St. Paul’s first Black female police officer set a precedent and excelled

Officer Debbie Montgomery through the years (Photos courtesy of Debbie Montgomery)

“I was a bad mama-jama,” says retired officer Deborah L. Montgomery — she goes by just plain Debbie. She is pleasantly upbeat when reflecting on her beginning at the St. Paul Police Department. Laughing heartily, she matter-of-factly states that, as not only the first female but the first African American woman, she indeed had to be an original tough cookie. “It was,” she understates, “challenging.”

This was, after all, 1975 when entrenched sexism and racism ruled. How did she come to be between such a rock and a hard place, doubly discriminated against doing a dangerous job?

It wasn’t out of any compulsion to be a crusader. Montgomery had already been active in civil rights and in community organizations. On top of which, she was making better money as a city planner in Mayor Lawrence D. Cohen’s office.

The NAACP forced politicians’ hands, including Attorney General Miles Lord, City of St. Paul EEO Officer Ron Jones and Mayor Cohen. Jones approached her professionally to no avail. “I wrote a letter, saying, ‘Thank you for the opportunity, but I don’t want the job.” Cohen then asked it as a personal favor. She agreed conditionally.

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The only women hired as St. Paul police officers had to have bachelor degrees and were consigned to the juvenile unit or the sex crimes unit. By contrast, male police officers only needed a GED.

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Throughout training, even as she excelled, she still didn’t want the job, particularly not with the $10,000 cut in pay while holding a master’s degree. Montgomery had every intention of returning to city planning once Jones quit nagging her to staying a few more weeks to show how the City of St. Paul was socially progressive.

Debbie Montgomery speaking at a press conference in support of Chief Arradondo, July 27. (Chris Juhn/MSR News)

At length, she recalls, “I thought maybe there’s a woman who [does] want it. If I drop out, they’ll say women can’t do the job. It wasn’t about me anymore [but] the broader issue of females in law enforcement.” So, despite the drop in income, it wasn’t difficult to make peace with the proposition. “I felt like I was contributing. Helping people.”

The St. Paul Police Department showed its thanks for her altruism by employing her in a less gainful field that hadn’t even interested her. She called it the stink of the stick. “They put me in [a] low income, majority White neighborhood [where] they weren’t particular about having me.” Montgomery described her assignment as being in field where the motorcycle club, Hell’s Outcasts, were not then or now, greatly known for respecting police authority, period, particularly from a woman — let alone a Black woman.

She was routinely dispatched to break up bar brawls, specifically sent to respond to calls about the Outcasts. “I was all of 124 pounds soaking went and here were all these big bikers. They threw me around like a rag doll.”

She was a rag doll who gave as good she got, eventually winding up walking on “two bionic knees.” Fellow White officers made no move to back her up unless they “figured I was getting my butt kicked. Which I was.” The only backup she could rely on came from the other four Black cops on the force.

There was an exception, one of the good White cops, Mike Kelly, whom she describes as “just a big, good-natured guy.” Even though Kelly’s partner was willing to let Montgomery get out of a scrape as best she could, which meant catching crap from the others. “To this day, we have to go qualify each year for our gun permits and they still [jokingly] give him the business about being ‘his girlfriend.’”

After a while, she was doing a better job of dealing with the gang than the male officers. She’d come to the conclusion that instead of trading punches, wrestling and handcuffing burly thugs more than twice her size and weight, she’d try talking to them. “As a woman, I have that skill to communicate.” Sure enough, violence at the Hell’s Outcast hangout lessened.

Which discrimination was worse, sexism or the racism?  She answered, “I don’t know that you can separate the two.” Having been hired on a court order filed by the NAACP in 1970 for not having a percentage of African American officers with a city that had a six percent population.

Further, the only women hired as police officers had to have bachelor degrees and were relegated to the juvenile unit or the sex crimes unit. By contrast, male police officers only needed a GED. Neither point factored into her eventually resigning. “I had an assistant chief that was on my [behind],” she states, slightly losing her humor. “I got fed up and walked. I was done.”

With race more a hot button than ever these days for the Minneapolis Police Department, she’s wholly supportive of Medaria Arradondo, recently ratified as chief. “He is more than qualified, not just because he’s Black. He is young, but he is capable to do it. He’s prepared. He grew up on the North Side, grew in the department. Has worked in internal affairs, which is key, because he knows where the [misconduct] is. The question is, can he get a staff around him that will support his making the changes necessary for that department to grow?”

Considering her rough start with the force and enduring attitudes that have taken decades to evolve from White and male resistance to tolerance to acceptance, remarkably, there is no trace of bitterness in Montgomery’s demeanor. Her tone, in fact, is largely one of fond recollection.

When she left, she reflects, “I was fine. I had a lot of things going on nationally and internationally, because I was on the boards of different organizations. It’s not like I was totally disengaged from law enforcement. I had [ways] to contribute to the betterment of society.”

Indeed, she’s been told she’s busier now than when she was working. She’s on boards and teaches law enforcement at Minneapolis Community & Technical College and Hennepin Technical College. For good measure, she’s a professional consultant, specializing in urban issues, government relations and, of course, law enforcement. She laughs, saying, “My son tells me all the time, ‘You have failed retirement.’”

Policing has become something of a family calling with sons Robert Jr. (after her husband), Mark and Matthew all signing up with the MPD. “My daughter, Dawnmarie, is an investment banker,” Montgomery says with a bright smile. “She’s the one who makes money.”

 

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, 55403

 

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