While policing is still a male-dominated profession, women fill the ranks more than you’d think in Loudoun County.
After 35 years, Cynthia McAlister never thought she would still be in law enforcement. Entering the profession had been a fleeting thought to McAlister back in the ‘80s. Since then, her career has taken her through Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, and through all sorts of positions in law enforcement. Today, she is Purcellville’s Chief of Police.
It’s no secret that law enforcement is considered a male dominated profession. And while that may be true, women are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to law enforcement in Loudoun County.
Their profile keeps rising. McAlister has been Purcellville’s Chief of Police for a year now. Another leader, Captain Vanessa Grigsby, was named the Leesburg Police Department’s interim police chief earlier this year, and has a career in Leesburg that started in 1996.
Out of 582 sworn positions in the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, 68 are women. In the Leesburg Police Department, there are seven women out of 87 total positions. While that’s hardly an equal representation, it is not the “boys club” some people think.
The Tribune interviewed 15 women of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, Leesburg Police Department and Purcellville Police Department about their careers and perspectives.
The women serving Loudoun County come from diverse backgrounds, each with a distinctive story. One thing unites them: a desire to serve the community and the acknowledgement that law enforcement is a tough job. They’re also unanimous is saying that anyone can do the job with enough determination and character — regardless of gender.
Chief of Police Cynthia McAlister — Purcellville Police Dept.
Cynthia McAlister started out working in the finance department of Fairfax County in 1981. Her aunt had helped her find the job when she moved to Virginia from upstate New York. In a few months, McAlister had grown tired of sitting in an office. She hated sitting in an office all day. Then she saw a notice on a bulletin board about job openings in the Fairfax County Police Department. A job where she could be outside and have new experiences every day sounded perfect.
She got the job, and in the years since McAlister worked in patrol, crime prevention, public information and investigations before being promoted to sergeant. McAlister kept climbing the ranks eventually working as an aid to the Chief of Police where she learned more about the administrative side of police work.
“I think women add a lot to law enforcement, they look at things differently, they have a lot of compassion.”
From there, McAlister was transferred to a station in western Fairfax County as the assistant commander before being promoted to station commander. When she made major, she went to the Fairfax County Police Academy as the director. Then McAlister moved to the Resource Management Bureau before finishing up as Patrol Bureau Major.
Though she initially retired, McAlister was lured back when she saw the posting for the Chief of Police position in Purcellville. With two kids in high school and 33 years of experience, McAlister figured the position would be a good fit.
Throughout her career, McAlister cites work-family balance as the biggest challenge. She’s seen many coworkers — men and women — struggle with it as well.
“I found I never wanted to miss anything and I had to miss quite a bit,” McAlister said. “And as a woman you always feel you have to work harder and you have to shine brighter.”
McAlister also says she feels the need to do the perfect job sometimes — to leave things better than how she found them. One thing she thinks would make a big difference in law enforcement: more women.
“I think women add a lot to law enforcement, they look at things differently, they have a lot of compassion,” McAlister said. “For me, it’s been a great career. It’s been fun.”
Detective Katie Baldwin — LCSO
Katie Baldwin stumbled upon law enforcement by accident. Born in South Korea but raised in Argentina, Baldwin is trilingual, and wanted to work for a federal agency where she could use her linguistic background. The lengthy background check process led her to apply for an interpreter position with the LCSO in the meantime.
Baldwin worked primarily with immigrant populations in Sterling, but found herself increasingly unsatisfied by how little influence she had. As she translated questions, she would think of her own follow up questions to ask, but as an interpreter she had no control over the investigation. Three months later, she was in the Police Academy.
“It’s a noble job. I take pride in my job.”
When she joined LCSO 11 years ago, Baldwin felt she had to prove herself as a woman.
“The reality is that people consider this to be a man’s work,” Baldwin said. “Whereas men were given the benefit of the doubt until they messed up, women had to prove themselves from the outset,” she added.
