If you’re reading this column, there’s a pretty good chance you’re a female officer.
If the title was the reason you clicked, there’s a good chance you’re interested in the advice of a successful veteran female officer.
If you have the sharply-tuned observational skills of most American law enforcement officers ... you surely know that I’m not her.
Wisdom of a Veteran Cop
I recently reached out to Lieutenant Terri Wilkin, who is now the Program Director for Legal Studies and Emergency/Disaster Management at American Military University.
Prior to coming on at AMU, Wilkin spent a quarter century with the Maryland State Police, serving in a wide variety of assignments — patrol, investigations, intelligence, and training, to name but a few.
When she retired from MSP in late 2012, she was assigned to the Department Prosecutor’s Office, where she was responsible for disciplinary matters involving both troopers and civilians.
In speaking with her, it becomes immediately clear that she truly enjoyed her career in law enforcement.
“It was an exciting job. I loved it. One of the really big perks to it is that the job is always different. It’s never boring,” Wilkin said.
She cautioned, however, that it’s a job which demands maximum effort and the highest of ethical and moral standards — all day, every day, and without exception.
“Do the right thing,” Wilkin said. “I saw people not do the right thing... Just do the right thing.”
When she worked at the MSP Department Prosecutor’s Office, she called it “Troopers Gone Wild.”
“There’s not a lot of them,” Wilkin said, “but when they’re bad, sometimes they’re really bad.”
Book Learn’in and Street Smarts
“My biggest advice for women — and I think why I was so successful — was my commitment to my education. I applied back in 1986, and I knew that for me to compete and to achieve promotions I needed to get my education.”
In 1991, she graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Maryland. She obtained her Master’s from the Johns Hopkins University (graduating with honors) in 1997 and graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law 10 years later.
But her education was not strictly in the classroom. Wilkin pointed to her brain as one of the keys for her physical wellbeing out on patrol.
Small in stature — she was about 5’1” and 120 for most of her career — she noted that her street smarts, her mindset, and her “intestinal fortitude” were immensely important.
“If you have confidence, and you don’t back down, that makes a big difference,” she said. “We had another female in the academy the same time as me. She was maybe a little bit bigger than me. She ended up getting in a tussle with a guy, and she was scared to go back out on the streets. I think if you don’t have confidence, people sense that.”
Mindset notwithstanding, she also encourages rigorous physical fitness. Although she was no gym rat before joining the force, she did take up running and other fitness hobbies that kept her physically prepared for a fight.
“I was never ‘Ms. Muscle and Fitness’ but you do need to stay in shape,” Wilkin said. “Working out is also really good because it can be a stressful job. Working out just makes you feel good.”
Having, and Keeping, a Family
When Wilkin went through her academy — which was one of those live-in, home on the weekends type of deals — she already had two young kids.
For many women, leaving the little ones at home for five days a week, several months running, would be a deal breaker.
Maryland State Police figured that out, and sought the help of a woman who not only did it, but did it exceedingly well. So throughout her career, MSP would periodically ask Wilkin to speak with women who were interested in joining the force, but had certain trepidations, particularly with regard to having a family.
“One of the big things for departments is recruiting women who have families, or who want to have kids. You can make it happen — you just need a good support system.”
Wilkin, whose two kids were just toddlers when she entered the academy, have now given her six grandkids.
Speaking with her on the phone, you can hear happiness.
Laughing as she spoke, Wilkin concluded, “You just need to let the job go when you’re at home. You need to let it go and be normal.”