At first, Margaret DeStefano seems like an oddity in Bakersfield.
The ex-cop from New York’s Catskill Mountains arrived for a job interview last June in 105-degree heat wearing a suit and silk blouse in a city more accustomed to cowboy hats and boots.
She was boiling but couldn’t take off her jacket because her blouse was drenched.
She got the job despite her discomfort and became head of the Kern County Regional Criminal Justice Training Center at Bakersfield College. It is the police academy for Kern County law enforcement.
DeStefano, 36, has been told she is the first civilian woman to lead a police academy in California, and her colleagues aren’t aware of another in the nation.
Openings in California
“California offers a lot of civilian positions in law enforcement where New York, which is where I’m from, does not,” she said in a telephone interview. “For me to be out here is really a testament to Kern County and its willingness to become more cosmopolitan.”
The city of 138,000, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is working to lose its “redneck” reputation, and DeStefano’s hiring may be a sign of progress.
A search committee of law enforcement training executives and academicians were impressed with her credentials: seven years as a police officer in Ellenville, N.Y., a law degree obtained in two years rather than the standard three years and experience teaching criminal justice.
“Probably the easiest thing in the world for that committee to do would have been to say, ‘We don’t think this woman from New York would fit in,’ ” she said. “It would have been easy enough for them not to do it.”
But the academy needed someone to pull the program out of the doldrums. Officers had been taking classes elsewhere because of its limited offerings.
Within two weeks of her arrival in August, DeStefano had organized a teaching seminar for all instructors.
“Here I was, hot off the East Coast for two weeks, and I’m calling a training session for Friday afternoon,” she said. The officers’ reactions “were excellent in spite of the timing of it.”
The first academy class under her administration graduated last month, another 16-week course is under way, and the sheriff’s office will fill another starting next month.
Need for Speed
“We had to do some real singing and dancing to set up two overlapping academies,” DeStefano said. “If we didn’t jump in and put it on the drawing board, they would have gone somewhere else.”
The state is requiring a new course section on domestic violence starting Jan. 1, but DeStefano added it early.
“The new perspective is that police are being required to think about domestic violence and to respond to domestic violence situations in different ways. Typically, police officers have arrived at these types of incidents with their fair share of sociological baggage,” she said. “The law is very clear now that domestic violence is not only a police problem, but it’s going to be treated as a criminal matter.”
Her primary goal is to turn the academy into a regional training center for the county’s 15 departments.
The addition of a jail and normal attrition means the Sheriff’s Department must train at least 135 new employees this year, said Training Sgt. Pat Lantz. That’s an increase of almost 20% in a year for the department and a challenge for DeStefano at the academy.