Exhibit showcases women's strides in Fort Worth Police Department

FORT WORTH -- When Kay Swaim graduated from the Fort Worth police academy in January 1970, there was no question where she would be working.

With only a few exceptions, female officers were limited to one role: jail matron.

"Most of the guys were fairly nice, but they thought it was funny that we were in there," Swaim, now 64, said of her time in the police academy. But Swaim knew that change was coming and that she wouldn't be stuck at the jail.

"Other police departments, bigger police departments were doing it -- putting women in traffic and starting to pull them out" of the jails, she said.

Almost four years later, she and five other female officers were trained and transferred to the traffic unit.

Through the years, women have continued to break new ground in the Police Department. Those strides -- from the hiring of the first jail matron, Ollie Hargraves, in 1907, to the appointment of the first female interim chief, Patricia Kneblick, in 2008 -- will be chronicled Saturday in an open house exhibit by the Fort Worth Police Historical Association.

Officer Gwen Maxwell, secretary of the historical association, said the group began last year to document the history of women in the department, including interviewing several former female officers about their jobs, trials and accomplishments.

"At that time, I don't think they really thought of themselves as breaking down barriers," Maxwell said. "They just saw something they wanted to do, and they went after it, and they did it." Items on display Saturday include photographs and newspaper clippings about the women, as well as interviews with some.

"Their attitude is just wonderful. I was afraid of a lot of bitterness, but it's not been that way. They say, 'We had a good time. We loved our career, and we'd do it again in a heartbeat,'" Maxwell said.

Olive Wood joined the police academy in 1967 after seeing a newspaper ad.

"My youngest daughter was entering the first grade. I decided I would go to work," Wood said.

After years of working as a jail matron, Wood wanted more.

"At that time there was very little hope of getting out," Wood said. "To me, this didn't seem right. I decided to take a promotional test."

Wood said she and fellow academy graduate Earline Kennedy were greeted with surprised looks when they walked in to take the test.

Wood ranked in the top five, and in May 1972 she became the department's first female police sergeant, skipping the rank of corporal. Kennedy would later become the department's first female lieutenant and captain.

"I just felt like we should be treated the same as the men," Wood said. "We were receiving the same pay, so why wouldn't we be treated the same?"

Wood worked in various capacities, including as the department's first rape investigator and overseeing the burglary sections. She was later promoted to lieutenant, a rank she held until retiring in 1991. Wood said she never experienced open hostility from male officers but acknowledged that being a woman in a male-dominated profession had its challenges.

"You had to kind of overlook some of the things to get along, to be quite honest," Wood said.

Karlas Shaw Brown faced two challenges in joining the Police Department -- gender and skin color.

A black single mother of two who had previously worked for the water department, Brown was days away from starting at the academy when she was told that she could not because of a protest by two white female officers.

"They said I wasn't good enough," Brown said. "It broke my heart because I had never been treated that way."

Several months later, after Councilman Leonard Briscoe intervened, Brown was allowed to join the academy and in 1973 became the department's first black female officer.

In 1977, Esther Alvarez and Josephine Delgado would become the department's first two Hispanic female officers.

Swaim's mother, Lilly Ann Stephenson, worked nearly 22 years for the Houston Police Department -- including as the department's first female homicide detective -- so it seemed natural for Swaim to follow in her footsteps.

In Fort Worth, Swaim achieved her own milestones. She was the department's first pregnant officer and had to fight to be allowed to use accrued sick time. She helped persuade the department to ditch the required pencil skirt for less-restrictive pants after going to the aid of a male officer who had been "kneed right between the legs" by a female prisoner.

"He turned white around the gills and went to his knees," Swaim said. "She was about to jump on him again and I could see that I couldn't run in this tight skirt, so I jerked it up around my waist. There was 50 people standing around with me with my butt in the air.

"I guess it must not have been a pretty sight, or they would have kept the skirts," she said, laughing.

She also became the department's first female narcotics officer, a position in which she remained until resigning in 1979.

"There were women before me who had a harder time," Swaim said. "I can only imagine what those women were going through. They made it easier and the women who are doing that now, every one of them are still blazing that trail."

As of the end of February, 235 of the Police Department's 1,522 sworn officers were female.

"Every time I see a woman police officer in the street, I just say, 'You get 'em girl,'" Swaim said.

DEANNA BOYD, 817-390-7655