Catherine Garcia-Lindstrom recently was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives. Photo by Jim Gebben
Catherine Garcia-Lindstrom stands as a much-needed example of how law enforcement can be an accepting and viable career path for women and members of minority communities.
In the 1970s, police departments across the country were opening their doors to minorities and women, but that didn’t necessarily make joining the police force an easy path. Garcia-Lindstrom said when she was applying to become a police officer, there were only 186 positions available for women — out of 5,000 slots.
She said women had to meet higher standards than men just to be considered for the academy.
“At one point, the women had to have two years of college — men, a high school diploma or GED. There were a whole lot of other differences, but you can get the gist.”
It took five tries before she was accepted into the Detroit Police Academy and after being sworn in, she didn’t receive a proper uniform until months later because the department didn’t have them.
“My first nine months on the road was in my academy khaki, which made you stick out that much more. You looked so different, like you weren’t really a police officer,” she said.
She noted women officers were assigned to only two precincts when she first started.
“The first precinct I was assigned to in Detroit, they didn’t have women’s locker rooms because they didn’t have women before,” she said.
“They took the men’s locker room and created an area within it for women out of a wall of lockers. That worked really well until the wall fell over on some of the women as we were changing because the guys were looking over the top — it was a different time.”
Discrimination and harassment at work were a fact of life, and Garcia-Lindstrom said she adopted the motto “Don’t get mad, get even — it’s more fun,” which helped her deal with those circumstances.
But she doesn’t downplay the inequality that existed.
“I was part of the Schaefer v. Tannian lawsuit in Detroit. That was because they had discriminated against women and there was proof of that,” she said.
The obstacles she faced didn’t come only from the department and male colleagues.
Garcia-Lindstrom, who is Hispanic, said her family and friends were less than impressed with her decision to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“This was post-1967 riots, which had occurred across the country, so there were some pretty strong feelings by the various minority communities that were not necessarily strong in support of law enforcement,” she explained.
“Minorities have struggled with acceptance. If an individual wants to go into a field that is not necessarily seen as open to them, the stigma is not only them going into that field, but it’s also from their peers and their community. That is a real hardship, as well.”
She joined the Detroit Police Department in 1974 and rose through the ranks during her 25 years there.
“I worked a number of different locations while I was there, and at different ranks,” she said. “I was a police officer, sergeant, lieutenant and an inspector.”
She retired from the department at the rank of commander, having turned down a position as deputy chief.
Her experience was vast, having run internal affairs, organized crime and precinct command during her tenure.
“I had been in charge of re-computerization, and in some cases computerization of the Detroit Police Department, at one point. Twenty-one million dollars worth of grant money, and I could tell you where every single penny went, every single piece of equipment,” she said.
While rising through the ranks, she also focused on enhancing her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in psychology and sociology, a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University focusing on the application of interdisciplinary technology to business, and she attended the Northwestern School of Police Staff and Command where she received executive law enforcement training.
In 2000, Garcia-Lindstrom applied for the city of Walker police chief position. She knew she had the experience for the job but was plagued by doubts regarding how her minority status and gender might influence the decision.
“The one thing I was not sure about was the fact that I was female and Hispanic,” she said. “You want to say that perhaps that didn’t play a role, but it’s one of those things that you do think about — is it possible?”
She said in the end she believes the department focused on candidate experience and nothing else.
“I felt like my credentials did speak for me,” she said. “I felt very blessed to be selected for this position. It’s a wonderful city, a wonderful department — both police and fire — outstanding personnel, and my hope was that I could bring something to the table and be a part of it, and I have been.”
She has been with the Walker Police Department for 14 years and, in 2010, in addition to her role as chief of police, she became Walker’s director of public safety, taking charge of both the police and fire departments.
She oversees 34 sworn officers and four civilians in the police department, and five full-time firefighters, 60 paid on-call firefighters and one civilian employee in the fire department.
She said taking that role prompted her to become a certified firefighter, as well, noting she was the oldest member of her firefighting training class with no one else even born in the same decade.
This year Garcia-Lindstrom is celebrating 40 years in law enforcement, and in July she was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives, which happened to be holding its annual conference in Grand Rapids at DeVos Place.
A lot has changed in law enforcement during her 40 years, but a lot has stayed the same. During the NOBLE conference, Garcia-Lindstrom gave presentations on the topic of minority recruitment and women in law enforcement.
As far as minority recruitment is concerned, she said it remains a challenge for police departments for many of the same reasons as in the 1970s.
“I think there is still a reluctance to see law enforcement as a field that is accepting and viable,” she said.
She said there is still little support from minority communities for those going into law enforcement.
Her second presentation focused on women in law enforcement. While harassment and discrimination laws now help prevent the experiences Garcia-Lindstrom said were an accepted part of life in the early ’70s, women still face obstacles while pursuing careers in law enforcement.
One example she pointed to was pregnancy and current Family and Medical Leave Act laws. She said police departments often don’t have light duty positions that would allow a pregnant officer who cannot perform full duty to continue working during her pregnancy. Walker has one light duty position available.
“Agencies that have light duty are more likely to see women remain in law enforcement than those that don’t,” she said.
“I think both the minority recruitment and women recruitment are in a decline right now, for a number of different reasons. There is a lot of research going on in both.”