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Female officers make up just 5 percent of SD's law enforcement

Mitchell Police Officer Mici Bolgrean goes through paperwork after making a traffic stop Wednesday night on Main Street in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic)1 / 6
Jerauld County Deputy Dawn Lake checks in with her boss, Sheriff Jason Weber, while she patrols the county. (Anna Jauhola/Republic)2 / 6
Mitchell Police Officer Mici Bolgrean conducts a pre-trip inspection of her squad car at the start of her night shift Wednesday evening at the Mitchell Public Safety building. (Sean Ryan/Republic)3 / 6
Jerauld County Deputy Dawn Lake checks in with her boss, Sheriff Jason Weber, while she patrols the county. (Anna Jauhola/Republic)4 / 6
Mitchell Police officer Mici Bolgrean stops a driver Wednesday night for a missing headlight on Main Street in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic)5 / 6
Mitchell Police officer Mici Bolgrean stops a driver Wednesday night for a missing headlight on Main Street in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic)6 / 6

Dawn Lake carefully used a pen to investigate a hunk of sod and examine a footprint.

"Yeah, this is a badger," the Jerauld County Sheriff's Deputy said. "But he's young."

For Lake, this bothersome badger was a typical call from a resident in a rural community reporting a problem.

But it hasn't always been routine for a caller to see a female officer arrive on scene. In South Dakota, it's pretty rare.

According to the Department of Criminal Investigation's Law Enforcement Training division, there are 95 female law enforcement officers in South Dakota. That includes police departments, sheriff's offices, DCI, Highway Patrol and tribal offices.

In comparison, there are approximately 1,750 male officers in South Dakota in the same departments, which means 95 percent of the state's law enforcement officers are men.

According to the National Center for Women and Policing, the Indianapolis Police Department made history in 1968 by assigning the first two female officers to patrol on an equal basis with their male colleagues.

Since then, female officers have progressively been added to the field, but a 2003 study at the showed that in 2001, 12.7 percent of all sworn law enforcement positions in large agencies were women. That study shows female officers made up 8.1 percent of small and rural agencies and 14.4 percent of federal agencies.

Lake, 43, recently accepted her position in Jerauld County after seven and a half years patrolling in Charles Mix County. While the workload is just as heavy in her new job, it is different from Charles Mix, she said. Her main patrol areas are Jerauld County's three towns: Wessington Springs, Alpena and Lane.

"On a common morning, I get up and go to the office. I drive through town and Main Street," Lake said, adding that paperwork consumes a fair amount of her time. "And I try to make it to every town every day."

The Jerauld County call

Lake is often dispatched to calls more populated counties' deputies don't deal with, such as someone's yard torn up by a badger.

As she examined the torn sod in a Wessington Springs resident's yard during a shift last month, she called a friend in the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. She took pictures of the pawprint with her phone and sent them to her colleague.

"I know this sounds weird, but do you have any extra coyote urine?" she asked her friend, who answered in the affirmative.

When she finished her call, she told the resident either a young badger, or possibly a skunk, tore up the sod in his yard in search of grubs. Usually badgers will burrow, she said, but there were no holes.

"Just put the sod back on," she said while patting a piece back in place with her boot.

She explained she would have some coyote urine in a few days to create a mixture for him to spray in the area. The urine would likely deter any wild animals from coming back in his yard.

The resident thanked Lake for her help and she was on her way.

While it's more common to have a male officer respond to a call, Lake said it's rare for a citizen to have issue with her gender.

"For officers, as long as I do my job, I don't get a lot of static," she said. "From personal experience, people take the uniform seriously because it comes with responsibility and we act with integrity."

In a rural setting, such as Jerauld County, all officers are networked, she added, and work together. Sometimes another deputy doesn't assist on a call, rather a Highway Patrol trooper or a deputy from a neighboring county.

Even though Lake is one of the small percentage of women officers in the state, she didn't set out to be in law enforcement.

In 2005, she was hired as a part-time dispatcher in Charles Mix County. Dispatchers are required to complete a two-week certification program at the law enforcement training academy in Pierre. Shortly after becoming a dispatcher, she was asked to become a part-time deputy as well.

During her first year of patrolling, she obtained a department standard amount of field officer training time by riding with another deputy before going on to patrol by herself. She then became certified by completing a mandatory 12-week program at the law enforcement academy.

"It was an accident," she said with a laugh. "Originally I told the sheriff I would help him by covering a couple shifts a month for another officer who was in the National Guard."

She has a bachelor's degree in business administration and accounting. Plus, she's a certified land title abstractor and has a long history as a legal assistant.

But for Lake, law enforcement is where her passion rests.

"It's a job I love," she said. "I love my job."

'There's really no difference'

Officer Mici Bolgrean, a 22-year-old rookie at the Mitchell Police Division, has been on duty since March. She has finished her training within the division, and is working toward being certified through the state. In South Dakota, officers can be on the road for one year before they are required to be certified.

Bolgrean went to college in Moorhead, Minn., and has an associate's degree in criminal justice. Her interest in law enforcement began when she first talked to her school resource officer and later talked to a cousin who is in law enforcement. She went on police ride-alongs and her interest grew, she said.

Before she started college, she wondered briefly about being treated differently because of her gender.

"I wondered if I'd have a difficult time," she said. "But they proved me wrong. There's really no difference."

She said everyone in her program -- both in the classroom and in training -- was accepting and didn't look at men versus women.

"They focused on your skillset," Bolgrean said.

There weren't many women in Bolgrean's law enforcement academy class, which she attended in Alexandria, Minn. Some physical tests are different, though, she said. The women's 1.5-mile run is timed differently and women are expected to bench-press half their body weight, rather than three-quarters, the amount set for men. But every student was expected to do the same thing -- improve.

