to know her coworkers and feel more comfortable being the only female officer on staff until Avon Police Officers Stephany Villegas and Theresa Reno later joined the department.
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Avon Police Officer Stephany Villegas said she originally didn’t think she had what it takes to work in law enforcement.
“I always had pretty low self-esteem prior to this job, but what motivated me was the citizen’s academy,” Villegas said.
While attending the citizen’s academy, Villegas said she decided to step out of her shell during the course’s Standardized Field Sobriety Test unit. Villegas volunteered to perform a simulation on an intoxicated volunteer, and a sergeant who saw her told Villegas that he thought she should consider joining the department.
So, Villegas did a ride along with Avon Police Sergeant Bal Herrera, which gave her the push to give law enforcement a try.
“I really loved how close they were to the community and realizing there’s a lot of Latinos in Avon also helped me want to join and help the community with my bilingual skills,” Villegas said.
Despite coming from a family of servicemembers, Eagle Police Officer Megan Heil found her passion for law enforcement while she co-owned a towing company with her ex-husband in Glenwood Springs at 19. While she managed a retail jewelry store by day, Heil said she loved helping with the late night and early morning calls for service for Driving Under the Influence cases.
“I remember knowing the impact those officers were making on their communities, I was hooked—no pun intended,” Heil said.
So, Heil saved for a few years in order to quit her job and put herself through the police academy when she was 23. Heil graduated from the police academy in 2003 and began her career in law enforcement in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Law enforcement has been the best way for me to serve my community and plant roots for my family,” Heil said.
Serving the community and wanting to make a positive difference in people’s lives in some way is something police officers have in common, Gaspard said. However, in order to get to that point, those joining a police force have particular hurdles to jump to ensure their capability of doing the job.
Gaspard said in Illinois, women and men were given separate physical fitness tests in order to join the force. However, excluding Colorado State Patrol, Gaspard said local agencies have candidates strive to meet the same physical standards.
“Males and females have to do the same amount of sit-ups and pushups and run the run in the same amount of time,” Gaspard said.
When she was applying to join the Avon Police Department, Villegas said the physical fitness test was what she was exceptionally determined on excelling in.
“When I applied, there was only one other female,” Villegas said. “I took that as a challenge applying against seven other candidates, six of them being male. I felt like I had something to prove, especially with my short stature.”
So, Villegas trained at home, jumping, doing push-ups and sit-ups and going for runs. Additionally, Villegas said she trained her mind to push what she previously considered her limits. When it was time for her physical exam, Villegas said she lapped every other candidate besides one.
“I was super proud that I showed up all these dudes,” Villegas said.
Entering a male-dominated field was intimidating, Villegas said, which motivated her to be better and work harder.
“Now, actually after meeting everybody and getting to work with everyone, I’ve been here for about two years and all the males are very supportive,” Villegas said. “They don’t treat me differently than they do other males.”
Gaspard said anyone new coming in to work at a police department needs to prove themselves—male or female, big or small, young or old.
“I think there’s still a little bit of the, ‘she’s a female, she’s weak, she won’t be able to pull her weight,'” Gaspard said. “I think there’s a bit of that on the back burner, but not one person ever showed like, ‘you’re not worthy.'”
Heil said that she also felt the pressure to prove that she could do the job, though not because of outside influences, but rather because of her own insecurities. She said she remembered looking around when she first entered the field and not seeing many women.
Heil said that she started out her career in law enforcement determined to prove that women can do everything that men in the field could do.
“Now, 20 years later, I can see that I was wrong,” Heil said. “I can’t do everything that the guys can do, and that’s OK because I bring something to the table that they don’t. I balance them, the guys, and they encourage me. What I lack in physical limitations, I make up for in other areas. A balanced agency needs men and women.”
Heil said she has encountered people who aim to minimize her efforts or diminish her accomplishments to satisfy gender ideology. However, she, Villegas and Gaspard said those instances are few and far between.
