For this issue of OWM we spoke with five law enforcement officers who hold key
positions in public safety and have some of the toughest jobs in Osceola County.
Martha Gens is the first female Chief Deputy at the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office and Sergeant Kris Brewer is the first woman to head its aviation unit. Both officers helped mentor Deputy Ashley Sobiech, a former K-9 operator now on the Community Response Team. Corporal Shannon Dore is only the second woman SWAT operator at the Kissimmee Police Department. Her older sister Tia Lawson, who helped support Dore while she attended the Kissimmee Police Academy, is a School Resource Officer for the St. Cloud Police Department.
Collectively, these five women represent law enforcement operations in Osceola County on the roads, in the skies, at the schools and on the front lines.
We asked them about their careers fighting crime, what makes them tick and their thoughts on working in a male-dominated field.
Women represent only 13 percent of total sworn law enforcement officers in the country, most of them in larger departments, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Despite federal anti- discrimination laws and policies that have been enacted since the 1970s when women represented only 2 percent of the force, gender inequality persists, according to the department’s national Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, which works with local, state, federal, territorial and tribal agencies. Women in law enforcement are often inexplicably resented, harassed and held back, according to COPS.
The “brass ceiling” is another obstacle for some women unable to rise to supervisory positions despite their qualifications. While the number of women in uniform and in leadership positions are on the rise, it’s still no easy task considering there are only 219 female chiefs in the 14,000 local law enforcement departments nationwide.
The Matron Saints
The history of women in law enforcement in the U.S. dates back to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In 1845, the first women hired by the New York City Police Department were called “matrons.” In 1891 Marie Owens , who joined the Chicago Police department, was one of the first official female police officers. Slightly less than 100 years later in 1985, Penny Harrington of the Portland Oregon Police Department became the nation’s first women to lead a major police department.
The local law enforcement officers we interviewed talked about both the support and the resistance they’ve experienced from their own colleagues, friends and families.
They do dangerous jobs to help keep Osceola County safe and also defy lingering stereotypes. In many cases, their perceived weaknesses for the job have turned out to be their greatest strengths as officers of the law.
Breaking Through The “Brass Ceiling”
Osceola County has yet to see its first woman as top cop, but Chief Deputy Martha Gens is narrowing the gap as second in command. She was appointed by newly elected Sheriff Russ Gibson when he took office earlier this year.
Gens, 52, has worked for the Sheriff’s Office more than 30 years, starting her career as a dispatcher while attending the police academy.
“When I started they hadn’t even introduced 9-1-1,” said Gens, whose love of law enforcement sprung from answering distress calls in those early days. She remembers the first call that motivated her decision to pursue a career in law enforcement. It came from an 11-year-old girl hiding in a closet. Her parents were fighting at home. Her dad had an ax and was breaking down a door. “I could hear it all going on,” said Gens, who sent help to the terrified child. “That’s when everything changed. I was hooked.”
The domestic violence she experienced in her own home growing up in Osceola County resonated. “It was a helpless feeling when I was talking to the little girl. I wanted to be there. That’s what I grew up with,” Gens said. “I also looked out for my little sisters then and knew I had the instincts to help people in situations like that.”
She graduated from the police academy and worked as a reserve officer while waiting for a full-time position to open. The gender gap in law enforcement was even more prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s when Gens was a rookie. When people doubted her ability to the do the job it only strengthened her resolve, she said. “No one was going to tell me I couldn’t do it,” she said. Her hard work and persistence paid off in December 1991 when she got calls from the sheriff’s office in Orange and Osceola counties on the same day offering her a deputy position. She chose her home turf, mostly for the growth opportunities it presented. Gens, who like most all local law enforcement officers, began her career on patrol.