As a property crimes detective now, Baldwin likes that she gets to see her cases all the way to the end. As a patrol officer, she’d take initial report but someone else would carry the case the rest of the way. The steady schedule is also a plus for her.
While she notes the job has gotten more demanding, she encourages anyone who’s interested to go for it.
“It’s a noble job. I take pride in my job,” Baldwin said.
Deputy Jillian Brock — LCSO
Jillian Brock originally planned on going into counseling after college. But she ended up volunteering with the Sterling Rescue Squad, and seeing Sheriff’s Office deputies piqued her interest. Brock’s father and grandfather were in the FBI so she had always had a positive outlook on law enforcement.
Brock hails from Leesburg, so the idea of staying close to family in Loudoun County was a big plus when she went to work for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re here to help victims. I don’t care where you come from or why you’re here.”
Brock has been with the LCSO for three years now. When she first started, she didn’t notice different treatment because of her gender. “Anybody has to prove themselves as a competent officer,” Brock said.
When it comes to law enforcement, Brock finds the ability to empathize with people to be vital, especially when working with marginalized communities.
“A lot of people just want to be heard,” Brock said. “They want to know that they’re not alone, that ‘someone gets my feelings,’ and sometimes that’s picking the right words or just listening,” she added.
Brock has specifically worked with the Latino community while on patrol in Sterling. She finds that some of the biggest challenges are in overcoming the negative perception some Latinos have of police, and combatting the idea that if undocumented immigrants talk to police, there will be immigration consequences. Brock thinks a lot of undocumented people don’t come forward as victims or witnesses because of this perception.
“We’re here to help victims. I don’t care where you come from or why you’re here,” Brock said.
In college, Brock studied philosophy, psychology and Spanish with a minor in theology. Each has played a role in her career. Her Spanish speaking skills have helped her connect with the Latino community, while philosophy and theology have helped here critical thinking skills, and psychology has helped her better read people and understand situations. Although Brock wasn’t expecting to go into law enforcement when she was in school, her subject areas have served her in unexpected ways.
Sergeant Colette Cunningham — LCSO
When Colette Cunningham began her career in law enforcement in 1999 in Arlington, there weren’t many female deputies on the road. In fact, she was the only woman on the midnight squad.
She was inspired to go into law enforcement by her father’s lengthy career in the FBI. Although Cunningham started off playing professional soccer, she knew she would eventually get into law enforcement. In her career as a soccer player, Cunningham played in Italy until 2000 and was also the first woman to play on the Washington Warthogs of the men’s Continental Indoor Soccer League.
“Everything we do is magnified a thousand times over.”
When Cunningham first started in Arlington, she felt women had to prove themselves. Female officers had to prove they had what it took to have the men’s back, Cunningham said. They were also more scrutinized.
“Everything we do is magnified a thousand times over,” Cunningham said.
But over the years, she’s found things have gotten better. People are treated the same regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation, Cunningham believes. The focus is on doing the job well.
For now, Cunningham wants to continue to learn. She’s new to a supervisory position, and her competitive nature drives her to want to keep learning, succeeding and helping people.
Detective Corinne Czekaj — LCSO
Corinne Czekaj has always liked rules and structure. Until she was five years old, she wanted to be a cowgirl “with a real horse,” she said. But as she grew older, she gravitated toward law enforcement because it seemed interesting and fun and it allowed her to enforce law and order.
Originally from Michigan, Czekaj moved to Loudoun for her job with the LCSO. She spent about five years on patrol then transferred to the investigations department, specifically the Juvenile and Sex Crimes Unit.
“When you can get justice for a victim, especially the juvenile victims, those are the most rewarding.”
“It can be rewarding. It can be frustrating at times, but overall I like it,” Czekaj said. “When you can get justice for a victim, especially the juvenile victims, those are the most rewarding.”