“You can’t let someone else define your worth,” Heil said. “I don’t let it bother me.”
Gaspard said that while she hasn’t had someone push back on her because she’s female, sometimes comments can make a person’s judgments apparent.
“You get the little old ladies that are 80, 85 years old that say, ‘Oh, honey, where’s your male coworker?'” Gaspard said. “You get the upset people that (say) ‘you were picked on as a kid in high school so now you have to come out here and be a tough girl,’ or ‘I don’t have to listen to you because (you’re) female.’ Most of the time, you just have to remind them that you’re in charge.”
Villegas said she’s shocked by the effect her uniform gives. As a smaller woman, Villegas said having her uniform on instills her authority.
“I’ve been able to arrest men that are six feet and taller and they’ve complied,” Villegas said. “They’ve all responded without majorly being opposed to me being a female.”
Moreso than finding possible challenges of being a female police officer in the valley, Villegas, Gaspard and Heil said there are many pluses of both being a female police officer as well as having female officers within the community.
Gaspard said he’s had a few instances where, while unconfirmed, she believes people listened and reacted better than they would if they be encountering a male police officer. She explained that many people were raised to respect women and not act violently toward them, which in turn can help limit retaliation.
“So, if you put a little bitty me in front of a big old scary suspect, they’ll come down. Will it always happen that way? Absolutely not,” Gaspard said.
Though in more volatile situations, Gaspard said throwing a female officer in can change the dynamics of a situation—oftentimes toward greater compliance.
Additionally, Gaspard said she enjoys subverting people’s expectations when she responds to a call, especially when on duty with another female officer such as Villegas.
“Last week, Stephanie, my rookie and I responded to a call where my rookie, who’s male, showed up with two females and we took control of the scene,” Gaspard said. “We saved a guy’s life because he needed a tourniquet—two tourniquets.”
Gaspard said she enjoys being able to help people and see them change their lives for the better, though she also said that being a police officer, especially a School Resource Officer, is rewarding because she has the opportunity to be present for members of the community. Being a woman, Gaspard explained that her presence can often be a comforting or maternal one.
Gaspard said when working at Avon Elementary as the school resource officer, plenty of kids come up to give her a hug. Whether it’s an everyday interaction, or an opportunity for Gaspard to comfort a student after a bad day or traumatic situation, she said she enjoys being there for people.
“I know we should always be on our toes about officer safety, but at some point in time, you have to be human,” Gaspard said. “I think it’s a little bit easier to be seen as a female having that human soft side. Or maybe that’s what they see, a female soft side, so they feel more comfortable with me instead of just talking to the big scary guy.”
Gaspard said that when she was growing up, she couldn’t remember ever seeing a female police officer. She said her in-uniform presence shows kids that they can be strong and do whatever they want to.
“We bring military females in to talk to the students during Veteran’s Day week and the female veterans get more like, ‘you actually got to go to war?’ It opens up their eyes, there’s so much more in the world,” Gaspard said.
Heil said she has also enjoyed the opportunity to see young women realize that law enforcement is a career they can absolutely tackle.
“I was given the opportunity to mentor a few young ladies while I was a School Resource Officer at Battle Mountain High School, some of whom are or were law enforcement officers in our valley,” Heil said. “There is no greater honor than being able to share your passion with someone and watch as they make it their own.”
Heil encouraged community members to go out and get to know the police officers within their local law enforcement agency. Whether it’s attending the citizen’s academy like Villegas, going to a Coffee with a Cop event or simply walking up and saying hello, Heil said it’s important for people to see firsthand that the real police officers serving their communities are human.
“We’re all human,” Gaspard also said. “We’re not all just some robotic male. I mean, back in the day you had to be six feet tall, you had to be this much weight. So, we were very uniform across the board. It’s really funny to go to the elementary school when I first started here and hear, ‘um, are you a real cop?’ Yup. They make real girl cops. It’s just showing them that you can do whatever you want to when you get older.”