She has worked in nearly every section of the Sheriff’s Office including homicide, sex crimes, forensics and other investigative and training units, often at the request of the Sheriff and other administrators. Gens earned the rank of sergeant in 1997 and moved into supervisory roles at and above her rank when called upon. She went on to lead the department’s K-9 unit and passed the lieutenant’s exam in 2013. She also beat cancer along the way — twice. Her resilience, both personally and professionally, defines Gens and exemplifies the mental fortitude required for the job. “I’ve been proving myself as a law enforcement officer, especially as a female, since I got here and that hasn’t stopped,” she said.
Gens remembers confronting a male colleague who challenged her fitness for duty based on her gender. “He was a big guy and he saw me as a petite female and questioned how I could ever help him strength wise,” Gens said. “I told him: ‘Look, when you’re on the other side of a six-foot fence in a fight, I’m going to be over that fence and in that fight with you and give you all that I have. I know male deputies here that couldn’t do that. I can and I will. I just want a chance.’ We didn’t have an issue after that.” That exchange with her colleague is the kind of communicative approach to problems that often gives female officers an advantage in the field. They are able to de-escalate a violent or tense situation by being more approachable to victims, suspects and the general public.
“Men are stronger than women, that’s just a fact. But the whole goal is to not have to use force and women are generally better at that.” And when it comes to interacting with victims, even the tone of a female officer’s voice can instantly provide relief, especially for children, Gens said. Even now, as the second highest-ranking local law enforcement officer in the county, there are those who question her rise even after more than 30 dedicated years. But now that she oversees day-to-day operations at the Sheriff’s Department. Gens doesn’t have the time or inclination to feed such negativity. She chalks it up to character building like she did as a rookie. Only these days Gens has the bona fides and the authority to change law enforcement culture while doing her job to keep the community safe.
Helicopters, Police Dogs and “The Trial of the Century”
Sgt. Kris Brewer leads the Sheriff’s Office Aviation Unit at Kissimmee Gateway Airport. She climbed the ranks with Gens. Brewer is also the first woman in her position. She’s been with the department 23 years and has broken through two “brass barriers,” one by working in the helicopter unit she commands and the other by serving in one of the most high-profile criminal cases in modern history.
In her previous position with the K-9 Unit, Brewer, 46, introduced and handled its first cadaver dog, a highly trained German shepherd aptly named Bones. Brewer and Bones worked the Caylee and Casey Anthony case in 2008 and 2009, both investigating the little girl’s disappearance and testifying in the mother’s first-degree murder trial. It was among the most frustrating cases of Brewer’s career. Not because of the circumstances of the case or the media circus around it, but because she and Bones were not the ones to discover Caylee Anthony’s remains. A civilian stumbled upon the body within the vicinity they had scoured for weeks.
“I felt stupid and defeated,” Brewer said. But, like her career in law enforcement, she learned that with failures come lessons. “Difficult and complex cases don’t always work out the way you want them to,” Brewer said. “You have to be willing to really examine your faults before you improve, and that’s not always easy.”
After the Anthony investigation, Brewer learned to trust her instincts in a new way. She went on to testify at the televised trial a year later. It was covered 24/7 on local and national news and has since been the stuff of documentaries, case files, case law and real-life crime books.
“Nancy Grace was like calling me every day,” she said. Brewer took her “two weeks of fame” with a grain of salt. The pressure was higher than usual but the stakes were the same. Still, she remembers hearing about how many in the department tuned in to watch her hour-plus testimony. In recounting the law enforcement science and records that backed up her investigation, Brewer established herself as an expert witness. She and Bones also began assisting in missing persons and homicide investigations outside Florida because of their high-demand expertise in recovering human remains.
After the Anthony case concluded, Brewer didn’t stay put in K-9. Instead she got a commercial fixed wing pilot’s license and later a commercial helicopter pilot’s license, an investment of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of time. “I broke out my credit card and took a gamble,” Brewer said. She wasn’t learning to fly simply to satisfy a whim; she was taking a calculated step in hopes of joining the aviation unit.
