A small contingent still, women have made great strides in finding their niche in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. Some have excelled and distinguished themselves in the ranks, like Sandy Karsten, the first woman to serve as lieutenant colonel in the Missouri State Highway Patrol. We profile Karsten along with Paris Campbell, one of six female Jefferson City police officers, and Kayla Zoet, a corrections officer at the Algoa Correctional Center, to find out why they chose to become a woman in uniform.
From her days as a trooper to becoming the highest-ranking female in the Patrol, Sandy Karsten has broken many barriers during her 28-year career in law enforcement.
The first female officer to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant, captain, major and lieutenant colonel in the Patrol’s 81-year history, she now serves as the assistant superintendent and second in command of the entire organization, which employs almost 2,400 people, including 1,221 officers.
She’s held this position since December 2012 and her days are mostly spent in the office focused on administrative tasks and providing direct oversight for the Professional Standards Division. When Col. Ron Replogle is away, she also oversees the agency and is involved in legislative issues affecting the patrol.
“I serve at the pleasure of the colonel, and when he’s away the buck does stop with me,” Karsten said.
Still, the power of the job hasn’t gone to her head and she exudes warmth and friendliness while also being as sharp and precise as her uniform and polished shoes. She’s comfortable in her own skin and with her responsibilities, yet pauses before answering questions.
“I was raised to get along with everyone and I have learned not to say what comes to my mind and exercise self-discipline and self-control,” she said.
Her rise to the top echelons of the organization is no surprise to Scott Pauley, her field-training officer who retired last August.
“Sandy was 21 years old and right out of college when I met her, and from day one I could see she was a quality person, that she came from a safe background and strong heritage,” said Pauley, a 33-year veteran of the Patrol who spent 19 years as a hostage negotiator and served for eight years on the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“Sandy was so smart that I only had to tell her how to do something once and she got it. She’s also tough, can handle herself and she definitely has the back of her fellow officers,” he said. “Whether she’s writing a speeding ticket or handling her duties as the lieutenant colonel, she is qualified and capable. I believe she’s one of the finest female law enforcement officers anywhere in the country.”
Karsten set her sights on being a trooper when she was only 17, attending Putnam County High School in Unionville, a small town northwest of Kirksville and six miles from the Iowa line. Athletic, she grew up on a farm, loved the outdoors and was involved in 4-H. She also worked on the high school’s newspaper.
“While researching an article on the American Legion Cadet Patrol Academy at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, I decided I wanted to apply,” she said.
Her application was accepted and she attended the weeklong recruit-type training program geared for high school youths age 16–18, which included a boot camp, room inspections and other drills.
“I was impressed with the level of professionalism of the patrol officers that I saw there and I wanted to make a difference and be of service to people,” she said.
After receiving her bachelors of science degree in criminal justice from Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University in Kirksville), Karsten enrolled in the Patrol Academy in September of 1985. She was one of three women out of a total of 50 recruits to graduate in February 1986.
Initially assigned to Troop F in Callaway County, Karsten spent nine years as a trooper before being promoted to sergeant.
“I loved working the roads,” she said. “Most of the stops where people were more aggressive were usually alcohol and drug offenses. Regardless of your gender, you do get afraid when you walk out of your car, but we took an oath and we have to do it.”
While it’s hard to remember the countless stops, including many on the very busy Interstate 70, she does recall the truck driver who sent her flowers even after she gave him a ticket.
“He did become smitten with me,” she said.
It was not meant to be, though. She met her husband, Tim, in 1991 on a blind date. He’s the wrestling coach at Blair Oaks High School and they live in Wardsville and have two sons: John, 18, a senior and Paul, 15, a freshman. Both are on the wrestling team, which recently won the state championship. She goes to many wrestling matches during the season and she’s also been very involved in Eagle Scouts with her sons.
“It’s dangerous to allow your entire identity to be wrapped up in your job,” Karsten said. “I have a family and a career and I hope that more and more women realize that having a career and a family doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s all about striking a balance and finding where you fit in and what you have a passion for.”
