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"Women in law enforcement still face obstacles"
Rolling Meadows Review, Arlington Heights, IL
March 14th, 1996 -- BY ANDREA L. BROWN, STAFF WRITER

When she began working as a police officer in Bartlett, Joan Kopanitsanos ordered an equipment belt for her uniform.

When she showed up for duty the day her uniform belt arrived, her fellow officers wore it around their hat bands to illustrate its tiny size.

Kopanitsanos took the kidding from her colleagues in stride. It was all part of her experience as the first female officer on the small-town force back in the early '80s.

"You have to be a little tough-skinned if you want to be a female cop," Kopanitsanos said during a program on women in law enforcement held at Harper College last Thursday.

After 15 years with the Bartlett Police Department, Kopanitsanos is now a lieutenant in charge of support services. She was one of three woman who spoke about their law enforcement careers during Women's History Week programs at Harper.

Completing the panel moderated by Harper professor Deb Scerbicke were Carol Lusky, a sergeant with the Hanover Park Police Department, and Karla Osantowski, Chicago Heights chief of police.

By the time she was 14 years old, Lusky knew she wanted to be a police officer.

But when she was assigned to the investigations section at the Hanover Park Police Department, her supervisor did not know what to do with her or even what to say to her.

"Sure is nice to have some fluff around the office," was about all the man could muster, Lusky said.

On a subsequent rotation, Lusky was placed on the toughest patrol detail in town.

"It was kind of a make it or break it," Lusky said. "I guess I made it."

While Lusky and Kopanitsanos rose through the ranks in their respective departments, Osantowski started at the top.

She was named chief of the Chicago Heights Police Department after a career as a state's attorney. Her charge was to clean up a corrupt department that was under federal indictments and investigations.

"I think the thing that cinched it was the six months I spent in public integrity," Osantowski said, referring to her state's attorney stint.

Bucking stereotypes

All three speakers last week agreed that whenever women find themselves among the first to join a police department, they have to get used to bucking stereotypes, including perceptions that women might not be up to the physical demands of the job, prone to panic in a fight or just plain naive.

Kopanitsanos balked when she was asked to sign up for extra drivers training not required of the other officers. She felt her driving skills were just fine. After all, she learned to drive from her father, a Chicago truck driver.

Despite such small slights, Kopanitsanos said she had the support of her male colleagues and eventually earned respect from a handful of detractors.

"No one really hit on me. They were protective, but they weren't sickeningly protective," Kopanitsanos said.

Still, many departments have not established appropriate policies for dealing with matters unique to women.

"They don't know what to do if you're pregnant," Kopanitsanos said. "They treat it as an off-duty injury."

Lusky said she managed to get along well with her male colleagues - to the point where she even married one.

"I advocate police officer marriages," Lusky said. "Being married to a police officer, you can relate."

Physical demands

As far as the physical demands of the of job, there are ways to deal with situations without them escalating into fisticuffs.

Lusky said she has been in two physical confrontation in all her years on the Hanover Park force.

"Both were started by male officers, where you jump in to assist," Lusky said.

For Deborah Damore, an Elk Grove Village DARE officer who attended last week's panel, 95 percent of the job is communication.

Her colleague, Sgt. Lynn Atkinson, who also attended the seminar, said she has been involved in a number of fights in the process of arrests.

But physical altercations involving police officers and offenders in Elk Grove Village have become increasingly rare as departments increasingly stress communication skills, she said.

The key to success as a female officer is to be yourself, maintain a sense of humor and not try to outdo the male officers, because each person has his or her own talent at which they can excel, Kopanitsanos said.

"You can never be one of the boys, and who the heck would want to be?" Osantowski asked.

Reprinted with permission from the Rolling Meadows Review


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