Former police chief looks back at groundbreaking career - KCTV5

Former police chief looks back at groundbreaking career

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It was never a dream of Ellen Hanson to become a police officer or even a police chief. Her groundbreaking career in law enforcement started all because she wanted to get job interview experience.

It was 1975 and the Lenexa, KS, Police Department was hiring three officers. It was a small town then and Hanson's then-husband drew her a map so she knew how to get to Lenexa and where to go. She knew very little about police work and the Kansas City, KS, native didn't know much about Lenexa either.

More than 600 people applied for the jobs.

The applicants were divided into the A list and the B list. The A list was for anyone with police or military backgrounds. Hanson said the B list was anyone the department wanted to interview and then move on. She said that she was on the B list, but something happened during her interview.

"After that interview, we just clicked for some reason and after that they called the chief and said, 'oh you'll think we're crazy, but you might want to move this woman from the B list to the A list.' It just was, I guess, meant to be because everything went well after that," she said.

In the 1970s female police officers were very rare. In Johnson County, there was only one other woman working for a police department at the time. Then Police Chief John Foster decided to take a chance.

"He hired me and he took a big risk in hiring me. I had no idea if I could do the job nor (did I have) any background that would have convinced him that I could do the job," Hanson said.

With her new job secure, breaking through the "glass ceiling" in law enforcement was not easy.

"The first day was a rough day. It was a blizzard and I had not had any field training. It was my first day out of the academy. After two hours I had to get in a car by myself. I had to push cars out of ditches for 12 hours and work accidents. It was very tough and I thought maybe I made the bad career choice," she remembered.

Hanson would quickly adjust to her new job, just as her male counterparts adjusted to working with a woman.

"About four years after I got there, I was talking to one of the sergeants who had become a friend and he said, 'oh my gosh, the day you walked in the front door, we thought our world was coming to an end.' You're kidding, I thought everyone was happy to have me here because they were so nice," she said. "He said, 'no, we were not happy, but the chief told us give her a chance and if it works, it works, if it doesn't, she'll be gone.' He said, 'everyone respected him (the chief) that we just decided we would give you a chance.'"

Hanson made the most of that chance. She spent 16 years working her way through the ranks until 1991. Foster decided to step down and dozens of people applied to replace him. The job ended up going to the woman he took a chance on all of those years ago.

"It's a credit to that department that I did not really have a bad experience. I've talked to a lot of other women who started around that same time frame. They have many horror stories, but I thought they were very happy to have me there. I was so well-treated," she said.

Hanson became the first female police chief in the Kansas City area. During her career, she was asked to serve on a number of boards and participate in professional organizations. She served as an inspiration for other women around the country wanting to get into law enforcement. It's a career path she wishes more women would consider.

"It's a great profession for women. It's a great profession for men, too. But, it's a wonderful career for women. If you have the desire to work hard, if you're an honorable, honest, professional person that has some compassion, it is the best job," she said.

After almost four decades with the department she knew nothing about when she started, Hanson decided to retire from the chief's position in October 2012. Deciding to leave a job that she loved wasn't easy.

"I do miss the police work, but I did that for 37 years and I loved it to the very last day. But I also know there's a time to do something different and give someone else a chance,'' she said.

After only four months of leisure time, Hanson answered the call to serve and lead another organization with the non-profit humane society and animal welfare organization, Wayside Waifs.

"I jumped at the chance because this is just the best organization so I was anxious to be involved on a closer level,'' she said.

Hanson currently serves as the interim CEO for Wayside. It's an organization she says she has always supported and is happy to help.

"Everybody who works here is dedicated. The animals are well taken care of and well loved. It's similar to law enforcement. That was a part of being with a group that has a mission and a goal and this is a group that very definitely has a mission and a goal,'' said Hanson.

Hanson said she currently has no plans to make the position permanent and looks forward to someday returning to a relaxing retirement.

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