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WomanOf the Month 10-04: Division Chief Mary Beth Klee

As a journalism student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Mary Beth Klee chose police work as the topic for an assigned article. Her research involved riding with the sheriff’s department, and she soon realized she wanted to pursue police work when she graduated. “It was more suited to the kind of interests I had, to do it rather than write about it,” she recalls. “And I’ve found that having a journalism degree is perfect for police work. You have to interview people such as witnesses and crime victims and be able to collect all the information but present it briefly and accurately. My degree has tied in well to my career.” Today, after more than 22 years of police experience, Division Chief Klee is the highest ranking female in the Denver Police Department, overseeing Traffic Operations, Accident Investigations, Denver International Airport, and the Juvenile Bureau.

Klee grew up in Seattle and moved to Colorado in eighth grade along with her parents and seven siblings. She joined the Denver Police Department in 1983 after several years with the Lakewood, Colorado, department. She was promoted to sergeant, assigned to internal affairs to investigate complaints against police officers, and then began a stint as an aide to the deputy chief of police in public information. She took the test for Lieutenant and was promoted in 1992 to head up the night shift in Northwest Denver. “I really enjoyed that job,apostrophe she says. “It was really busy, and we had the chance to interact extensively with the citizens and with community groups. We worked with the community and business owners to get a handle on some very challenging issues. Everybody was proactive and positive.apostrophe

In 1994 Klee became pregnant, so she moved to the Office of the Division Chief of Patrol. There, she helped create a nationally recognized program, known as the Safe Nite Curfew Program, to deal with the growing problem of kids violating curfew. “The mayor had directed that in 1993 there be put together a Safe City Office with one of its mandates to work with police to take care of curfew violators,apostrophe Klee says. “I was the point person to create policy and procedures for how we would manage the curfew program.

“At that time, officers could issue violators a ticket, but there was nowhere to take the kids, and for street officers to take time from answering radio calls to find a parent just wasn’t workable. Issuing a citation alone didn’t help safeguard the kids at all or prevent them from becoming victims. We set up curfew sites at three recreation centers, where police could process the kids and then have them meet that night with a curfew counselor to determine why they were out on the street. The counselors referred them to the appropriate program—anger management or alcohol, for example—in lieu of a court appearance or action. Then they contacted parents or a guardian to come get them.

“It had a huge impact. I think we reduced juvenile victims of crime when the sites were open by as much as 25%.apostrophe The police department recognized Division Chief Klee with a Merit Award for her efforts with the Safe Nite Program.

From 1995 to ’98 she was aide to the Deputy Chief of Operations, where she received another Merit Award, this time for the successful implementation of the officer’s performance evaluation report. In 1997 she served for just over a year as Lieutenant in the Gang Bureau. “I enjoyed that job because there was a lot of interaction with the community,apostrophe she says. “We were out on the street a lot.apostrophe

A promotion to Captain in 1998 took her to District 3 for a year; next she took her current position as division chief of special operations. She was promoted to deputy chief of administration, a position she held for three years, but returned to her current position at her request. She notes that she enjoys the operations side of her work today.

Women typically make up about 10% to 15% of officers in police departments around the U.S., says Division Chief Klee. “It’s been a great job for me, but it is difficult for women who have children or other family obligations, because it’s a 24 hours a day, seven days a week job. Seniority and job assignments determine whether you work days, nights, weekends, and holidays, so that’s the hard part coming on as a female.apostrophe

Chief Klee’s ex-husband is also a police officer, and they are supportive of each other’s schedules in caring for their son. Klee’s sister and a neighbor are also available if she’s called in the middle of the night, for example. A support network is critical.

When Chief Klee joined the police force in the early ‘80s, there were already fellow officers demonstrating that women could be successful. “Although I was a minority, and perhaps a surprise to citizens when I pulled up in the car alone, what I found is that it wasn’t so much that someone might not want to be around a female cop—if there was an issue it was more about personality. I didn’t feel someone didn’t like me or didn’t want to work with me just because I was female.

“Also, I’ve always been a tomboy, have always had male friends, and I get along with males. I don’t have a problem telling them when to stop a particular behavior, and I have a sense of humor.apostrophe

In fact, Chief Klee believes her femininity is an asset on the job. “I’ve had male partners say to me, ‘I can’t believe that guy let you handcuff him’. I think sometimes the average male citizen—not someone who’s on drugs, etc.—responds better because they don’t think they have to assert themselves. They may have an ingrained respect for females that gives you a couple of minutes of advantage. And I don’t have a problem with telling them why they’re being arrested. I taught recruits that. You don’t ever want to put yourself in a situation that gets you hurt, but sometimes you can take that extra breath and explain what you’re doing. We’re given tools to use in lieu of brute strength.apostrophe

How does Chief Klee handle the stress of her job in addition to family commitments? “It’s difficult. I think you have to be aware that you do have limitations. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, always there when we came home from school, with a nice dinner prepared, the house clean. You just have to choose. My house isn’t quite as neat and orderly as I might like, and I do laundry on the weekends. I don’t always cook dinner, but instead of feeling guilty that I’m not a stay-at-home mom, I make sure I spend time with my son. He seems very happy and is successful in school and in his extracurricular interests, such as athletics. And I have turned down positions because I knew they would require too much call or not be compatible with my son’s needs.apostrophe