It’s not uncommon to see Lt. Frieda Wyatt talking to a group of curious children about her job. As an officer for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, community outreach is a large part of her daily duties — a part of the job she takes an added sense of pride in these days.
“I have little girls coming up to me and asking me about what it’s like to be an officer,” says Frieda, a 16-year law enforcement veteran who was recently honored by the Palmetto Center for Women. “Now that I’m in a leadership role at the sheriff’s department, I get to talk to more groups and be more visible — letting them see a strong female officer. I would say it’s something I’m very proud of.”
The number of female police officers in South Carolina has increased over the past few years, but only slightly, officials at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy say. Today, around 13 percent of the 12,000 sworn law enforcement officers in South Carolina are female. The number of female officers grew by just 100 between 2011 and 2015, while 300 more men became police officers during the same time period. Active recruitment of minorities, including women, has helped grow a more diverse law enforcement group in South Carolina, but more needs to be done to attract and retain women, according to Maj. Florence McCants with the academy.
“For a long time, it was seen as a man’s job, a male dominated field, but that’s starting to change,” Florence says. “It’s a very challenging and demanding job, and there are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made by the men and women who choose this as a career path. We’ve come a long way in terms of numbers and leadership opportunities, but we have to do more to attract and retain women into the profession.”
Lt. Maria Yturria with the Richland County Sherriff’s Department didn’t need much coercion to join law enforcement. She entered the field as a “natural transition” from military service. “I knew I still wanted to serve, and law enforcement has allowed me to do that,” says Maria, who was also honored by PCW as a community leader and role model. “It was just a natural transition from serving eight years in the Army … I love it, and I’ve never looked back.”
Other women, like Lexington County Sherriff’s Department Deputy Kaaren Miller, say they never planned on pursuing law enforcement as a career but now find it an ideal fit professionally. “I majored in music in college. It was my intention to be like my piano teacher and teach music,” she says. “After graduation, I was searching for a career. I went on a ride-along with a friend who was an officer and was intrigued by all of the skill sets the officers had to use — writing, the physical aspects of the job, knowing how to talk with people. I loved my other jobs before but would always get bored. I knew I would never be bored in law enforcement. After the ride-along, I knew this was the job for me.”
Being on the Street
For Frieda, speaking her mind and not being afraid to be different has served her well as a police officer. “I don’t want to sit behind a desk,” she says. “I like being on the street. I know that’s not what people expect, but I don’t want to fit into what other people think female officers should do. I’m not afraid to be different.”
With the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Frieda has been a school resource officer, served with the Gang Task Force and is now a lieutenant with the Fugitive Task Force. Among her many roles, she says her proudest moments came with a move to the Drug Suppression Team.
“At the time, I think I was the only woman heading a narcotics unit in the state. I was proud to be put over an aggressive unit with a lot of ‘street cred.’ People knew we were about business. I had a super tough team,” says Frieda.
She shed happy and sad tears when she was promoted to lieutenant. “I didn’t want to leave my team. I loved the drug suppression team, but I was happy to be promoted and move up in the end. I do want to make captain some day.”
The support of colleagues, men and women, helped Frieda battle cancer after being diagnosed in 2015. She finished a last round of chemotherapy earlier this year, just in time to be honored by PCW for her service and leadership.
“I was excited to be alive, and excited to be recognized for doing all of the work that I do,” Frieda says. “Some people may say I’m tough or I’m a strong female officer, but I just love what I do. I don’t think of myself as a female officer when I’m on the job. I’m just a police officer. We all have the same job to do.”
A Natural Transition
Born in Mexico and raised in California, Maria learned the value of working hard and taking opportunities early on. “My parents said they brought me here to have a better life, so I’ve always tried to make the most of the opportunities that come my way,” she says.
After serving her new country for eight years in the Army, she looked for a career that would allow her to continue to serve the community. Military service brought her to South Carolina, where she discovered law enforcement and a life-long career.
“I had an opportunity to meet Sheriff Leon Lott and learn about the department,” says Maria. “I can say that being a female law enforcement officer has its challenges. It certainly makes me work harder to prove myself, a pressure I place on myself. But in the end, it makes you a strong individual too.”
As a wife to a law enforcement officer and a mother, Maria admits that no officer truly leaves the job behind at the end of the day — but she uses that to her advantage.
“I’ve been able to talk to my daughter and have candid conversations about the things I see as a law enforcement officer. She can then talk to her friends and tell them what to watch out for,” she says. “When I’m at work, I do think I see things a little differently because I’m a wife and mom. In law enforcement, we need people of all experiences and backgrounds to serve the whole community.”
As a lieutenant in the Victim’s Assistance division of the sheriff’s department, Maria urges others to search for the person they want to be. “Your past does not define you. Your roots do not define you,” she says, paraphrasing a favorite quote. “It’s an inner drive to succeed that defines us. My parents taught me that, and I’m glad to share that with others now.”
Confirmation of Faith
For Kaaren, law enforcement is an extension — not of military service — but of her faith.
“As a Christian, we are all called to serve. I believe law enforcement is a calling too,” she says.
Her family was the first to support her decision to join the force. “My dad just wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into, and my mom just wanted to make sure I continued to serve God.”
Since joining the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department nearly a year ago, there’s been no conflicts, just a confirmation of faith. Kaaren says she’s not compromising anything to be a female officer and urges other women in the force to do the same.
“I think a lot of officers, especially female officers, think they have to be just like the guys,” she says. “A woman is completely different and approaches things differently. So why not embrace that? We bring different skills, and that’s a great thing for the profession.”
At the academy, officials like Florence try to ready the next group of officers for the field. “It’s a rewarding job … challenging but rewarding,” she says. “You can’t un-see a crime scene. The hours are long, and for women it can be more of a challenge. But at the end of the day, the rewards outweigh everything else. This is a job of service, something both men and women in our communities value.”
As a longtime law enforcement officer, Florence has been one of few female cops, thus she has seen the positive changes in law enforcement departments first-hand.
“We still have a long, long way to go as far as numbers in law enforcement, and women in key positions,” says Florence, a former officer with the Columbia Police Department. “But we’re making progress. Departments are more diversified, and it’s not looked at as just a male’s profession any longer. There’s room for the girls.”