Czekaj finds that there are a lot of unrealistic expectations when it comes to her job — particularly regarding the time frame of an investigation — because of popular TV shows. In reality, it can take months to gather evidence, and it can take months to a year to get to court. TV viewers are too often led to belief everything happens in a day or two.
Though the cases Czekaj deals with can be disturbing, she tries to leave work at work.
Czekaj finds that all new recruits try to prove themselves in some way or the other. For women, it’s about being prepared physically, mentally and emotionally.
“There are requirements that you need to meet,” Czekaj said. “If you can’t do it, it’s an issue because you’re putting your fellow co-workers at risk.”
Deputy Christina Evans — LCSO
When Christina Evans was looking for a career path, she wanted a job that was unique — something with new experiences, adventure, spontaneity and plenty of challenges. Law enforcement was a perfect fit.
“We have the ability to make our job what we want to make it,” Evans said. “We can be proactive or just take the calls handed in by dispatch, and I like the ability of making my day different and unique each day I come into work.”
“I like working with special needs children because I feel they have a voice that needs to be heard.”
Evans has worked on patrol, major crimes, and now as a School Resource Officer. She’s worked in Dominion High School, Farmwell Station Middle School and Seneca Ridge Middle School. Evans said she found her calling here in particular with the school’s special needs children.
“I like working with special needs children because I feel they have a voice that needs to be heard,” Evans said. “And I feel that us as law enforcement need to understand better how to deal with children with special needs.”
Evans recognizes that while neuro-typical people can hear a command and follow it, sometimes special needs children cannot. Many are also afraid of uniformed law enforcement officials and can run away from those trying to help them.
To combat this, Evans has worked to build a rapport with special needs children, and has taken some on field trips to expose them to law enforcement and other first responders. The goal of these trips are to expose the kids to sights and sounds, so that if they are ever in an emergency, they will not get scared and run away from first responders.
Evans is working on a project proposal for streamlining first responder interaction with special needs children and teaching the children life safety skills. If the proposal is accepted, she would like to see the position become full-time.
Deputy Samantha Harwood — LCSO
Samantha Harwood comes from a law enforcement background. Her father was military police in the Air Force and Harwood followed in his footsteps. After six years, Harwood decided to see another side of law enforcement, and came to the Sheriff’s Office.
“When you’re in the military, you do the initial work, write a report, and it goes away and you never know what happened,” Harwood said. “So I got out in 2006 and came here, which I got to see everything from beginning to end. So when I arrested somebody, I get to go to court and see the whole case from the beginning to the end,” she added.
“You will see more bad experiences than you see good experiences, but you can’t let this discourage you.”
Harwood has worked in the Honor Guard unit, Search and Rescue, supplemental recruiting, as a Field Training Officer, and now in Explosive Ordinance Disposal. She was the first woman in Loudoun County to work with the bomb squad.
“I got interested in that when I was in Iraq and dealt with it a lot with the IEDs,” Harwood said.
It’s a good day on the job when Harwood can help people. In February 2015, she responded to a call where a car was on the road with an unresponsive driver. She broke the car window to stop it and get to the driver, who was having a diabetic emergency. She was able to administer glucose tablets found in the glovebox to save the driver’s life.
But not every day is so good, and she thinks women coming in have to mentally prepare themselves.
“You will see more bad experiences than you see good experiences, but you can’t let this discourage you,” Harwood said.
Sergeant Kim Holway — LCSO
Kim Holway has always been good at making decisions under stress. She would run toward danger when others ran away. When most others would run away or freeze, Holway was drawn to a car accident to see how she could help.
“I feel like I can create calm out of chaos,” Holway said.
Holway went to school at Duke University. She wanted to be pre-med, but cross-country and track practices didn’t allow her to fully focus on the rigorous material. So she switched to economics — the field she eventually earned her degree in — to follow in her family’s business background.
“I think women are the future of law enforcement.”
Then, when it came time to find a job after graduation, the idea of working behind a desk was not something Holway wanted.
