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Female officer breaks a glass ceiling

Ever since she was a kid, Kelly Rodriguez was guided by a major principle: She doesn't like people who prey on the weak.

That value led Rodriguez, 50, to a career as a police officer and her being named the first female captain in the history of the Huntington Beach Police Department on Dec. 31.

Out of the department's 217 officers, 11 are women, according to one of them, police spokeswoman Jennifer Marlatt. Rodriguez is the only woman with a rank above officer.

"She's an extremely hard worker and makes quick, solid decisions," Chief Robert Handy said about Rodriguez and her elevation to captain. "She is very committed to the safety of our officers and the community."

Marlatt said all the women in the department look up to Rodriguez.

"Captain Rodriguez sets the example by her tenacity, the love of the job and working hard to address and resolve problems to keep Huntington Beach a great city to live and work," Marlatt said.

"She worked during a time where there was still a strong bias against women in law enforcement. I believe she changed some opinions through the fact she proved women can do the job the same as men. She is respected and looked up to by many at the department as a lead-by-example kind of person."

Added Officer Lisa Gallatin: "She's dedicated, smart and speaks her mind. She's not intimidated by this assignment."

Despite her 21-year devotion to the department, Rodriguez said Wednesday that she didn't always know that she wanted to be a peace officer.

She grew up in Connecticut and made the move to California at age 18 to attend Cal State Long Beach. At that time, she intended to become a teacher. She said policing wasn't even on her radar.

In her first year at the school, she took an elective class in criminology, and one of the requirements was to go on police ride-alongs.

She still vividly remembers her first ride-along with Downey police when they got involved in a pursuit of people suspected of being high on drugs.

"It was exciting and crazy," Rodriguez said. "I was like, 'Oh my god. I need to be a cop.'"

Other than liking the adrenaline surge — Rodriguez had spent a great deal of time playing action sports growing up in Connecticut — she found that policing aligned with her values.

"When you see somebody who is victimized and they can't defend themselves and you have an impact on their life by arresting the perpetrator or getting their peace of mind back into a sense of calm, it brings a great deal of satisfaction," she said. "I don't like bullies. I don't like people who take advantage of others."

Rodriguez spent seven years with the Orange County Sheriff's Department before transferring to Huntington Beach in 1996.

Like most rookies, she started in patrol, which brought thrills, both good and bad.

In the late 1990s, Rodriguez was on patrol in a neighborhood with her headlights "blacked out" looking for burglars when she saw a woman in a suspicious vehicle. When she tried to pull it over, the woman fled the scene, beginning a car chase that lasted all the way to Escondido. During the pursuit, Rodriguez learned that the woman had burglarized a home in Long Beach and stolen the car.

Rodriguez said that out of nowhere, the woman intentionally crashed the car at 80 mph into a grouping of offramp crash cushions. When Rodriguez and the other officer on the chase went to see if the woman was alive, they saw her cutting her throat and repeatedly stabbing herself in the stomach with a knife. Rodriguez and the other officer were able to wrest the weapon from her hands and restrain her until medical personnel arrived. The woman survived and was arrested.

"The whole thing was a whirlwind," Rodriguez said.

One of her most treasured memories is of helping a group of young freshmen girls at a local high school get off heroin.

About 15 years ago, Rodriguez was working as a school resource officer and discovered the girls had been using narcotics. She contacted the parents and worked with them to counsel the girls.

One was being raised by her grandmother because her mother had overdosed on heroin. The girl had turned to heroin herself, but Rodriguez said she was persistent and convinced the girl to go to rehabilitation.

"I did not want them to become another statistic or get addicted so I stayed on them," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the girl contacted her several years later and told the officer that she had saved her life.

In 2008, Rodriguez was promoted to sergeant and in 2012 she became a lieutenant. In stepping up to captain, she said her job will be less about direct police work and more about management.

As Uniform Division captain, Rodriguez is responsible for about 90 officers. She will also be spending a lot of time out in the community talking with residents and business owners. She said she likes being a conduit for the department, showing the community how it operates.

At a ceremony in City Council chambers on Jan. 3, family and colleagues gathered as Rodriguez was sworn in and given a badge bearing her new rank.

Rodriguez says she hopes that her promotion sets an example for girls who may never have considered policing a viable profession.

The department is working to attract more women to the profession.

"Recruiting women is an integral part of having a well-rounded department and accomplishing our mission to serve the community with honor, integrity and professionalism," the department's website says.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

benjamin.brazil@latimes.com

Twitter: @benbrazilpilot

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