JAMESTOWN – Angela Denault laughs when she describes her husband’s announcement each time “Policewomen of Broward County” appears on television.
“He says, ‘Your show’s on.’ That certainly doesn’t show what my life is like. I wonder how much of it is staged.”
Having served as the island’s interim police chief since late spring, she was surprised when media outlets made a big deal out of her appointment – the first woman in state history to hold such a position.
“There are women chiefs all over the country,” she notes. “We shouldn’t be raving about what we’re so far behind on.”
This is not to say that, as far as Rhode Island and, in particular, Jamestown are concerned, this 39-year-old career officer – who helped retired Chief Thomas Tighe transition out by taking on many of his duties before he left – isn’t a trend-setter.
The New Bedford native hadn’t considered law enforcement until her freshman year at Salve Regina University when she took a class with Dr. Lois Wins, a former police officer. “She’s a great teacher and she got me interested.”
While studying for her final exams to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Angela was also testing for a position on the Jamestown police force. She graduated in August 1994 and became a Jamestown patrol officer the next month – the first woman police officer in the town’s history.
“They were way behind,” she reflects, adding the all-male force was full of veterans. “There were a lot of guys who had been here a long time.”
As they retired, the department became more diverse.
Ten years after joining the force, having worked as assisting sergeant on several occasions, Angela was permanently promoted to the shift commander’s rank.
Last year, after more testing, she became patrol commander with the rank of lieutenant, making her second-in-command to the chief. Her career has also included heading internal affairs and prosecutions.
Angela likes the lieutenant’s role, she says, and didn’t consider applying to become the permanent chief.
“I’d only been a full commander for a year,” she notes. “I felt I needed more administrative training and experience to do it properly. Maybe next time around” she’ll apply.
Family is also a major concern.
Married to a Rhode Island deputy sheriff who works at the Providence District Court, Angela, 39, has children aged eight and six.
“I didn’t see much of them this summer,” she says. “It’s another reason I didn’t apply for the chief’s position. My husband works days and I work nights; one of us is always with the kids. It’s been hard working days. I’m very, very lucky to have marvelous in-laws who have taken care” of the children.
Summer, when the island’s population triples but the police department stays the same – 12 officers and five dispatchers – is always hectic especially with boaters who sometimes consume more alcohol than is safe.
“There are few enforcement officers on the water,” she says. “The Department of Environmental Management has cut back personnel. We had a police boat but it needed upkeep and the town didn’t want to pay.
“It’s a big challenge, trying to balance the budget with our needs. I’ve gotten a different taste for why we can’t do some things we want to. We have to work with what we have. Everybody should rotate through the chief’s position. There would be much less grumbling.”
Keeping the peace on land is another whole issue.
“It’s been busy and we have no extra help,” says Angela, adding that she’s done both the chief’s job plus many of the duties she previously performed as patrol commander.
The contrast in winter is profound.
“In February, at 3 a.m., there’s not much happening in Jamestown.”
The most difficult cases she confronts involve domestic abuse.
“We go in as law enforcement, but it’s a lot of social work, too,” she explains. “We see the same people a lot of the time and it’s sad but, usually, the situation doesn’t change. It’s especially tough when there are children involved. We have to maintain a balance of being helpful but also professional.”
The best thing about being chief, Angela notes, was using grant money to buy new tables, chairs and a TV for a combination training/conference room which is also open to the public for meetings.
“Before, I would have needed permission,” she says.
The new chief, Edward Mello, who is leaving the same position in Westerly, takes over Sept. 19.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com .