In 1968, Trae Heath began her Alexandria law enforcement career as a school crossing guard. Ordinarily, that would have been the pinnacle of her law enforcement career, as well.

But Heath had an extraordinary notion in her head--she wanted to be a police officer. There was just one problem: No woman had ever been a patrol officer in Alexandria, and city and police officials told Heath she couldn't, either.

She couldn't be an officer because she was a woman, they said. She wasn't tall enough, they said. She needed a college degree, they said, even though men weren't required to have one.

"But I kept after them," Heath said. "I kept asking, 'Could I please just try?' "

Laws and attitudes were changing, and the city finally decided to let her try. Now, Heath, the police department's first female patrol officer and its first female lieutenant--no woman has achieved a higher rank--will retire next Friday after 27 years on a force that now has 45 female officers out of 280, and whose current roster of cadets contains more women (five) than men (three).

"Women officers have shown they have the ability to do the job," said Sgt. Ron Ware, who has been with the Alexandria police for nearly 20 years and who has a female boss: Heath. "They do the same job as well as men, or better."

Deputy Chief Earl Cook, Heath's supervisor and another 20-year veteran, said Heath commands--and gets--respect.

"She is such a quality, outstanding person, it comes across before her gender," he said. "We lucked out having someone like her to establish" the precedent for women on the force.

But before Heath could break new ground, she had to get off the school crosswalk.

Serving as a crossing guard was a good job to start with, she said, because the hours were part time and she had two young children. About 1970, she became interested in becoming an officer; she liked law enforcement and wanted a career. What she encountered wasn't just a glass ceiling--it was more like a brick wall.

At that time, the only women in the police department were in the youth bureau, handling juvenile crimes, Heath said. They were known as policewomen, not police officers, she said.

But Heath wouldn't take no for an answer. When she was finally permitted to apply, she met the requirements (or argued away the arbitrary ones), passed the tests and was sworn in at 9 a.m. on Dec. 27, 1972.

About noon that same day, an Alexandria officer, Detective Conrad Birney, was killed in the line of duty, shot during a bank robbery. Suddenly, one of the happiest days in Heath's life was also one of the saddest days in the history of the police department.

"That made a big impression on me, knowing we had an officer killed the same day I was sworn in," Heath said quietly. "It gave me pause. I had to think a lot about it. But I decided it was the career I wanted, and I decided to stay with it."

The next step was the Northern Virginia police academy, where police officers from area jurisdictions get their training. There were four women in the class--Heath and three from Arlington County, which had begun hiring women about six months before Heath was hired in Alexandria. Heath's children helped out by giving her plenty of "study time," and it paid off: Heath finished No. 1 in the class.

"It was quite an honor," Heath said. "I was very, very happy, not only for myself, but for the department."

Having proved herself as a student, "I had to prove I could do it on the street," Heath said. But first she needed something to wear. She had to go to Baltimore to get fitted for a specially made skirted uniform (she wore shorts underneath) and a "silly little hat that would go flying" when the wind blew.

At least she was a full-fledged police officer, for better or worse. When unruly suspects wanted to fight, she fought them. When a resident balked at giving her a burglary report--he wanted a "real" police officer--she told him that she was a real police officer, and if the report was going to be taken, she was going to take it. But more than once, when it was time for a drunk to go to jail, he would weigh the options (a male officer or Heath) and say, "I want to go with her."

She was hit by a bus while directing traffic, and during her recovery from torn ligaments, she worked in the communications center, dispatching calls for police service--again, a job women didn't do.

Heath says she has been treated well throughout her career, except for the occasional deferential colleague or demeaning civilian. In the early days, some male officers and some dispatchers were protective of her and would try to pull her back or avoid sending her into dangerous situations, she said.

"Men were raised to protect women at that time," she said. "But it wasn't part of my job to be protected. . . . Those things were cleared up over time."

Heath did need protection, though, when she served as a "muggable Molly," or a decoy to attract purse snatchers, in the 1970s. Before women were on the force, "they used to dress men up as women" to serve as decoys, she said. Heath was "mugged" plenty of times but always felt safe. "I knew I had good protection around me. They were watching me at all times," she said.

Sgt. Kathy West, who hit the streets of Alexandria with two other female officers in 1975--the skirts were history by then--said Heath played a big role in her becoming an officer. They took a political science class together at Northern Virginia Community College, where Heath received an associate's degree in criminal justice.

"I'll never forget meeting Trae," West said. "She encouraged me to apply."

In addition to various stints on patrol, Heath has commanded the crime prevention and communications units, and she attended the prestigious police school at the FBI National Academy in Quantico. She also has done a lot of work in the area of domestic violence, including serving on a task force that developed the department's policy of mandatory arrest in such cases--a policy that later became law in Virginia.

Heath said she turned in her retirement papers "with mixed emotions. It wasn't an easy decision. But I think the time is right for me."

The lifelong Alexandrian, whose husband, Dean, is a detective with the Alexandria police, plans to spend her retirement enjoying her country home and her five grandchildren and perhaps do volunteer work.

She sees a bright future for those who follow her.

"Law enforcement is a good career for women," Heath said. "More women should look into it. The opportunities are there. You can get into investigations, forensics, K-9. There's lots of flexibility; you can work different hours. There are lots of advantages to it."

CAPTION: "Law enforcement is a good career for women," says Lt. Trae Heath, Alexandria's first female police officer. She is retiring after 27 years.

CAPTION: When Trae Heath joined the force in December 1972, she had to wear a specially made skirted uniform and what she calls a "silly little hat."