Holway’s childhood dream was to be a police officer, so she sent out many applications and ultimately was hired by the LCSO. Now, 21 years later, Holway is still going strong.
“I wake up every day because I want to come to a job that I love,” Holway said.
Holway has worked as a patrol officer, field training officer, in community relations and now a patrol sergeant. She’s also worked on the rapid response, in narcotics, and on the SWAT team.
With increased tension nationally regarding law enforcement, Holway says she’s become more cautious of her actions and more aware of her surroundings while at work. She welcomes new technologies and always wears an audio recorder while on duty.
“I don’t have a body camera but would welcome it too, because to me, this protects me and my actions,” Holway said.
While Holway is highly positive about her work and the LCSO, one thing she would like to see more of is women in leadership positions.
“I think women are the future of law enforcement,” Holway said. “Just the way that we can negotiate and talk to people and deal with confrontation.”
Deputy Aleksandra Kowalski — LCSO
Aleksandra Kowalski grew up in Poland until she and her parents moved to Connecticut when she was almost eight years old. She studied in Polish-American Catholic schools which is where she learned English. Kowalski never expected to end up a police officer, but during her last year at the University of Connecticut she interned with the Department of Justice and the Arlington Police Department, and everything changed.
“I always wanted to do something related to law, and I fell in love with the job,” Kowalski said.
“The job is challenging, and the more I experience, the more I want to learn.”
After she was hired, Kowalski worked a patrol evening shift in Sterling Park for four years. She said it was a tough job.
“As a woman, I didn’t feel I had to prove something to everyone else, but I did feel I had to prove something to myself,” she said.
Kowalski credits her squad for making her feel at home. “They had my back and I always felt accepted by them,” she said.
Kowalski continued on patrol for 10 years. She eventually went back to school to earn a master’s degree through a program offered by the county. “I knew a degree in public policy would help me be a better leader, but I didn’t know just how yet,” Kowalski said.
Early this year, Kowalski submitted a letter to Sheriff Mike Chapman with a request to work in strategic planning. He instead asked her if she would like to be a public information officer (PIO) and work with Kraig Troxell, who has been doing the job for many years. Kowalski accepted the offer and has been working as one of two PIOs since April.
“I had done public speaking before, but never media relations,” Kowalski said. The job is challenging, and the more I experience, the more I want to learn,” she added.
“The toughest part of this job is wondering what the media is going to write when I say something and if they are going to misquote me,” she said. “And since English is not my first language, I always have to think about my words. I always try to do my due diligence with the media.”
“I love this job and wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Kowalski said. “But if I was going to give advice to anyone, including another woman, I would say ‘have a tough skin’ if you want to be in law enforcement.”
Deputy Casey Smith — LCSO
Like Brock, Casey Smith started in the rescue realm. The opportunity to help at mass casualty events, like shootings, convinced her to switch to law enforcement.
At the time when Smith worked in rescue, people who were not law enforcement trained were not able to help victims until law enforcement cleared the scene.
Once she applied and entered the police academy, Smith fell in love with being a deputy and has never looked back.
The stereotype of law enforcement as a profession for men never phased Smith. She recognizes that men and women have different capabilities and skillsets and has found that everyone has something different to bring to the table.
“Everyone’s different and that’s what makes a good team.”
For women looking to join the profession, it takes the right mindset and knowing how to play to your strengths, she added.
“Everyone’s different and that’s what makes a good team.”
Apart from patrol, Smith also works on domestic violence, trying to identify trends and red flags. She eventually would like to join a high intensity division like criminal investigations, SWAT or sex crimes.
Smith admits that being a police officer has become more difficult due to some negative attitudes toward police, but she finds that Loudoun County has shown an outpouring of support.
Smith looks at every interaction as a unique one. “Character and integrity come out in every encounter,” she said.
