Finding Strength in Hope

By Judy Bradshaw as told to Christine Riccelli

In her distinguished career, Judy Bradshaw (pictured above) spent 35 years at the Des Moines Police Department, moving up the ranks until being named chief in 2007. Along the way, she earned a BA and a master’s in public administration from Drake University and also became a mother to son Alec, now 16, and daughter Grace, now 13. After retiring from the Police Department in 2014, Bradshaw joined the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and was soon promoted to director. In a conversation condensed by dsm editor Christine Riccelli, the 57-year-old Bradshaw reflects on what a career in law enforcement has taught her about discrimination and tolerance, conflict and healing, and fear and hope. 

Focus on the Here and Now
I was born in Ames, but my parents both grew up in Burlington. My father was an orphan. He lost his father in World War II, and shortly after his mother remarried, she contracted brain cancer. My father and his sister came home one afternoon and found out their mother had passed away and their stepfather had taken everything from the house. So my dad called his grandfather, who tried to raise them. It’s kind of surprising that they didn’t end up wards of the state.

My maternal grandparents stayed in Burlington, and some of my best childhood memories are when my older brother and I would go there for summer vacation. There was no air conditioning, no television. We would listen to the Chicago Cubs by the radio and eat catfish that my grandfather caught from the Mississippi River. I would help my grandmother wash clothes with a big wooden stick in the storm cellar. We’d get water from the well and hang the clothes to dry outside.

Each day, my grandmother worked hard at every task and chore before her. I observed how she calmly and patiently accomplished so much that was really beyond her immediate capabilities. But, through steady persistence and being deliberate with what was in front of her, she was a force to contend with. I learned how to focus on the here and now.

My grandmother was my favorite person. Even into my adulthood, I went to Burlington, even if just for a three-day weekend, until she passed.

Seek Out the Right Role Models
My parents were high school sweethearts. My father went to Iowa State, so they moved to Ames and lived in a trailer. There are pictures of me in a dresser drawer, which was my bassinet. After graduating from Iowa State, my father took a job in Des Moines as a landscape architect, so we moved to Ankeny and lived in a small ranch house. We didn’t have much, but we never lacked for anything. I had a great childhood. I was a hippie; I had long hair, wore bell-bottom pants and listened to Nazareth and Grand Funk Railroad.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, girls were steered toward careers in either teaching or nursing. I thought I’d be an English teacher. When I graduated from high school, I went to Des Moines Area Community College and got a weekend job as a part-time dispatcher for the Ankeny Police Department. There’d typically be one car working, and the big conversation was, “Car number one, lunch is ready at your mother’s. There’s cherry pie.” Still, that got me interested in taking some classes in law enforcement, and it didn’t take me long to become fascinated with the field.

If you think about the time, we were just coming out of the civil rights era; it was a tumultuous time and there was a shortage of police officers. As I was growing up, the civil rights movement had a huge impact on me. I remember when John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated and the impact that had on my parents. They were tearful and afraid. I remember my father saying, “You should consider law enforcement.” But I had the mindset that women couldn’t be police officers. At that time, there were no role models for women in law enforcement; all you had were these goofy, unrealistic television characters like the Flying Nun, the genie in a bottle, and Samantha on “Bewitched.”

As I began taking more law enforcement courses, I watched the path of one woman in particular who was set on becoming a police officer. I thought, “If she can do it, I’m going to hang in there.” I got my two-year degree in law enforcement and then I began applying to police departments. At that time, Des Moines wasn’t hiring but I applied to departments in some nearby communities. At one, I was sailing through the physical agility part of the qualifying process, and I remember the captain pulling me aside and saying, “You can pass this with flying colors, but we’re not hiring a woman.” That was a like a huge punch in the gut to me.

Set Boundaries
I was hired as a cadet with the Des Moines Police Department in 1980, shortly after a discrimination lawsuit was settled involving two female police officers. I wasn’t part of that, but I watched the aftermath, and with those kinds of lawsuits, the women who remain are the ones the administration looks to for how to move forward. The department’s leadership at that time wanted to foster a culture of diversity and tolerance.

After the lawsuit, some officers took the approach that they weren’t going to talk to you. Others looked at you like a daughter and were protective. Some saw you as a potential girlfriend. As a cadet, I learned that if I didn’t compromise who I was, I could sit down and talk and tell some jokes with the men, but that there were boundaries. I had to tell some guys, “Knock it off, you can’t talk to me that way.” One officer grabbed my bottom as we were leaving the roll call room—what was he thinking?—and I turned around and slapped him across the face. My reaction was instinctive. I remember his hat flying off.