Attrition is lower and salaries are higher on aviation law enforcement units. She thought the chances of getting a job in Osceola were slim — but possible. She finished her flight training on her own time and almost instantly a supervisor position opened. Brewer snapped it up. “There was eye-rolling” from a few members of the unit when she took charge, she said. “Trying to earn the respect of pilots who’ve been flying for 20 years wasn’t easy. But I had all the support in the world from the administration.”
Brewer has cultivated a crew of aviators, mechanics and operators that both support and respect her. Both an administrator and a pilot, she has become a well-respected aviation chief in Central Florida. The most annoying attempt to undercut her value on the unit, she said, came when a civilian was visiting the hangar. She still remembers his British accent. “Do they ever let you take the sticks, love,” Brewer recalls him asking with a wry smile.
Most of the time she tells people she “works for the Sheriff’s Office” when asked about her job. But that day she didn’t mind telling the Briton exactly what she does. She flies often. She also manages the unit, controls its multimillion dollar budget and is personally responsible for her crew and for millions of dollars’ worth of helicopters and tactical equipment.
The exchange is famous around the hangar and exemplifies the way Brewer has handled sexist remarks over the years. She lets them roll off her back and lets her record speak for itself. “I feel my success far outweighs anyone’s opinion.”
The Next Generation
For Deputy Ashley Sobiech , 28, Brewer and Gens are everyday role models. “They paved a lot of the way for females in the department. But they’re also just good,” said Sobiech, who’s been with the department seven years. She moved to Central Florida from her hometown of Sarasota in 2007 to join the Sheriff’s Office volunteer Police Explorer program, which trains youth and young adults for jobs in law enforcement up to age 21.
She also worked and attended college classes until the Sheriff’s Department said it would pay for her to attend the Kissimmee Police Academy. “It was a dream come true,” said Sobiech, who once thought about a career teaching music.
But law enforcement suited her personality and spending most of her teens in the Explorer program helped focus her energy, she said. “I’m high speed, low drag. Plus, I have the voice to either be a band teacher or a cop. I chose cop.” Sobiech, now on the Community Response Team unit, is a former K-9 operator who misses that unit but changed positions to hone other investigative skills.
“Females do get more crap just because of their gender. But gender doesn’t dictate whether you’re a good law enforcement officer or not. A sergeant who sucks is a sergeant who sucks; it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.”
Sobiech said she owes much of her success as a young deputy to Gens, who has pushed her not only to be better but to be exemplary. “I remember Chief Gens pushing me when I was in K-9 with her. She said ‘I can’t make you have heart.’ I would not be the cop I am today without her.”
“Sweat in the gym is better than blood on the street”
Sheer heart is how Cpl. Shannon Dore makes up for what she might lack in physical strength when compared to her male counterparts. But both courage and force count for Dore, especially as a member of the SWAT unit. She is only the second woman in KPD history to be invited to join. A strength and fitness fanatic, Dore, 26, has hit the gym with the best on the force since she joined. It’s how she got interested in SWAT.
There’s a quote on the wall at KPD that Dore internalized shortly after becoming a sworn officer that says: “Sweat in the gym is better than blood on the street.”
It’s a motto she takes seriously. It was her colleagues in the gym — some from SWAT — who encouraged her to apply.
“I want to be physically fit for my brothers and sisters in uniform so I go to the gym. I want to come home safely and I want them to come home safely so it’s always been really important to me.”
SWAT is a part-time, always-on-call position at KPD, where Dore has earned a reputation for her hard work, impressive tactical skills and natural abilities. Sure, she’s smaller than most of the men on the unit, which includes Cpl. Whitney Karlskin, the third female officer to join SWAT. But Dore’s strength and agility combined with her stature define her specialty on the elite team: breaching attics.
“I’m not the one knocking down doors. I’m not the first one in,” she said. But getting into small spaces and being the first officer inside is where Dore excels.
Everybody has an important role when it comes to the highly specialized tactical operations carried out by SWAT. Dore said serving with the “top of the top” on SWAT inspires her career and her day-to-day work in street crimes.