She excelled in her work in DWI, the canine program and served on details during Gov. Mel Carnahan’s inauguration and his funeral and went undercover as a decoy prostitute in a Kansas City sting operation. The only time she has used her weapon was to shoot a deer that was injured and in pain after being hit by a motorist.
“Sandy has always been very determined and willing to do what it takes to get the job done,” said Lee Ann Kenley, a captain and Troop Commander at Troop I in Rolla. “She’s very genuine, what you see is want you get; an all around good person with a solid upbringing who’s committed to her family, her faith and her responsibilities.”
A fellow recruit with Karsten at the Academy, Kenley is the first ever female troop commander in the patrol. She has watched Karsten’s rise with pride.
“Sandy knows all the workings of the highway patrol,” Kenley said. “She was good in the field and took care of business and she’s good at decision making.”
A natural leader, Karsten is also a teacher. She’s served as an Emergency Vehicle Operations Course Instructor at the Academy and several years after receiving her master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Missouri in 2003, she became an adjunct professor at Lincoln University.
Transferred to the Patrol’s general headquarters in 1996, Karsten was assigned to the Field Operations Bureau after serving as Assistant Zone Commander for Troop F and then Zone Commander in Audrain County.
She spent 10 years as the director of the Human Resources Division and then became the designated commander of the Administrative Service Bureau and Commander of the Technical Services Bureau.
“When I was going through the ranks, most of the men treated me like a little sister and some could have been my father, but there was a lot of camaraderie and all passed on their wisdom,” she said. “I appreciate all the opportunities that I have had with the patrol.”
While her days on the road are mostly long gone now, being a trooper is a time in her career she holds dear and the position is the core of the organization.
“Our troopers provide service to the people of our state and that is what the Patrol is all about,” Karsten said. “We do everything we can to recruit quality people and provide the resources and tools to support them in that service.”
Despite the responsibilities of her position or the power that she wields, she remains humble and grounded in the values she grew up with in northern Missouri.
“I’m very proud of the quality people I work with and I take a lot of pride in our organization,” she said. “I’ve always been just Sandy.”
A role model, Karsten is especially inspiring to other women with aspirations in the law enforcement and has helped pave their way.
The first two women entered patrol recruit training in 1974, and graduated as part of the 43rd class in January of 1975. Karsten was part of the 57th class. She points out her “guidon,” the class flag hanging on the wall in the Academy gymnasium along with the others representing all the classes that have graduated since the mid ’70s. Once dark blue, her class flag has faded to a washed out purple, but their slogan “57 Sent from Heaven” is still visible. Each recruit is responsible for the flag, which is carried while they exercise and during all their activities.
The current class of recruits are part of the 98th class and will graduate in June. Their class slogan is “Protect the State 98” and will soon make it onto the wall. Karsten made the four female recruits’ day by posing with them for a photo.
Even while standing at ease, a more relaxed position with their hands clasped behind their backs, they still look nervous in her presence but that’s understandable in a military-like organization where rank is revered and respected.
Karsten proudly points out that one of the recruits has the distinction of being the first female to be voted as vice commander, another major milestone in the patrol’s history.
The 99th class begins in July and the application process just ended for the 100th class, which will begin in January of 2015 and marks a major milestone in the academy’s history.
“When I started out there were seven women in uniform and now there are 64,” said Karsten, who has worked hard to enhance the recruitment and retention of quality officers.
“We are a diverse organization offering a wide variety of career opportunities for troopers – be they male or female,” she said. “I have worked with many good people who recognize a person’s work, rather than their gender.”
Once the sliding metal door clicks behind Kayla Zoet in the administration building at Algoa Correctional Center, she leaves the world of the familiar and enters the minimum-security facility that’s home to roughly 1,500 male inmates.
One of the youngest prison guards or “blue shirts,” Zoet, 24, is learning how to navigate a place with its own rules, rhythms and code language.
“The first time you walk in and realize you’re stuck there with all those offenders walking around, it can be stressful,” said Zoet, who has only been on the job for six months. “We’re with them eight hours a day and we have to be on alert and it can be draining. When I go home, I’m exhausted.”
