Chief Cantrell’s unconventional route to the police force

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Meet San Luis Obispo’s Police Chief, Deanna Cantrell. The assumed formality of her position, her job, her firm handshake and her perfectly pressed suit was only contradicted by her welcoming smile and the bright pink SloDoCo pin on her chest. The pin is a small indication of how Cantrell is redefining what it means to be a police officer. Policing itself is a tough job, but being a female leader in the police force is an entirely different story. But if being a woman in her position is considered unconventional, then her story should be considered even more so.

Having grown up in a family littered with domestic violence, and experiencing incarceration as a youth herself, Cantrell story starts differently than one would expect. Every member of her family had been to jail at least once, if not numerous times.

“I didn’t look at the police as anything positive. They were simply the bad guys in the blue uniforms driving scary black and white patrol cars,” Cantrell said. She often found herself wondering if a police presence makes people feel more safe, or less. It was not until she met a police officer that worked with children of incarcerated parents that she gained a new understanding of what it really meant to wear a badge. After realizing that there was so much more to policing than pulling someone over on the side of the road, Cantrell was intrigued and wanted to learn more about the profession. The cop she met inspired her to impact the community around her as he had. She started by applying to be a police officer at her local department in Mesa, Arizona.  

Cantrell started working as a police officer in 1994 and was promoted to Lieutenant in 2008. After 21 years of police work in Arizona, she stepped into her role as Chief at San Luis Obispo’s Police Department on Jan. 4, 2016.

“Opportunity looks a lot like hard work,” she said. “I got here not because I knew the right people, not because I’m the smartest person in the room, but because I have unyielding drive, dedication and passion for this work.”

According to a study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reported by Al Jazeera America, women make up only twelve percent of the national police force and a mere 2 percent at the executive level. With statistics like these, Cantrell’s position clearly did not come easily.

“The difficult part is [that women] are expected to navigate two different worlds: one composed of hard skills and one of soft,” Cantrell said. “A male Lieutenant asks his officer to do something by just dropping off a report saying it is due in five days— he is seen as assertive and professional. Me on the other hand, if I do not ask how their day is going or how they are feeling, my actions are seen as short and insensitive.” While finding that balance has been tough for her, she never let her gender define her success.

As Cantrell continues to grow in her position, two years since she started, she hopes to leave the community with a legacy of mutual respect and love. Her legacy starts with a philosophy of “intentional influence.” She started to purposefully think about her ability to impact others through her profession, whether that be people in her organization, the community or the city leaders. She also thinks about how other people influence her, and intentionally surrounds herself with successful leaders who mentor her to be the best she can be at her job. Cantrell attributes a large part of her success to her support system.

Then she takes on the bigger challenge of uniting the community she serves for. In the past year, the San Luis Obispo Police department started a program called Police and Community Together (PACT), where each police officer partners with a community member or family so they can personally get to know one another.

“I want my team to unite in understanding who makes up the community and what different cultures there are so we can educate ourselves on how to properly interact and protect the people,” she said.

Growing up in New Mexico, where there was little diversity, Cantrell admits that she didn’t always have an open mind or make an effort to understand other cultures. It was only when she became an officer and joined the diversity team that she understood the value of forging relationships with people different from yourself, and the compassion and empathy that often ensues.

“I policed a beat that was predominately black, [which] was extremely different for me [because] I didn’t understand the culture. [But] I made friends that were black and we talked about things like implicit bias and white privilege, and my mind shifted,” Cantrell said. “It started there— just getting to know people, and once you know people, you can develop trust.”

One of Cantrell’s first acts as chief was to get involved in the community. Shortly after the presidential inauguration, Cantrell separately attended both the Jewish and Race Matters community meetings and realized they were both discussing the recent increase in hate speech. Discovering that commonality, she introduced the two leaders to one another, uniting their causes. Cantrell ultimately conducted a meeting with the Jewish community leaders, the Black, Latino, Muslim, LGBT student organizations and a mental health advocate at the homeless center. By bringing those groups together to meet in the same room, they were able to discover that many of them were individually working toward the same goals. This meeting allowed them to collaborate to improve the community, with the help of the police if they needed it. 

Since she became Chief in 2016, it has become clear that, through her efforts to unite the community by emphasizing the importance of mutual trust and understanding, and her dedication to diversity and equality, that Cantrell is not simply policing the community, but becoming a part of it.

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