Detroit police, fire salute Women in Blue
Lenette Wood spent most of two decades in an EMS rig, saving lives. Now she's the Fire Department mental health counselor, concentrating on psyches.
Police Sgt. Starr Gonzales spent eight years in patrol cars, ticketing countless unlicensed teenagers. Now she's helping Detroit kids get driver training and maybe steering them toward joining the force.
If that's not the stuff TV series are made of, it was the stuff that earns a plaque and an ovation.
Wood and Gonzaleswereamong the finalists for city fire and police woman of the year awards at the Detroit Public Safety Foundation's Women in Blue breakfast Wednesday morning. Wood wound up winning, along with Danielle Woods, a DPD corporal who has become a statewide trainer on LGBT issues.
A foundation event in late November will celebrate heroism, the sorts of dramatic moments that turn up in your living room every week once script writers get involved. The breakfast at the MGM Grand was tethered more to the reality of working in public safety.
The keynote address came from Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge who informed serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar he would die in prison. The key point from the nominations seems to be that the police and fire departments are complex organizations — businesses, really — grinding along as best they can in ways the public rarely sees.
"It's a huge ecosystem we're all a part of," said Assistant Chief of Police Lashinda Stair, who announced Woods' award.
As Stair often tells audiences, she's an unlikely success story, born on the south side of Chicago to a mother who was barely 15. At 45, she's second on the department food chain, working on her third college degree and very much aware she's a woman in a male-centric field.
About 25 percent of the DPD's 3,000 officers are women, an unusually high figure, she said. The numbers are significantly lower in the other part of the public safety building: 15 women among 890 active firefighters, 25 among 240 in EMS.
"It really is about pulling people up behind you," Stair said, and that's typically much of the focus of a fifth-year awards ceremony that will include the Fire Department for the first time.
But to a civilian, what also stands out are the scope and often the anonymity of the accomplishments.
Wood, 49, still works an EMS shift once a month to keep her skills sharp. Otherwise, she's the perpetually-on-call sounding board for problems professional or personal.
Incidents with children take the greatest toll on her colleagues, she said. Particularly grisly accidents are difficult, and it's tough when responders wind up working on people they know, which happens with surprising frequency.
"As I remind people, you have to take care of yourself, too," she said.
Gonzales, 37, oversees recruiting, which brought her to a jobs fair and an epiphany last year at Michigan State University.
Curious as she watched someone from a large company separate resumes into two stacks, she asked why. In the left-hand pile, it turned out, were the applicants without a driver's license, and they were headed to a shredder.
People without a license, Gonzales was told, are considered undependable, inflexible and unmotivated. It struck her then that they are also ineligible to join the police force.
Driver training typically costs $400 to $600, she noted, an impossible burden for a family barely getting by. Get caught driving your little sister to school, and now there are fines and penalties to clear, a further impossibility.
"We're setting up a roadblock for our youth that's so far down the line nobody is seeing it," said Gonzales, who joined DPD after eight years in the Air Force.
Her response, with help, she stressed, from numerous others, was a program called Drive to Thrive. It's providing driver training to 78 younger students at Cody High, a DPD magnet school, and a laws-and-regulations refresher to 30 older kids at University Prep who can test for a license at age 18.
If the program winds up putting officers behind the wheel of Detroit scout cars ... well, that's a bonus.
Heroics are similarly muted for most of the other nominees — 15 from the DPD, five from the smaller pool of women at the Fire Department.
There's a fire chief who has presided over a 20-second trim in dispatch times at the 911 call center. A detective who's become an become in foraging through cell phones for potentially pertinent information, even devising a way to cast thumbprints in Play-Doh and silicone putty to ease entry into Androids and iPhones.
And, there's a police lieutenant who nominated two of the finalists, and wound up a candidate herself.
Police Lt. Sonia Russell, 39, coordinates the police presence at Detroit Lions games, oversees the Project Green Light late-night surveillance system, manages video processing and extraction, and is in charge of collecting and disseminating crime data.
That's macro level. On a more personal scale, she's the leader of excursions to the morgue for interns.
"If you're a police officer," Russell said, "you've got to see dead bodies," and you might as well find out early what that's like.
In less grisly small groups, Russell convenes informal study sessions for women planning to take the sergeant or lieutenant exams.
"Every rank you achieve," she said, "you should have people under you that you are adopting to take to the next level."
Behind her in a meeting room at headquarters was 19-year DPD veteran Vanessa Burt, part of the communications team.
Unnoticed by Russell, she had been listening intently, and as Russell stood to leave she explained why.
"You're phenomenal," Burt said, and beyond that, "You have truly inspired me, just now, to take the sergeants exam."
It wasn't hard to figure out who she would study with.