Despite these factors and a very high turnover rate, Zoet is happy to have the job. She also lucked out and received days, including shifts in the staff dining room within the much larger offender dining hall. Depending on whether she’s posted at the west or east side doors, she makes sure the offenders remove their hats and gloves during the colder weather and don’t bring in any contraband. She also handles security searches in the housing units that surround both sides of the upper yard of the 22-acre campus.
At Algoa, the population serves sentences that are seven years or less and the offenders have open movement during large periods of time and are free to walk around the sidewalks outside or in the back yard. Their rooms include bunk beds and they can buy televisions and fans from the canteen, along with other items.
“There’s new timers and old timers but mostly they all just want to serve their time and go home,” she said.
While she hasn’t witnessed many fights, they do happen and there’s gang activity inside. She’s also had to learn the nuances of inmate life and the realities of male behavior. As a straight female, she has experienced flirtations and some female guards do form attachments to an inmate. Not Zoet.
“Generally men put a blanket up outside their rooms if they want privacy but some of them have tested me. One inmate told me he wished he could have a red head like me in bed, but I didn’t respond,” she said.
With only OC spray and a radio, her power comes from her ability to write an inmate up, which might send him to the hole where their privileges are taken away for a certain time period. She has done this infrequently, although some of the white shirts, the lieutenants or higher-ranking officers, tell her to do so.
“Often the offenders see the female officers as ‘mother figures’ and will talk to us about certain subjects, their plans and about the life they want to have on the outside,” she said.
She’s fine with that kind of conversation as long as it doesn’t turn personal.
“You don’t want to let them know anything personal because they’re always trying to size you up and figure out your weakness so you have to watch what you say and what you do,” she said.
“You also have to gain their respect but always realize they’re definitely trying to gain some kind of advantage over you,” she said. “You also never talk badly about their mothers.”
Zoet is definitely not an open book on the job and keeps her private life separate. She and her twin sister and her brother were adopted and her father, Lowell, is a GM at Aurora Packing Company, a kosher beef packing plant in North Aurora, IL. Her mother, Glenda, has worked in real estate.
It was during Zoet’s sophomore year when she took law enforcement classes at Indian Valley Area Vocational Center in Sandwich, IL, that a career in that field first entered her mind. She then attended Rasmussen College at the Aurora/Naperville campus for a while but then left. After her mother moved to Lebanon to set up house there, Zoet and her sister moved there, too.
“I wanted to do something in criminal justice and working in a prison was a way to get my foot in the door,” she said.
So far, she’s found many of her male superiors very helpful, while some of the other females have been more helpful then others.
“I like my job,” she said. “I like doing custody because it’s hands-on and we escort offenders to the visiting area and there’s more interaction. But there are benefits to non-custody jobs, too. The pay is better but then it’s mostly sitting behind the desk doing paperwork.”
As a Jefferson City police officer, Paris Campbell spends a lot of time cruising the city streets. Even though she’s constantly on alert, that doesn’t stop her from rolling her windows down and singing to music on her radio, R&B, rap and some country, too. Whatever suits her mood on a particular day.
“I love my job,” said Campbell, 25, who in August will have served four years on the force. “Every day is different. It’s never the same and I never get bored.”
A few inches shy of 6 feet, Campbell exudes strength and fitness and makes an imposing figure. Just the tools of her job, her bulletproof vest, gun, magazine, handcuffs and pepper spray add an extra 20 pounds to lug around.
“When I show up at an incident as a female, I’m not giggling. I’m doing what I have to do and I take my job very seriously,” she said. “The streets talk, civilians talk and when I arrive on a situation they can see that my badge is still shiny, that I’m new, so I definitely have to prove myself.”
One of only six other women police officers, Campbell as a black female has bucked stereotypes and mistaken assumptions by others.
“I’ve been called a traitor by other African Americans who believe that I should be easier on them. I’m not,” she said. “But I’ve been called every name in the book.”
Her own name is generally a bit of a conversation starter.