It’s been four years since she tried out for SWAT, a mentally and physically grueling 12-hour exam sprung on applicants without prior knowledge following a regular 12-hour shift. The process includes hardcore obstacle courses and other fitness and stress tests, precision shooting exercises and in-depth interviews. The competition is tough and the officer-hopefuls are all evaluated at the same time. “It’s extremely high pressure. When I made it I was speechless; I even cried. Then I was like ‘hell yeah!’”
From the moment she joined the force after high school to the time she applied to SWAT, Dore has encountered her share of those who said she couldn’t or wouldn’t make it because of her gender.
Her simple but powerful response: “I’ll show you.” Dore said she was humbled to make it and would have still been satisfied with her effort has she not.
“I gave it my all. I couldn’t imagine I didn’t prove myself.”
Mental fortitude is key to law enforcement and that’s where women excel, said Dore, who as part of the SWAT team now decides who gets in and who doesn’t when positions open up.
“We accept people on the team who we know aren’t going to quit on us. People who have the physical and mental endurance we need.”
Showing courage and tenacity, especially when under pressure, is not gender-specific. But female officers tend to connect with children, victims and even irate suspects in a different way than men, which is particularly helpful in calming tense situations and preventing bad ones from becoming worse, Dore said.
She has a powerful but friendly presence that projects both her inner and outer strength. But the St. Cloud native who owns three horses is also known for her compassion. In March, she and Kissimmee Fire Chief Jim Walls helped recruit first responders for a head-shaving event that raised thousands for pediatric cancer research.
Protect and Inspire
Heart and determination run in the family, said Dore, whose her sister Tia Lawson supported her while she was in the academy. The sisters are each other’s closest confidant, both in and out of the field.
“I’m so proud of Shannon. Look at her now. I’m like a proud mom.” Lawson, 31, was already an officer at the St. Cloud Police Department when her little sister decided to follow in her footsteps. They both joined the force shortly after graduating high school. Now the mother of two children under age five, Lawson transferred from the field to the classroom shortly after her first child was born. “The cool thing is that I was inspired to go into law enforcement by my SRO (short for School Resource Officer) when I was a kid,” said Lawson, who is stationed at St. Cloud Middle School.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work out because I loved being on the road. But I love my job now. I’m definitely staying.”
Adolescence can be a tough time for kids, their parents and the educators responsible for them during the school day. It’s also why Lawson wanted the SRO job, which can be more frustrating and potentially more dangerous than her days on patrol.
Like SROs around the country, Lawson trains for active-shooter events and is responsible for general safety but also welfare checks, truancy, physical and sexual abuse, campus fights, morning and afternoon traffic.
Her tactical approach with students centers on kindness; she’s firm but friendly. “I want the kids to know cops are here to help them. We’ll play with them and want to keep them safe,” she said.
Budding teenagers can be particularly willful and mischievous. However even when kids are involved in more serious criminal offenses, Lawson believes in their potential to change. She also helps them believe in themselves. “You get in trouble as a kid but it doesn’t have to define the rest of your life. I’m more of an inspiration than a disciplinarian,” she said. “I have an open-door policy and students know they can talk to me about anything going on at school or at home or anywhere. Some trust me more than the school personnel.”
Lawson regularly buys school supplies, sneakers and other personal items for students in need. “I can’t help but spend money on those kids. I just want to take them all in sometimes.”
Her approach to law enforcement has evolved from her early days on the police force. She was more feisty and aggressive when it wasn’t always necessary back then, mostly an effort to compensate for her small stature, she said.
But what she lacks in physical size she makes up for with solid investigation skills, analysis and approachability after more than a decade in law enforcement. “It helps to be a woman in a lot of cases” said Lawson, who like all the women we profiled for this piece endured doubts about their fitness for duty.
“There were a lot of male cops who thought I shouldn’t be here until they saw I could hold my own, I could do the job and that I wasn’t going anywhere.”