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Policewoman Breaks the Brass Ceiling

Times Staff Writer

When Marilyn Diaz joined the Pasadena Police Department in 1974, she had to change into her uniform in the bathroom. There was no women’s locker room -- because she was the department’s first female patrol officer.

“Some of the men were resistant to a female working patrol,” said Diaz, 54. “While no one was overtly mean to me, sometimes officers would call one another to arrest someone and I wasn’t included. So I’d go out and initiate my own arrests.”

More than three decades later, Diaz remains a pioneer.

Earlier this month, she was sworn in as chief of the Sierra Madre Police Department, becoming the first woman to head a city police department in Los Angeles County and one of fewer than a dozen female chiefs of municipal departments in California.

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In the beginning, her male colleagues doubted her abilities, she said. And they weren’t alone. Sometimes when she responded to house calls, the men who answered the doors would question her too.

“Some would say that I belonged at home, having babies,” she said.

During the first few years, Diaz said, she had her own doubts about whether she was cut out for the job. But she didn’t quit -- in large part, she said, because of the encouragement of Robert McGowan, who was then Pasadena’s police chief.

“He said that my success would have a large impact on how women who were to follow me were to be accepted,” she said, then added, “It was a big burden.”

Before Diaz entered the Pasadena Police Department, policewomen handled juvenile crimes and sex crimes or had jail duties. She was the first to be assigned to patrol.

By the time Diaz left the department for the Sierra Madre post, she was commander of Pasadena’s patrol unit, in charge of 160 officers.

Diaz has never been struck by a bullet, but during her 32 years in Pasadena, she witnessed two shootings. She was once thrown off a horse while on duty and suffered a seizure and critical injuries that kept her off work for six months. But the hardest part of the job, she said, was telling people that their loved ones had died. “Her experience and wide-ranging skills will be a benefit,” said Howard Morzov, a Sierra Madre resident and retired Pasadena police sergeant who worked with Diaz for years. “She’s really good people. A good, effective cop.”

Pasadena has a police staff of 248, said Chief Bernard K. Melekian.

In the much smaller Sierra Madre Police Department, 16 sworn officers report to Diaz.

The size of the department is what appealed to her, she said. “It’s small enough -- it’s the right size -- to see the impact that a chief tries to make,” she said.

Diaz said she wants to improve community policing by creating a citizen patrol unit. She also hopes to recruit volunteers and educate youths about public safety.

These are plans that seem to make sense for a quiet city of 11,800, which in 2005 had no homicides. The most common crimes involve property. There are no traffic lights within the city’s 3.2 square miles, street parking is free and the Fire Department consists of volunteers.

Sierra Madre Mayor George Maurer said he is hoping that Diaz will revamp the department’s image. Two years ago, police complained about their wages and created, among other things, a website bashing the city.

“That really hurt the police image,” he said. “I think that she can do a little bit of healing, do some good PR work. I’m looking forward to that.”

When Diaz speaks, she does so softly. But her careful choice of words and her delivery -- steady and sure, respectful but firm -- make it hard not to pay attention to everything she says.

Diaz, who grew up in South Los Angeles and in San Gabriel, has lived within walking distance of Sierra Madre’s police station for 11 years. In taking the top job at the Police Department, she said she wanted to “do something for my community.”

People in the city like the fact that she has lived there for so long.

“A chief that lives in Sierra Madre has a better realization of the community’s needs and lives with the results of our -- the Police Department’s -- activities,” said Lt. Stephen Abernethy, a Sierra Madre resident who has been with the department since 1982. “I have a vested interest in our city and I believe she feels the same way.”

Rod Diener, the manager at Bean Town, a local coffee shop, agreed: “She’s a resident, not someone from Kansas.”

Diaz said that her career in law enforcement “happened by accident.” Since childhood, she had wanted to be a teacher.

But during her freshman year at Cal State L.A., she was looking for an elective class, and a friend suggested that she take an introductory course on criminal justice. She said she found the material stimulating. So after getting a bachelor’s degree in police science in 1972, she headed to the Police Academy -- one of two women in her class.

She didn’t, however, leave teaching behind completely. During her years in the Pasadena Police Department, she taught high school and Pasadena City College classes.

And a few years ago, she received her master’s in education from USC.

Diaz was introduced as the new police chief at the Feb. 28 City Council meeting and started her job March 13.

Soon after the public announcement, Abernethy said, deliveries of flowers began filling up her new office.

“It looked like a jungle -- a jungle of flowers,” he said. There were so many bouquets that he took a load to her house.

Abernethy, who has seen seven other chiefs come and go, said congratulatory phone calls and even cards are the norm, “but I don’t think men send each other flowers.”

A week after Diaz started her new job, a dozen or so cards were still displayed in her office. She said she stored away dozens and dozens more in a box.

“I’ve heard from six or seven high school classmates I haven’t seen in years, some since graduation,” said Diaz, who attended high school in West Covina.

Although the attention has been nice, she said that she is waiting for things to quiet down.

And while she’s the first female city police chief in the county, she said she’s confident she won’t be the last.

“It’s just a matter of time until we have the second and third,” she said.


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