"Training is genderless," Lake said. "We're expected to do the same stuff."

Each student goes through a physical exam with their doctor, who signs off on their physical ability to go through the academy.

At Lake's training in Pierre, everyone was expected to do the same amount of exercises -- sit-ups, pull-ups and other tasks. At the end of training, students are expected to show improvement.

"I most definitely showed improvement because I was on steroids for pneumonia when I started," she said.

Wagner Police Officer DesaRae Gravatt has been on the road for three years, two of which she has been certified. She recently earned her diploma in law enforcement from Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls and trained at the state law enforcement academy in Pierre.

"I just had a heart for law enforcement when I was younger," she said. "I got to know the deputies well that work at the Charles Mix County Sheriff's Office and got to see what they do and how they affect people's lives and help people."

The 25-year-old has never seen a gender line in law enforcement. But she's noticed that all officers handle situations differently. Gravatt said she grew up "a tomboy" and has considered herself one of the guys in the department from the start.

Respect for uniform, not gender

In rural settings, officers often respond to calls alone. Lake said she expects to be treated differently in some certain situations because she's a woman.

"I pulled a truck driver over one time overnight for a headlight out and for speeding," she said. "He called me 'honey' and asked me what I was doing out by myself that late."

The man was a long-haul trucker, so she took the comment with a grain of salt and did her job.

She issued him a courtesy warning for having a headlight out.

"That's not the norm for how we're treated," she said. "For the most part, people are respectful of the uniform, not the gender."

Law enforcement officers often carry the same gear, including a handgun, a stun gun, flashlight, handcuffs, extra ammunition and a baton.

The items on Bolgrean's, Lake's and Gravatt's utility belts carry quite a bit of influence, but they feel it is intuition and a different skillset that endears female officers to offenders or victims in some situations.

All three women said that when dealing with domestic situations in particular, victims are more likely to speak with a female officer on scene rather than a male.

"Victims are more forthcoming with women officers," Bolgrean said. "On a few calls, I've noticed a female victim will gravitate toward me or would look at me even if the male officer is talking to her."

Lake and Gravatt said female law enforcement officers can directly handle sensitive cases with female victims, particularly if a pat-down is needed or a urine sample needs to be collected. They also agree female and child victims are more likely to open up and speak with female law enforcement officers.

"They look at us like a mom figure," Gravatt said.

Lake said all officers bring different skills and abilities to the table, no matter gender.

"Depending on the individual, one officer may be better at one thing than the next," she said.

Lake dealt with one large individual on several occasions, and that person specifically told her that if Lake arrested him he would not resist.

"He didn't want to hurt me," she said. "And he never did resist."

Lake stands at 5-foot-2 and has also been protected by fellow officers, for which she takes no offense. Once, during a confrontation with a suspect who made a sudden move toward Lake, a larger male officer stepped in front of her.

"I can't fault him for that. It's not being sexist whatsoever," Lake said. "They're doing what's socially acceptable. To me, it's like me stepping in front of a child."

She added she appreciates the respect and integrity of colleagues.

Lake has dealt with many difficult situations, including child deaths and murders.

She was on duty the day 2-year-old Reilee Lovell was found dead in the closet of a home in Wagner in July 2012, and was also on duty the day Ronald Fischer Jr.'s vehicle ran into Robert Klumb and Meagan Spindler in a parking lot in Pickstown, killing both Klumb and Spindler.

Lake said in those situations, she relies heavily on the skills she learned in the academy and on the road. She sets her emotions aside, but wouldn't comment directly on those specific situations.

"Charles Mix was a good learning experience as a law enforcement officer," she said. "The county is a good place to get experience. I was a member of that department for several homicides."

A male-dominated profession

Gravatt grew up in Lake Andes and comes from a biracial family -- her dad is American Indian and her mother is white. She was told when she first went to training it might be difficult to be the "the lone wolf" in a male-dominated world.

"But I've proven I'm capable of doing what they can," she said. "I've been involved in sticky situations where they call me for help."

In South Dakota, there are 58 certified female officers in police departments, 25 in sheriff's offices, three in the DCI, two on Highway Patrol and six female tribal officers, according to statistics from DCI's training center. Jerauld and McCook County each have one certified female deputy. Tripp, Mitchell, Parkston and Wagner each have one certified female police officer, and Winner Police Department has two.

A situation from last weekend is an example that Gravatt's abilities are equal to a male officer's.

She was assaulted in a Wagner grocery store. She went in the store to arrest a man who had a warrant for his arrest, and the man punched her in the face. That's when she chased after him and he threw a case of beer at her.

"I trained just like the guys and I have experience, which have all better prepared me for what can happen on the job," she said.

Because of her experience, Gravatt has tossed her hat into the Charles Mix County sheriff's race. She will face off in November against current Sheriff Randy Thaler. If elected, she would be the lone female sheriff in South Dakota.

Although Bolgrean is fairly new in her position, she has learned multitudes in the last several months. During her training, she rode along with three officers in four different phases. The last phase was spent with the first officer she trained with to track Bolgrean's progress.

"You learn policy, laws, how to expect officers to react to different issues," she said, giving examples. "It's intense, but I learned a tremendous amount."

She's arrested a handful of people so far, but mostly she's patrolling and talking with offenders, victims and regular residents who call in about a variety of issues.

"The officers I've trained with here are awesome," she said. "I've learned so much. I see how each one does their job. You take a little piece from each one and make who you want to be from that."

Lake reiterated that law enforcement is genderless.

"If there was an issue with the older generation, those officers must be retiring," Lake said. "The generation now are more expectant that male and female roles can be reversed. I've been working long enough now that I've had the opportunity to work with numerous male officers who have no issue with me being female whatsoever."