March is Women’s History Month and 22News is recognizing the great contributions that women have made to western Massachusetts and the nation.
There are now many women in law enforcement, a career field long dominated by men. There are more than a few women in blue that are breaking down barriers in Massachusetts.
“I think I’m just that child that had dreams of becoming a police officer, I grew up with a father being a police officer,” said Denise Wickland, chief of police at Williamsburg.
Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said, “My senior year of high school my guidance counselor had recommended that I go into criminal justice classes in college.”
“My plan had been to go to law school and then part of that course of study was taking some criminal justice classes and I had an interest in it and I was more skilled in it,” said Jennifer Gundersen, South Hadley chief of police.
At three very different stages of life, these three women all had the same goal: to one day protect and serve their communities, becoming “women in blue.”
Out of 351 communities in the Commonwealth, there are fewer than 10 women police chiefs; Chiefs Kasper, Wickland, and Gundersen are among this group proudly serving western Massachusetts.
“I was born and raised here and then worked at Mt. Holyoke and then worked for a short time for the Hatfield Police Department as a part-timer and then joined Northampton PD in 1998 and I’ve been them ever since,” Chief Kasper explained.
“I’m born and raised in the little hill towns of western Mass and that’s where I started and I’ve been in Williamsburg ever since,” Chief Wickland told 22News.
“I grew up outside of Boston and it was by chance that I had friends that heard Amherst was hiring and offering a test,” said Chief Gundersen. “I took the exam and I was lucky enough to get hired and earlier this year I left Amherst to go to South Hadley.”
They’ve all become a part of local history. Chiefs Kasper and Gundersen are the first women to ever serve in this role at their departments. Chief Wickland is the second.
But their journey has not been easy. In addition to balancing their personal lives, all being mothers, they’ve also faced obstacles on the job.
“I think that you have to live up to the title of chief of police but there’s maybe someone in the wings waiting to see if you’re going to fail,” said Chief Wickland.
“Hearing things like I was a diversity hire was really concerning cause I had spent 24 years as a professional, I worked very hard alongside my male colleagues and I feel that I was respected in the profession,” said Chief Gundersen. “But I do think we are judged differently.”
“I think that in general there’s kinda this unconscious bias I suppose that people have and they may say things, communicate with you or something a little differently,” Chief Kasper said. “And you think oh if I was male, this person would not have said that, that way that sort of thing. But that’s ok, that’s why I’m in this position. I’d like to think that we’ve all lead the way for more women to enter the field and rise up within the ranks. And one of their top collective priorities is to have more women in leadership roles in law enforcement.”
“I was the first, I know, full-time female Sgt. for the department, so that was a step up for other people who had come through the department who hadn’t gotten promotions or gotten promotions,” said Chief Wickland.
“When I started it was at seven or eight percent and it’s still at about seven or eight percent,” Chief Gundersen told 22News. “Police departments are larger.. but women aren’t more members of those departments. So I’m glad to be sitting here with the three of us, but I think we need to do more work about getting more women into the profession.”
“I think the best police department is one that is diverse in so many ways,” said Chief Kasper. “I don’t just mean through race but it’s gender and ethnicity, and life experience and everything that you can bring to it because we need to be able to go out into our communities and have empathy and understanding with all of our great community members.