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Slowly, more women wearing sheriff’s boots, badge in Ohio


Sheriff Kandy Fatheree of Summit County holds a coffee mug that says "boss lady."
Sheriff Kandy Fatheree of Summit County

Three of Ohio’s 88 sheriffs are women – an all-time high.

In fact, Sheriffs Deb Burchett of Clark County, Charmaine McGuffey of Hamilton County and Kandy Fatheree of Summit County double Ohio’s previous total. Since Maude Collins was elected Vinton County sheriff in 1926 (her husband, the previous sheriff, was fatally shot by a speeding driver), only two other women have served in the position.

The scarcity isn’t unique to Ohio.

“Out of about 3,200 sheriffs nationwide, there are only about 60 of us who are female,” Sheriff Fatheree said recently.

That works out to less than 2%, and Sarah Shendy, director of Ohio’s new Office of Law Enforcement Recruitment and a full-time patrol officer in Copley, estimates that women make up only about 12% of all law enforcement nationwide.

“It’s a shame,” Sheriff Fatheree said. “Law enforcement is a noble profession, and women do extremely well in it.”

She and Sheriff McGuffey won election last year; Sheriff Burchett was first elected in 2016.

Fighting from the start

Sheriff Fatheree has wanted to be Summit County sheriff since she joined the office in 1995.

“I didn’t just want to be a manager, I wanted to be a leader,” she said. “I wanted to make changes, and leadership is really where you can do that.”

When she went to the academy, she was a single mother who was finally making good on her lifelong goal to become a police officer. As a child who was sexually abused by a neighbor, she had decided at the age of 9 that she wanted to be part of the profession whose members go after bad people.

“I wouldn’t end up doing that until I was in my 30s, though,” Sheriff Fatheree said. “What happened to me adversely impacted the first part of my life up until I made a conscious decision that I was going to do something for myself, rather than always doing something for someone else and being somewhat meek and mild.”

Four years in at the sheriff ’s office, she took a promotional exam and finished No. 1, but she and two other women scoring in the top 10 were passed over. That was part of what led Fatheree to file a federal lawsuit charging gender discrimination by the sheriff at the time.

“It was one of the most horrible times of my life because they tried hard to discredit and intimidate me,” she said.

Proving the value of elections, that sheriff was defeated in 2000 by Drew Alexander, who made good on promises of equal treatment. Fatheree was among the women earning promotions – she first became a sergeant and, later, a lieutenant – during Alexander’s 12 years in office.

She had achieved the rank of captain when she decided to run for sheriff last year to succeed retiring Sheriff Steve Barry. After contentious primary and general election races, Fatheree won the job with 52% of the vote.

“What makes all the trouble worth it are all of the changes that I have implemented and all the plans for future changes that we are setting up,” Sheriff Fatheree said.

The power to change

Sheriff Fatheree spoke to On the Job just before she hit 100 days in office leading an agency with 320 sworn deputies, including those who work the jail; about 70 support staff members, including dispatchers; and as many as 100 special, or volunteer, deputies.

She has revamped the promotion process, with the top 10 scorers on exams now advancing to a committee interview and being judged on qualifications, training, achievements and the interview. Those not selected learn why and what skills they can improve to increase future prospects.

Sheriff Fatheree also has started the process to diversify recruitment, including reaching out to the local African-American community and the International Institute of Akron, a first step into the sizable immigrant populations from Bhutan, Nepal and Congo.

She increased the size of the human trafficking task force and increased partnerships with federal, state and local law enforcement and courts addressing the issue. She also is leading a multidisciplinary team seeking to create a program offering 30 days of after-jail, supportive housing for homeless people with both mental illness and substance abuse issues. The goal is to reduce recidivism.

Shendy said: “I always use the phrase ‘People don’t believe the message until they believe the messenger.’ All those female deputies out there who might want to become sheriff, if they see someone who looks like them, who lives like them, it automatically becomes something they can achieve, too.

“That’s why it’s important to have these barrier-breaking female sheriffs.”