Shelly Castaneda, chief deputy for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, can still remember an upset inmate she encountered during the start of her career in law enforcement.
“He was throwing a fit. I mean he was throwing stuff in his cell, yelling and cussing. Man, this guy was huge,” Castaneda said.
She said three or four other deputies were getting ready to go “hands on” with the inmate, readying themselves to physically extract him from the cell.
Castaneda requested the deputies give her a chance to talk the man down before they rushed in.
They decided to give her a shot, and Castaneda walked into the cell alone, strategically talking quietly beneath the man’s yells.
“I basically got the guy to turn around and put his hands out," she said. "And I put handcuffs on him and walked him out."
Castaneda, who is the highest ranking woman in the sheriff’s department, used the anecdote to illustrate how women in law enforcement could handle situations differently than their male counterparts.
She stressed that women were just as competent as men at being deputies, and in some cases can do better work.
But female deputies in Kern County are vastly underrepresented, and recruiting efforts by the department have been hampered by an overall decline in applicants.
During a recent survey of the department, KCSO found it employed 41 female deputies and 497 male deputies.
“It’s still very much a male dominated profession and that’s just the way it is,” Castaneda said.
Female deputies interviewed by the Californian were adamant that they did not feel isolated in the overwhelmingly male environment, but did say they felt pressures to prove themselves to their male colleagues.
“You do have to earn your reputation over time,” said Senior Deputy Danisha Ashley. “It doesn’t come as naturally to us as it does for the men. We do have to work for it.”
Ashley has spent 10 years with the sheriff's department. She joined after a stint with the Army National Guard.
She wanted a military structure for her workplace after the military, and she found that with the department. But she had to overcome initial resistance from her husband, who did not want her working shift work or being put in the face of danger.
Although she eventually did end up joining the sheriff's department, the three deputies interviewed by The Californian said they believed many women do not apply for law enforcement jobs due to pressure from their spouses.
Ashley said women have to conform to their environment once they do become deputies in order to fit in.
“It’s hard in that if you’re not used to working primarily around men, you definitely have to adapt as a female,” she said.
Kern County does not stand alone in its struggle to recruit women into its law enforcement ranks.
Nationwide, only 13 percent of police officers are women, according to the National Center for Women and Policing. The Kern County Sheriff's Office falls below that, at around 8 percent.
Low pay and an overall decline in applicants has made it difficult for the department to hire more women, Castaneda said. Although, she added that recruiting women was important for the department.
Despite the challenges, many of the deputies said they felt like they fit in with their coworkers and belonged to the group.
One deputy said she tried not to focus on the differences between her and the men she worked with.
“It’s not something I went into thinking I would be the best woman cop I could be,” said Senior Deputy Amanda Plugge. “I went into it thinking I would be the best cop I could be.”
She said she was more or less satisfied with the status quo.
“I don’t think I would prefer it either way,” she said. “I just want qualified partners. Men or women, I just want to know that the person coming up next to me is qualified.”