Though women make up only 11 percent of the police department, four of Fairfax's eight district patrol stations are now run by women. National police officials said it is unusual for that many women to hold such visible police roles, and that it indicates how far women have progressed in the largely male bastion of law enforcement.
"That number of women in command positions is way over any kind of national average and shows the real emergence of women in policing that's occurred over the last two decades," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the District-based Police Executive Research Forum, which studies law enforcement management.
Nationally, women constitute only about 13 percent of law enforcement agencies, according to Terrie S. Swann, president of the International Association of Women Police in Phoenix. Swann, a supervisor in the U.S. Marshals Service, estimated that about 2 percent of police commanders are women. "We're seeing an increase" in female captains, majors, colonels and chiefs, Swann said, "but it's been a long process getting there."
In comparably sized departments locally, the District has one woman commander in its seven precincts and Prince George's County has none in its six districts. Montgomery County, however, has women heading four of its six districts.
Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer, who took over in July, and his predecessor, Montgomery County Chief J. Thomas Manger, said the women's sex did not play a role in the promotions of Capts. Maggie DeBord, Amy Lubas, Sharon Smith and Culin up the ladder in recent years.
"It really didn't enter into my thinking," Rohrer said of his decision to assign three of the four women to run district stations in recent months. "All four are top performers, and each one earned their rank and their position."
The district stations, which provide emergency and routine patrol response and a variety of community services, are in Reston, McLean, Mason, Sully, Fair Oaks, Franconia, West Springfield and Mount Vernon.
Manger detailed Smith to run the busy Mason station nearly two years ago and made DeBord the department's first female SWAT captain four years ago. He called the job of district commander "probably the most critical command position on the department. They are the mini-police chief of their district," he added, constantly attending community meetings, deploying police resources and handling all manner of public and internal issues.
"If they're doing their job, it really takes a lot of work off the chief," Manger said, "so you want your best people in those jobs. And those women are in those jobs because they're the best people."
All four commanders have similar backgrounds. They are relatively young; the oldest is 43. They are natives of the Washington suburbs. And they navigated the fairly typical path to upper management: street cop, desk job, street sergeant, desk job, lieutenant, administrator, commander.
Only DeBord, 40, avoided most of the desk job stops, mainly because her lifelong love of soccer and athletics has driven her toward active posts such as the bike team and the special operations division. She is the only one of the four who does not warmly embrace the idea of running a patrol district, because of the vast administrative duties involved. She said she plans on getting out of the office to the streets and commercial areas of the Franconia District, occasionally riding with her officers.
A native of Prince George's County and a graduate of George Mason University, DeBord said she developed an interest in police work in college and joined the Fairfax department soon after graduation.
After four years as a patrol officer, DeBord spent four hazardous years as an undercover narcotics officer before she was promoted to sergeant. She returned to the street in the Mount Vernon District, joined the bike patrol team in West Springfield and later commanded the helicopter unit before returning to Mount Vernon as a lieutenant.
In 2000, Manger promoted her to captain and handed her the special operations division, with the SWAT teams, the bomb unit, the hazardous materials unit -- "all the toys," DeBord said.