Deputy Linda Swope — LCSO
Linda Swope always wanted to be a DEA agent. She grew up in Chile, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia and saw the effects of drug use. But when Swope graduated from college, she was too young for the position she wanted, so in the meantime, she turned to law enforcement. Then she met her husband and ended up staying.
Swope finds that law enforcement has a completely different climate now than when she first joined the LCSO in 1990. Today, women in law enforcement don’t face as much of a stigma, Swope said, mostly because of how much society has changed.
“If you can give somebody the flicker of hope, then I think you can turn around the situation they’re in.”
Swope has always been a social person. Three years after joining LCSO, she found herself on the hostage negotiation team. She served on that team and as a patrol officer until the early 2000s. As a hostage negotiator, she responded to many suicide attempts where she’s had to talk people down, and that inspired her.
“If you can give somebody the flicker of hope, then I think you can turn around the situation they’re in,” Swope said.
“A common expression is, ‘I’m at the end of the road,’ and my viewpoint always is, well when you reach that dead end street, it’s just a place to turn around. Sometimes you just need someone to offer you the help to make that turn.”
Now Swope works in the DARE program, teaching fifth graders about the dangers of drugs and how to make good choices.
“Twenty-six years ago when I started this job, all I wanted was to fight drugs, and now I get to put information into the minds of fifth graders that hopefully down the road will help them avoid drugs,” Swope said.
Swope also works with kindergartners in Sterling Park to familiarize them with law enforcement and work at the negative perception of deputies.
“A career in law enforcement is difficult because not only are you fighting crime, you’re also fighting a perception,” Swope said. “But at the end of the day, nothing beats the human connections,” she added.
“And when you can do that, when you can change someone’s life for the better, that’s why you’re in this job,” Swope said.
Sergeant Latriviette Young — LCSO
First recruited at a National Black Caucus NAACP job fair in 2006, Latriviette Young now works in recruitment. Though she never saw herself as in this career role, she loves what she does.
“When they come back into the office to sign that sheet of paper that says, ‘on this date you will become a sworn deputy,’ their whole face just lights up,” Young said. “And that’s that part where you say wow, we just made someone else able to make that difference, to be a part of that change,” she added.
Young takes pride in recruiting people with character. Skill is something the LCSO can give applicants, but character is something they need to have, she believes.
“With character, I don’t have to concern myself with if you’re going to be respectful. If you have the character, you have the moral compass, so it’s not going to be an issue because you’re going to treat people the way you want to be treated,” Young said. “That’s procedural justice at its best, so character covers it all.”
Young was attracted to law enforcement because she loves order. She doesn’t like to complain about change, but instead to create change. She believes strongly in using her strengths to complete her goals.
For other women considering joining law enforcement, Young says to know who you are and think with success in mind.
“If you have the character, you have the moral compass.”
“And when you fail, look at why you failed, and when you look at why you failed, consider what exterior things could have changed, what things you can change, and then try again,” Young said. “If you think successfully for everything that comes your way and you consider each day a fresh start, you’ll be fine.”
When not working, Young enjoys spending time with her family, working out and going to church.
Officer Kristine Rzewnicki — Leesburg Police Dept.
Kristine Rzewnicki believes in leaving people in a better situation than how she found them, and wanting to help people is what drew her to law enforcement.
Rzewnicki’s father was also in law enforcement, and she’s seen a big change in how people looked at police officers form when she was growing up. But she also sees this as an opportunity for positive change.
“We can either be beat down and get frustrated or we can use it as an opportunity to change and better things.” Rzewnicki said.
Rzewnicki studied biology in school in hopes of becoming a veterinarian. Then she discovered it wasn’t for her and applied for a job with the Alexandria Police Department.
“We can either be beat down and get frustrated or we can use it as an opportunity to change and better things.”
Today, Rzewnicki works as a patrol officer and would like to be in Criminal Investigations one day.
“It sounds kind of geeky but growing up I was huge for the Nancy Drew books,” Rzewnicki said, laughing. “Truth be told, I’m a dig in and get to the bottom (type of person).”
