Jennifer Anzelone is Lower Township’s first and only female police officer, but that distinction rarely occurs to her.

“The funny thing is, I never really had a thought in my mind about being different,” she said.

Anzelone, a 37-year-old from Wildwood Crest and daughter of a retired Crest police captain, got her start in policing as a member of the State Park Police in 2002. She joined Lower Township’s Police Department in 2005.

As a member of the Park Police, her role as a female officer wasn’t unique because there are more women in state and federal law-enforcement agencies than at the local level.

“My first sergeant in the Park Police was a woman,” she said.

Women officers, however, are far less common at the local level across the nation, averaging between 12 percent and 15 percent of staffing, a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs found. Atlantic City, for instance, has 326 officers, 45 of whom are women, a total of 14 percent.

Many local police departments, however, lag the national average when it comes to female officers.

There are two female officers on Pleasantville’s 47-member department, or just more than 4 percent. Pleasantville Capt. Rocky Melendez attributed the numbers to Civil Service guidelines that the department must follow.

“The women that are in our department, I’d put them up against any officer,” he said.

According to the state’s 2010 Uniform Crime Report, women accounted for 9 percent of female officers in Atlantic County’s municipal police departments, about 7 percent in Cape May and Cumberland counties, and about 4 percent in Ocean County.

Anzelone represents 2.5 percent of Lower’s 40-member department.

“I think how I do my job is actually going to pave the way for other female officers in Lower. It is a way of saying we can do the job. Do I have to prove myself? Absolutely, but I think that’s with any job,” Anzelone said.

Atlantic City police Sgt. Monica McMenamin said her department doesn’t specifically recruit women, but since she joined in 1988, the number of women has grown in all areas of the department.

“It’s been a gradual increase. It was less than 10 when I joined at that time,” she said, noting that she, her sister-in-law and two nieces are all police officers in the city.

Today, women fill a variety of roles in the department.

“I’m happy with the women we have. They’re talented. They’re motivated. And they give an extra dimension to police work. Law enforcement has come a long way. There’s still room to grow, but women have been welcomed into law enforcement,” McMenamin said.

The 2010 Uniform Crime Report found local police departments have smaller percentages of women on staff than their federal counterparts. However, those percentages at the local level are growing, with women accounting for nearly 8 percent of local officers in 1987 and 12 percent in 2007.

At the local level, larger departments — those with 100 officers or more — saw women account for just less than 15 percent of staffing, while at smaller local departments — those with 11 to 100 officers — women accounted for about 8 percent of staffing.

The low numbers, Anzelone said, should not deter other women from joining the profession. Not that Anzelone hasn’t encountered naysayers.

“There are still a lot of people out there who don’t think women are the same as men. I agree that maybe physically they are not as strong, but we bring good assets to the job such as the ability to de-escalate a situation,” she said.

Anzelone has distinguished herself in particular in the area of reducing the number of drunken drivers on township roads. Her efforts have led to awards and praise, but more importantly, they allow her to pursue what has become a passion.

Climbing to the top

While Anzelone is in the early stages of her career as an officer, Cape May Police Chief Diane Sorantino is nearing the end of a career that began in 1988, when she became that city’s first full-time female police officer.

Today, the 23-member department has two female officers, including Sorantino, which translates to less than 9 percent of staffing.

Sorantino was actually pursuing a career as a teacher at the time, but the then-23-year-old decided that was not where she belonged. She completed a criminal justice degree at the former Glassboro State College and became a summer officer in Cape May in 1987.

“I wasn’t here to blaze any trails,” Sorantino said.

“From day one, there were men in this department that were great mentors,” Sorantino said, adding that there were also some who did not support her. Overall, she said, she felt included.

Sorantino, 49, said her goals were small, looking ahead only to the next job in the department. Along the way, she worked as a patrol officer and a detective and became the department’s first DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program instructor. She visited schools as a juvenile officer. A photo of her as a young officer talking to a child at a local preschool sits on her desk.

She never expected to become the chief. But in 2001, she was named the city’s chief of police and today is the longest-serving of all current chiefs in Cape May County.

Sorantino said she doesn’t believe in quotas, or in trying to recruit one type of person more than another, but she said she is proud of the department’s diverse field of summer officers.

“Your force should ideally represent the people you serve,” she said. “Though I don’t suggest we go out and recruit based on race or gender. I want people with an interest. I don’t want to arbitrarily fill the ranks.”

Sorantino also urges those with that interest to pursue their goals.

“You are going to have to deal with that select group that are anti-anything, but don’t let that discourage you,” she said.

‘Girls shouldn’t be cops’

Marie Hayes knew at age 5 that she wanted to be in law enforcement.

“I wanted to be a cop like my uncle. He came around, and I remember sitting in the patrol car,” Hayes said, explaining that many of her parents’ friends were known to her simply as aunt or uncle.

“I would tell my mom, and she’d say, ‘Shhh, girls shouldn’t be cops.’”

Years later, in 1978, Hayes’ desire and an interest in juvenile matters turned into a job as an investigator with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.

Twenty-nine years later, she retired as a captain, one step from the office’s highest investigative position.

“I was very fortunate in 1978. I was treated really well. There was prejudice back then, yes, and I felt it, but I found if a person was prejudiced, it was against all minorities,” said Hayes, now enjoying her retirement in her Ocean City home.

“It was tough in the academy. There were some who always thought you couldn’t pull your weight, but most of the instructors didn’t want to see you fail,” she said.

Hayes recalls snide remarks and watching as some with less experience were promoted over her, “but you pick your battles.”

She watched seven prosecutors come and go during her time in Cape May County, and over the years her immediate supervisors changed as well. Some were better than others.

Hayes recalled an incident that took place 15 years into her career when a new supervisor came along.

“He called me into the office and told me, ‘I just want you to understand one thing: I don’t think women have any place in police work,’” she said.

But Hayes stayed put, eventually rising through the department’s ranks.

Today, she spends time with her six grandchildren and works part time as an adjunct professor at Atlantic Cape Community College, where she tries to encourage young women.

“The statistics are disappointing, very disappointing. Women still encounter a lot of challenges,” Hayes said as she looked at how few women are employed as police officers.

“There needs to be more emphasis on recruiting,” Hayes said, adding that some departments try to recruit female officers for their summer hires.

Lower Township Police Chief Brian Marker said he, like many chiefs, must operate under the state’s Civil Service rules, which require would-be officers to take a test to have their names placed on the lists for hiring.

Marker, who became chief in July 2011, said he was encouraged by the fact that the next person on the township’s list is a woman.

When he attended the police academy in 1986, he said, there were more female cadets from larger cities such as Camden, and he believed that would later trickle down to the smaller departments.

“I believe the barriers that existed 30, 40 years ago have been broken down,” he said.

Anzelone said she was optimistic that many more women would come after her.

“I knew I was proving myself for all the women that Lower might hire,” Anzelone said.

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