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Axon Accelerate highlight: How Major LJ Roscoe navigated the path to success

Axon Accelerate symposium speaker shares the challenges she has faced as a female law enforcement leader during nearly three decades in policing


While technology has brought the world closer together, it has not, and never will, replace the value of face-to-face communications. That’s why attending professional events is critical for the exchange of best practices and lessons learned, as well as candid discussions about the real-world challenges impacting policing today.

This year’s Axon Accelerate symposium offered just that by connecting public safety professionals from around the world. Through a combination of hands-on training, provocative panel discussions and exclusive networking opportunities, police chiefs, LE trainers, PIOs, line officers and prosecutors left the event equipped with the information they need about new technologies and evolving practices transforming the police profession on a near-daily basis. For a preview, listen to Axon’s pre-show podcasts with some of the presenters.

Police officers face many obstacles on the path to a leadership career in law enforcement; roadblocks related to gender should not be among them.

For Major LJ Roscoe of the Dekalb County Sheriff's Office, navigating those gender-based roadblocks – as for many female officers – has been a permanent part of her journey to becoming a law enforcement leader. Roscoe will discuss her experiences as part of a panel discussion on “Rising Female Leadership in Law Enforcement” at the Axon Accelerate Conference, June 5-6 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Roscoe will be joined by Captain Penny Phelps of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in Key West, Florida, and Assistant Chief Racheal Cain of New Haven PD, Connecticut. These veteran LEOs will discuss their journey to the top – detailing the struggles they’ve worked to combat – and their continuing fight to promote – gender equality in policing.

Major LJ Roscoe of the Dekalb County Sheriff's Office is a featured speaker at this year's Axon Accelerate symposium.
Major LJ Roscoe of the Dekalb County Sheriff's Office is a featured speaker at this year's Axon Accelerate symposium.

Roscoe began her career in law enforcement in 1991 when she joined the DeKalb County Sheriff’s office as a detention officer. She was promoted to deputy sheriff in 1994, and continued to receive promotions and assignments of increasing responsibility in various agency divisions. In 2014, she was promoted to the rank of Major and transferred to her current position of Field Division Commander, where she leads 150 officers and manages a $12 million budget.

She earned both a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in law enforcement management from Madison University in Mississippi; a Bachelor of Business Administration from Columbia Southern University in Alabama; and a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Waldorf University in Iowa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate at Columbia Southern University.

PoliceOne recently sat down with Roscoe to discuss some of the challenges she has faced as a female police leader.

PoliceOne: You started your law enforcement career in 1991. Current statistics show women still only make up around 11-13 percent of the U.S. police workforce in smaller agencies, with that number increasing to around 17 percent in larger departments. Did you think more progress would have been made by now to increase the number of female officers?

Roscoe: I have seen an increase in the number of female LEOs serving as line level staff; however, this increase is not being proportionately reflected in command staffing. I think there are concerns about females being in leadership positions because they may be perceived as weak or overly sensitive or folks still think females can’t balance a family life with a career. If given the opportunity between a male and a female who are similarly educated and trained, I still see departments choosing the male candidates.

P1: What strengths do female police officers bring to leadership positions?

Roscoe: I do believe female leaders are more in tune with their staff, which is one of the things I pride myself on. I pick up on the little things, which improves morale. I have direct responsibility for over 150 employees. I don’t know everything about all 150 employees, but I make it a point to know something about each of them.

P1: What has been the biggest challenge in developing your career as a female police leader?

Roscoe: Trying to get the male-dominated command staff to take you seriously and realize you are not inferior to your male counterparts. Commanders need to understand that just because a female officer is not 6 feet tall and 280 pounds, they still have something to offer equally as beneficial to the organization as a male officer.

P1. How can female officers break through the “brass” ceiling?

Roscoe: I know organizations here in metro Atlanta yet to have females above a certain rank. I understand that positions are limited, but these are big organizations that could clearly have promoted women.

I am currently looking for a chief of police position and have been for about two years. I have made it to the finals multiple times and have yet to be selected. I know that in a couple of my interview processes, because my first name is LJ, the city managers have been perplexed that I am not a guy. Recently in one of the interview processes, it was so apparent that one of the other candidates even brought it to my attention.

To break through that ceiling, female officers need to stand true to their commitment to the job. Don’t back down. Persevere through the hard times, and there will be hard times. Times are changing – maybe not as fast as female leaders would like – but they are changing. It will take strong female officers to help push that change along.   

P1: Many female police leaders discuss the critical role mentoring played in their career development. How important were mentors in your career progression?

Roscoe: I have yet to be mentored. As a line level officer when I started in 1991, you were not allowed to know what your boss knew because they thought you might take their job. There are still a lot of organizations where leaders don’t want to tell you what they know for fear you will have more knowledge and power than them. I am totally the opposite of that. I have mentored a lot of people as I believe in the “building the bench” approach: I need a bench of people so if someone leaves, gets promoted or transferred others can step up and fill in.

P1: Have things improved for the current generation of new female officers?

Roscoe: A friend of mine, a retired police chief, told me she was asked on the first week of the job: Are you gay, married or a ho? That is how it was. I think younger female officers feel more empowered to say and do something about comments such as those. The younger generation is more vocal and knows what is considered inappropriate behavior. 

P1: What role does formal education play in developing a leadership role in LE?

Roscoe: Working in the southern states, most of the agencies here have yet to make a degree a requirement. While I do not think you have to have a college degree to be a line level officer, I think that as you progress through the ranks it says something about your drive, motivation and character if you go back and pursue your degree. I have encouraged many members on my team to do that very thing.  

P1: What advice would you give female officers for their first day on the job?

Roscoe: Don’t back down. Stick with it. Never let them see you sweat. Think about the fact other people have done it before you and it can be done.

And there is no crying in police work. If you are emotional, go home and cry. Don’t let people see they have that much power over you - they will use it against you. You have got to be in tune with yourself to know what is going to push you and know where your threshold is, so if you need an exit plan before you reach that threshold, you have it in mind.

P1: Why should LE professionals attend Accelerate?

Roscoe: Last year, I was invited to be a speaker at Axon's Accelerate conference. Vendors often use such events as a way to sell or push their products, but I realized very quickly that was not the case with this conference. Of course there is still the opportunity to learn about Axon products, but the overall theme of the conference is educating attendees on a variety of topics that are relevant to law enforcement based on the current climate. I found the classes last year to be invaluable, which is why, when I was again asked to present at this year’s conference, I did not hesitate to say yes. Regardless of your rank or position, every attendee can take something away from Axon Accelerate.

The “Rising Female Leadership in Law Enforcement” panel is scheduled for Wednesday, June 6. Other sessions at Axon Accelerate that focus on law enforcement leadership staffing include: “Getting the right people to the top of your list: Running a better promotional process,” “Best practices in recruitment and retention” and the “Future of policing: What law enforcement will look like in 25 years.” Click here to register.

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