When a new class graduates Friday from the Ventura County Criminal Justice Academy, it will be a historic moment for women in the male-dominated Ventura County Sheriff's Department.
A record number of female deputies--nearly half of the 25 deputies hired this year--will receive their diplomas and join a department that has been criticized by county officials in recent years for not hiring enough women and minorities.
"We're treated the same as the guys, and that's important," said Michelle Skaggs, 24, of Ventura. "I like competing with guys. I like to prove that women can do the same job as men."
Among Ventura County law enforcement agencies, the Sheriff's Department has the most women, partly because they are needed to watch over female inmates at the county's Ojai Jail Honor Farm, sheriff's officials said.
"We have to have women, so we will actively seek them," said Sgt. Stephen DeCesari, who is in charge of training at the academy. The 14 men and 11 women joining the department will first be assigned to the Ventura County Jail and later rotated out to patrol, he said.
At the same time Friday, a dozen male officers will graduate from the academy and join the Oxnard Police Department, which has one of the poorest track records in the county for hiring women.
Only six of the department's 147 officers are female. Oxnard Police Sgt. Gary Amar said the department has historically had a problem recruiting officers--male and female.
"It's just hard to get people to come work here," Amar said. "They have this image that the city has the worst crime rate in the county. It's an image that we can't live down. We would love to have more women come out here."
Amar said Oxnard officials had extended a job offer to a woman last year, but she rejected it because she became pregnant.
Before being admitted to the academy, all students must already be hired by local police departments or the Sheriff's Department. Each department has its own hiring policies and does its own screening.
Friday's graduating class will be the first entry-level hires the Sheriff's Department has made in two years, DeCesari said. Because of budget cutbacks, new recruits have not been hired since January, 1992, he said.
DeCesari said three women dropped out of the class before the 22-week training period was up, including one who suffered physical injuries. He said he did not know why the other two left.
The next class, scheduled to begin in May, will have two women, he said.
Female deputies said having other women in the class helped them survive five months of basic training.
"It's just different for girls to talk to girls," said Michele Olmstead, 22, from Westlake Village. "When I went through the L.A. County Reserve Academy, I was the only woman. It helps a lot to have more women in with you. You don't feel so intimidated by everyone."
Olmstead said she was drawn into law enforcement because of her father, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Her father will present Olmstead her diploma Friday.
Chandra Pugh, 31, of Camarillo, said some of the men thought the female students were weaker, even though the women were required to pass the same physical tests as the male deputies.
"What the guys did, we had to do," Pugh said. "It means we have to try harder to keep up with them."
Male students said they had no problem training next to women.
"It doesn't make any difference to me," said Mitchell Jan, 35, of Santa Barbara. "I think having a higher percentage of women makes for more variety."
Kim Crowe, 22, of Granada Hills, said she felt pressure to do well because of her gender.
"I think women have gotten a bad rap," Crowe said. "I don't want any special breaks, and I don't want to be hired because I'm female."
The Sheriff's Department's affirmative action policy requires that women and minorities be selected first for the training academy if they are equal to or better qualified than their competitors. Eighty-one of the department's 588 deputies are female.
In February, a county report criticized the lack of women and minorities in Ventura County government's top executive and law enforcement jobs. The department has been accused by women and minorities of being insensitive, and 11 of the department's 15 African-American deputies have sued for discrimination.
Cmdr. Kathy Kemp, the highest-ranked woman in the department, said she still encounters some chauvinism, but calls the Sheriff's Department one of the most progressive in the county.
Kemp said women still have to work harder than men to earn respect in the department, but acceptance is becoming easier. When Kemp graduated from the academy in September, 1979, she was one of three women in a class of 42.
"Times are changing," Kemp said. "We need to see that our department is reflective of the community we serve."
The Ventura County Criminal Justice Training Academy will hold graduation ceremonies at 2 p.m. Friday at the Camarillo Community Center, 1605 E. Burnley St. Admission is free.
Women in Law Enforcement
Pct. Men Women Women County Sheriff's Department 507 81 13.8 Ventura Police Department 108 12 10 Port Hueneme Police Department 18 1 5.2 Oxnard Police Department 141 6 4.1 Santa Paula Police Department 26 1 3.7 Simi Valley Police Department 108 4 3.6
Sources: Ventura County Sheriff's Department and Ventura, Port Hueneme, Oxnard, Santa Paula and Simi Valley police departments.