When Sgt. Kathleen Salvas joined the Alexandria Police Department 20 years ago, policewomen were wearing skirts and high heels and were limited to working as investigators in the juvenile division.

As she retires on Aug. 1, Salvas leaves as commander of Community Relations and Crime Resistance. The dress has changed with the times -- skirts have been traded in for practical pantsuits.

Although she was the only woman on the force for five years, she said she had no problems with her male colleagues. Many of the officers were like big brothers, she said.

"I never felt uncomfortable being a woman. In fact, in some instances, being a woman was advantageous. In handling juvenile offenses . . . some people talk more freely to a woman," Salvas said.

"The only awkwardness would come from certain classes or seminars . . . . Some instructors would say, 'I usually start off with a joke but since there is a female in attendance I can't tell the joke,' " Salvas said. She said she responded, "Excuse me, just carry on."

Salvas handled cases involving runaways, child abuse and neglect, and sexual offenses. She stumbled upon the job at an employment agency because of her interest in working with children and families.

One of the most memorable cases was that of a 7-year-old boy who was brought in with broken bones and burns on his back and was suffering from malnutrition. He had been beaten by his mother's boyfriend, said Salvas. She got medical care for him and eventually reunited him with relatives.

"Police work is a day-to-day challenge. It's definitely a people-oriented profession," Salvas said. She said she has "gained patience . . . greater tolerance for people in general. And it gives you a certain amount of confidence in your own ability to deal with people effectively," Salvas said.

"You never know how many success stories you have. I think it's a matter that you're trying to deal with people in the best way you can," Salvas said.

According to Officer Nick Todaro, whom Salvas supervised, she does just that with her own staff. Todaro described Salvas as someone who gives minimum supervision that yields maximum results. "She trusted that we knew what we were doing," Todaro said.

Salvas, 41, has no immediate plans except to enjoy the summer with her husband, Andre Salvas, a fellow officer and captain of the daylight patrol. "I'm not going to do anything this summer . . . take it easy. I'm not leaving just to jump into another career," she said.

In 1979, when police officers were given the option of retiring after 20 years, Salvas decided that would be her goal. Although the work can be stressful, she said she is not retiring because she is burned out.

"I had never even heard that expression until recently and all of a sudden . . . everybody's burned out," Salvas said. "Maybe it's just a time for a change."