“My dad liked the name Paris because it was short and sweet and he heard great things about the city in France,” she said. “They got out the map when they named my sisters Asia and India.”
Her parents are now divorced and her mother, Del Marie Campbell, works as a private investigator in a clerk’s office, and her father, Vincent, is a field service engineer who travels the country to fix different kinds of hospital machines.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, her life was all about family and basketball. When she wasn’t playing, she was going to practice.
“It kept me out of trouble,” she said.
An animal lover, she thought about becoming a veterinarian or a doctor.
“I never dreamed I would be a police officer,” she said.
Campbell attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, which she proudly pointed out just won the state championship in 2008 and 2012. Her skills as a forward on the Dolphin’s basketball team there landed her a scholarship to play at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where she majored in chemistry.
“I was bored with that though. Please don’t tell my dad,” she said.
When Asia decided to attend Lincoln University, Paris followed and received a full ride scholarship to play basketball for the Blue Tigers. She majored in criminal justice and during her studies interned with the Cole County Sheriff’s Department. On a whim, she decided to enter the Law Enforcement Training Institute in Columbia while still attending Lincoln.
She was hired by the Jefferson City Police Department in August of 2010 when she was 21 and still a senior at Lincoln.
“I use to sit in the back of my classes at Lincoln wearing my police uniform,” she said. “The department definitely encouraged my decision to finish my degree.”
“I also completed my 17 weeks of field training,” she said. “I was terrified and I said nothing because I knew nothing. It was total culture shock.”
By the time she graduated magna cum laude from Lincoln, she was on her own, literally. Each of the police officers ride alone in their own vehicle, although back-up support is often called in depending on the situation.
“I work with 80 older ‘brothers’ and some of them pushed me to see how far they could go,” she said. “We all joke around and there’s a real camaraderie among us.”
When she arrives for her shift, she attends roll call with the other officers who are part of squad 2.
“We find out what has happened since we ended our last shift,”she said. “What cars have been stolen or the suspects we’re looking for.”
While she handles traffic tickets, domestic violence, burglaries a lot of her shift is spent on what she refers to as “check well being” calls.
“People call worried about a friend or family member or see someone suspicious around their home and ask us to check it out,” she said. “People’s expectations are definitely different due to all the crime shows on TV. They expect that we arrive at a burglary and take fingerprints and catch the guy.”
That’s usually not how it happens. The hardest cases she said are those involving children because “they can’t defend themselves.” But she learned early on the importance of trying to separate the job from your emotions, as difficult as that can be sometimes.
“When we go home, we want to vent and we take out our stuff on our spouses and children,” she said. “That’s why the divorce rate is so high among police officers.”
“A lot of the male officers change into their street clothes so they can leave the job at work,” she said.
While she tries to take care of herself both physically and emotionally, letting go can be difficult.
“With this job, you’re never off duty. Even when I’m in plain clothes, I have a problem letting go of the job. I never sit in a restaurant with my back to the door. I’m always a cop.”
She recalls a time when a father asked her to come to the hospital after his 12-year-old daughter committed suicide.
“That was very hard and it really affected me so I asked for a personal day and went to Chicago to see my family,” she said.
When her shift ends, the first thing Campbell does is to lock up her guns and then goes home. She lives with her sister, India, a junior at Lincoln, and her one-year-old son.
“I spend time with my family, work out a lot and I take my two dogs Pork, a Yorkshire Terrier, and Beans, an Australian Shepherd mix, to the dog park,” she said.
She also loves to travel and met her boyfriend on a trip to Jamaica, where she’s returned often to see him. He, in turn, visits her in Jefferson City.
Although still a rookie, she’s found a balance between her personal life and her career as well as her place on the force, which is like family, too. Her interactions with the community also make her job fulfilling.
Recently she spoke to students at East Elementary School about honesty and she made quite an impression on them.
“Even though I was in uniform, it was good for the kids to see that I’m a regular person talking to them,” she said. “When the students see me now they wave and say, ‘Hey you’re the girl cop.’ I like being called that so I smile and wave back.”
Photography for this article is by Keith Borgmeyer.