I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’m fired. I just hit an officer.” He picked his hat up and walked out and never said a thing to me about it. But I fretted; I was worried that I had slapped another officer. He may have done what he did, but my reaction was over the top. I felt bad about it … but nobody ever grabbed me like that again, either.

Recognize That Letting Go Is a Process
Some of the challenges were with the public. I remember going on calls and people would say, “Are you a meter maid?” There were some who would flat-out say, “I don’t want a female officer,” and I’d say, “I’m all you got right now. Do you want my help or not?”

I learned that you just have to have a tough skin and let such things roll off your back. If you internalize everything, I think you’d struggle with anxiety and bitterness. So you learn to let it go.

Still, as I progressed through the ranks, there were things that bothered me—like when I’d walk into a room of commanders, who were at the same level as I was, and the conversation would stop. Marginalization in the workplace can be subtle—a roll of the eyes, a refusal to look at or to acknowledge a person.

That bothered me up until the time I became a captain. Then I think I just reached a level of maturity and had enough experience that it didn’t bother me any longer. It’s as if someone said, “You no longer have to feel pain from that.”

But I would never dismissively say to other women, “Just get over it and don’t let it bother you.” Getting to the point where I did is a journey, a process—sometimes a long one. At some point it happens, either through maturity or through prayer or through whatever else gets you there. And then what bothered you in the past no longer affects you.

Maintain Forward Momentum
If you look at my career, it was never a case of, “Hey, Bradshaw got taken care of because she’s a woman.” I had to do what everybody else had to do. But I had fantastic mentors, including chiefs Bill Moulder and Bill McCarthy. They encouraged me to take on different assignments. When I was a sergeant, Chief Moulder would invite me to sit in on meetings where I could observe and listen. I’d leave the meeting understanding how conclusions were drawn and problems were solved. Those experiences helped me down the road.

When I became chief, I worked quickly to accomplish the goals I set. Anytime you’re in a position of power, you are spending your collateral as a leader and there’s a shelf life to that leadership. I knew I could retire in seven years, and I knew those years would go fast. I wanted to open our arms to the community and push community policing to the next level. I would tell officers to interact with citizens and give out their cards to them. I personally gave out hundreds of cards as chief, and no one ever took advantage of that by calling me at 2 a.m. with trivial concerns. Citizens were mindful and respectful.

I kept checking the goals off my list: We started the community ambassador program, we got into schools to work with at-risk youths, we established mentoring programs. We built a new crime lab, and we made a lot of internal changes to improve the department’s culture.

When my list was checked off, I either had to turn another page with the department and start another list of goals or move on. If you’re a leader who simply maintains, you’re in a neutral position, and then I think you become vulnerable because the waves will start hitting you and you’ll start playing defense. But if you have the courage to lead by moving forward, you may still get hit with criticism, but the energy is in forward motion and that’s where you need to be.

I truly believe that, in public service, when you’re no longer adding value, you need to make your exit. There’s a season for everything. I had a great run and a fabulous career at the department. I had the time of my life. I had my season, and I have no regrets.

Embrace Hope as a Strength
I left the Police Department on a Friday and I started at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy on a Monday. I knew this job was going to be a challenge, but I went after it with excitement and fresh goals. In 2015, I had the good fortune of moving from assistant director to director.

I’ve been impressed by the young officers who attend the academy. Last year, I watched them deal with the brutal ambushes of officers Tony Beminio and Justin Martin. They were sad. They were grieving. They were asking, “What does this mean?” But what was encouraging to me is that as they worked through it, none of them questioned whether law enforcement was the right job for them. More than ever, it was something they knew they wanted to do.

People often ask, “How do you deal with these ambushes and the overall negativity in today’s climate?” While one person can create such devastation, one person also can have an impact in phenomenally positive ways.

So you don’t react by building thicker glass on the windows and by wearing full body armor. You react by coming from a position of strength, and hope is a position of strength. You remain confident, you get out of the car, you look people in the eye, you remain hopeful, you keep your eyes in the clouds and not the dirt. Fear can drive people to react toward certain groups of people in unrealistic and unreasonable ways.

I’m not saying that as an officer you shouldn’t ever be scared or that you’re never going to be afraid. Fear in the moment helps you to react in a way that allows you to survive a life-threatening situation. That’s not the kind of fear I’m talking about. I’m talking about long-term, sustained fears that place bias on groups of people and create unreasonable reactions and behaviors. We have to control the fear within us; we can’t let it control us. We have to operate from a position of strength, and that strength is full of hope and full of faith.

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