Michelle Young leverages her assets in logistics and strategic planning in her role as Kent County undersheriff. Photo by Michael Buck
In Michelle Young’s nearly 26 years with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, she’s been a crucial key to many of the technological advancements the county has seen during her tenure.
Her role with the county has given her the expertise she now shares on the local, state and national level on technological committees.
Some of the projects with which she has been involved include the digitization of fingerprinting, mug shots and dispatch systems.
“I’ve been involved in most of the automation that has happened,” Young said. “They all make a major difference in our manpower usage.”
Young’s involvement in the shift to technology, as well as a variety of other positions throughout the department such as corrections officer, communications and patrol, have resulted in her advancement through the ranks. In June, she was named undersheriff, the first female undersheriff in Kent County history.
Being the first female in such a role isn’t new to Young; she was also the department’s first female lieutenant, in 1999, first female captain, in 2007, and first female chief deputy in 2011.
Young credits her success in achieving these advancements largely to the length of time it takes to receive the promotions and the relatively short period of time women commonly remain in law enforcement.
“To me, it’s normal — I’m kind of immune to it,” she said, referring to the promotions. “I haven’t felt like being a female is a significant factor. I am proud of it, though.”
When Young initially started in law enforcement, she wasn’t positive she wanted to move up the supervisory track. The choice to go into law enforcement, however, was a no-brainer. When she was growing up in Shiawassee County northeast of Lansing, she proudly watched her father interact with the community as county sheriff.
“I always admired his connection with the community and the impact I could see him having,” he said.
The path she took to enter law enforcement is one she credits as contributing to her rise to Kent County undersheriff: She enlisted in the United States Army because she needed to pay for college. She competed for and gained an ROTC scholarship and enrolled at Michigan State University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice in 1989.
She became a captain in the Army, and remained in the reserves until 1996.
Young moved to Kent County because she had family in the area working at the sheriff’s department. She was hired in December 1989 as a corrections officer, shortly before a wave of hiring for the new jail.
She completed a Master’s in Public Administration from Western Michigan University in 1992. She also attended the Grand Rapids Community College Police Academy to move from corrections to patrol. And she decided to start the supervisory track, taking an exam and an oral interview to become sergeant.
She said her military experience played a large role in her decision to choose the leadership path and also gave her the confidence and decision-making skills needed to move up — as well as the qualities that make the staff feel comfortable in following her lead.
“A lot of people don’t take that test. They really like the first line work.
“The mission statement is ‘to protect and serve,’ and it’s nothing I do directly — it’s what they do directly. Some people want to focus on that mission.”
Young has enjoyed every phase of her career, but as she has moved up, she has enjoyed each new position more than the previous one.
Had she not been a good corrections officer or patrol officer, she wouldn’t have continued her path upward, she said. She feels, however, that her skills are better suited at the higher levels of the department.
“You get into a more strategic planning, logistics role as you move up, and those are my strong points,” she said.
“This is what I feel is critical. … If you have a good plan in place, you don’t waste efforts at the ground level. You leverage all the assets, and I feel I make a bigger impact in that arena than I can going out and answering calls.”
Leveraging those assets is important, since crime in the last 25 years has changed. Per capita crime has stayed about the same, Young said, but it’s shifted to suburban population centers, which can take officers more time to respond to.
She also said crime has shifted to more technology-based offenses, such as identity theft and child pornography.
“As much as technology changed how we work, it’s affected how people can commit crimes,” she said. “A lot of the crimes we’re seeing now weren’t even possible 10 years ago.”
Young might be more comfortable behind a desk at the Sheriff’s Department, but it also leads to her most nerve-racking moments. When she was an officer, she felt in control when going into a dangerous situation, but now that she’s the one in command, that confidence sometimes goes out the window.
“It’s the most scary when you’re not the one going in,” she said. “When I’m in that situation, you know you have to do A, B, C and D. Instead, you’re depending on someone else to focus. You care about those people.”
That care and concern for those who are putting their lives in danger comes from working in close proximity with them for an entire career. Young said all but about 3 percent of employees end up retiring from the department after 25 years.
“We’re family. We know the kids, the spouses, we help with yard work,” Young said. “When you’re putting someone else at risk, those are the harder times.”
She said it is always scary when an officer makes a traffic stop alone at 3 a.m. She said that fear is normal, and if an officer isn’t scared, they probably aren’t paying enough attention.
Fear, however, is a very small part of the job, Young said.
“You run the whole gamut in a day,” she said. “If you can’t find something to laugh about during the day, you’re not trying very hard. You have to make the most of situations, and the people in the community are amazing and gracious.”
“Most of the situations have a humorous element, and you really have to find them to stay emotionally healthy in this job,” she added.
Young has managed to do that. Becoming undersheriff last June caused her to reflect on just how high her career had taken her. She hopes to continue well beyond her 25th year in the department.
She said serving as a mentor to her staff is now among her chief concerns, as she helps deputies ease into their respective roles and realize their career goals.
She said she’s never felt she was in a rut in her career because her job has changed every three to five years, allowing her to move on before boredom sets in.
“I’m still quite committed,” Young said. “At this point, as long as it’s something the community wants me to keep doing and the sheriff wants me to keep doing, then I’m willing to stay.
“This isn’t a boring job — it’s interesting and dynamic, so you can focus on different things and learn new things every day.”