This month, voters elected the second woman in history to serve as Travis County sheriff. Now, the department is working to recruit more female deputies and corrections officers to its ranks.
Tracy Westbrook never saw herself working as a police officer. She was in her late '40s teaching Krav Maga classes when one of her students approached her about applying to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
“I just wanted to tour the jail, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll think about it!’” Westbrook said.
Today, she’s Officer Tracy Westbrook, a five-year veteran of the sheriff’s department. She got her start working as a corrections officer, then went on to become an investigator. Now she works in recruiting.
One of the office’s latest initiatives is encouraging more women to join. Out of the more than 1,600 employees at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, only 208 are female uniformed officers. This gender disparity isn’t unique to the sheriff’s office. It holds true for police departments in many major cities as well.
“Society just hasn’t really gotten to that point yet where a lot of girls want to be the superhero like boys do, and that’s changing now, but we’re addressing an adult population who didn’t necessarily grow up like that,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook said that being one of the few women comes with its challenges. She gets a lot of questions from female recruits about the physical demands of the job. Many women also wonder about the unpredictable scheduling of police work and how that affects officers’ families.
Westbrook said those challenges are real – she’s had to navigate them herself – and that overcoming them is a learning process. On the other hand, she said, there are advantages: For example, female officers tend to be better communicators and better at de-escalating conflict.
“There have been hot situations that I’ve walked to in male units where the inmate is very angry and wants nothing to do with the officer except to be very aggressive towards him, and I can just walk in and say, ‘Hey, how y’all doing?’ and kind of take it down a notch simply because of who I am, and that’s been really helpful,” she said.
Potential female recruits may be drawn to police work by a major development at the sheriff’s office. Travis County voters have elected a woman, former Precinct 3 Constable Sally Hernandez, to the office of top cop. Westbrook thinks that having a female sheriff could be appealing, but she wants recruits to know their success will be based on merit.
“I hope that it does attract more females, but whoever the persons are who apply, we just want the best of the best, with the most courage in their heart and the most intelligence and the most determination to win,” she said.
This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.