When it comes to dealing with Leesburg residents, Rzewnicki’s philosophy is to treat everyone fairly, impartially and with respect.
“There’s no question that more often than not when we have contact with the community — be it a suspect or a victim — we tend to see people at their worst,” Rzewnicki said. “It might become every day to us, but when we deal with that person, it’s not the crime of larceny or this crime, it’s them, it’s happening to them. And in their world, it’s a big deal.”
Lieutenant Jamie Sanford — Leesburg Police Dept.
Jamie Sanford remembers looking up to police officers as a kid. Back then it was a respectful and honorable profession, she said. Today it is more difficult to be an officer because of the negative perceptions conveyed in the news.
“At the end of the day, when people need help they want you to help them,” Sanford said. “So I think we have to go out there and do the best job that we can do.”
“Just put everything into it and go 150 percent, full speed ahead.”
Sanford grew up in upstate New York where she attended a small private college and studied criminal justice. As she was finishing her degree, Sanford began to go through the lengthy process of becoming a police officer in New York. In the meantime, a classmate of hers got a job with the LCSO. He urged her to apply so she did and was accepted into the Police Academy.
Sanford spent 14 years with the LCSO before moving to the Leesburg Police Department last June. While law enforcement is a male dominated field, Sanford said that women have just had to figure out their own way to get things done. Another challenge she’s seen is that some civilians only want to work with male officers, or that they underestimate female officers.
But she’s also seen the profession grow in its recognition of women, and that those in law enforcement increasingly appreciate that women have a lot to bring to the table. Today, Sanford has command of the Leesburg Criminal Investigations Section.
“I understand the difficulty that comes with the challenges that I take on but I’m a ‘get it done’ sort of girl so I accept them,” Sanford said. “I take on whatever I can that I think will better the agency and be better for the citizens we serve.”
Sanford believes in her ability to facilitate change in a positive way, and said this has inspired her to move through the positions she’s held, from patrol officer to field training officer to sergeant to lieutenant.
Sanford said it’s a difficult time to be a police officer, especially after recent reports of officers killed by random gunmen, but she has found a silver lining.
“We’ve been given the opportunity to let people see that we’re human,” Sanford said. “It’s important that we keep working for the better, and I think people have realized that because we’ve had an outpouring of support from the community.”
Sanford loves her job and wouldn’t want to do anything else. And for other women wanting to join the professions, she says to go for it.
“Whatever it is, if people discourage you and say ‘well that’s a male dominated profession’ or ‘you let the guys do that’ or ‘you’re not strong enough, you’re not fast enough, your weight’s not right,’ whatever the case is, you just don’t listen to it, just put everything into it and go 150 percent, full speed ahead,” Sanford said.
Officer Jessica Shields — Leesburg Police Dept.
Jessica Shields got her start as an animal control officer, and switched to the Leesburg Police Department out of an interest to explore all areas of the law.
Shields grew up in Manassas and studied pre-law in college. Her career path has been a good fit. Today, she works in the explosive ordinance division with her K-9 officer, Sally.
The compact nature of Leesburg is different than patrolling all of Loudoun County, and Shields believes communication is vital to community policing and forging relationships with local residents.
“Sometimes you’re out there and you’re like ‘I haven’t heard from this particular neighborhood in a while,’ so I will ask.”
Without the rapport officers build with their communities, there would be no way to effectively police them.
“Sometimes you’re out there and you’re like ‘I haven’t heard from this particular neighborhood in a while,’ so I will ask” she said. She contacts a property manager or someone in the neighborhood to ask if everything is alright, and to keep the lines of communication open.”
Policing is a tough job, but for those looking to join, particularly women, Shields says not to get discouraged. There’s a special role women play in the department, like in domestic violence calls where sometimes victims only want to talk to women.
The Tribune thanks Deputy Aleksandra Kowalski (LCSO) for facilitating this profile of some of Loudoun’s finest public servants.