By Charlane Oliver | Director of Communication, Williamson, Inc.
Franklin Police Chief Deborah Faulkner wears a navy blue uniform donned with pins and regalia fitting for someone in her position. But at the Feb. 23 Women in Business luncheon at the FiftyForward Martin Center, where she was the featured speaker, she put everyone on notice: don’t let the suit fool you. In her presentation titled “Coming Up Through the Ranks: From Cop to Top Cop,” Faulkner–to much of the audience’s surprise–interjected her uncanny sense of humor throughout her speech, sharing cop stories that flaunted her belief in women’s empowerment and showing the softer side of law enforcement.
Despite being college educated with a degree in journalism from the University of Memphis, Faulkner found herself unemployed after graduation. A friend encouraged her to apply to Metro Nashville Police Department, and to Faulkner’s surprise, she was hired.
“I wanted a career that challenged me, and I got it. And I wanted to make a difference then, and I still do.”
Faulkner admitted that she never realized her minority status as a woman until she entered the male-dominated law enforcement field.
“I had to prove myself everyday,” Faulkner said, recalling her days going through the Metro Nashville Police Department’s academy training as the only female among a class of 25 cadets. “I had to show the men that I was serious and I could hold my own. I was watched much closer than the men were, and many of them wanted me to fail. And I might have but they didn’t know I was, well, Irish.”
The all-female audience burst into laughter.
However, coming up through the ranks in the 1970s was no laughing matter, because female patrol officers were virtually nonexistent back then. Faulkner overcame physical and mental hurdles daily for she knew the task at hand was far bigger than her and had far reaching implications for female officers succeeding her.
Women made up one percent of the law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and were only assigned as juvenile crimes, sexual assaults or matrons to the jails. There were no female uniformed patrol officers or women in leadership roles to look toward as mentors. Today, women make up 12 percent of the more than 900,000 law enforcement officers in the country and of those, 220 are police chiefs. Sadly, 280 female officers have been killed in the line of duty, including two MNPD officers.
Faulkner credited the female baby boomers for paving the way for greater contributions to the field. Research shows that there are benefits to the gender differences that prove women have a place in the brotherhood.
“We have the gift of influence,” she said. “We can diffuse a situation. I often talked myself out of a lot things that, for some people, might have been violence. Women are less likely to get involved in unbecoming conduct or excessive use of force…we just talk a good game. We may not have the brute strength of men, but our bravery, creativity and verbal skills make us ideal for the job.”
Faulkner recalled a traffic stop she made early in her career that, were it not for her persuasiveness, could have turned violent.
“This man got out of the car and he was so big, it must have taken him 20 minutes to get out. I mean he got out and he got out and he got out and I thought, ‘Oh no.'” The man had an outstanding warrant, which meant Faulkner had to arrest him. “He looked me up and down and said, ‘Well what if I don’t go?'” she said. “So I stepped back, took my portable radio and pretended to push the button to dispatch. I said, ‘Car 71 to headquarters, send me a 47 and tell them to signal 10.'”
When the man asked what she had said, she told him: “I requested an ambulance and told them to get here quick. You’re too big for me to fight, big boy, so I’m going to shoot you,” she told him, which garnered a chuckle from the audience. “He believed me and totally changed, he turned around and offered his hands up.”
Faulkner’s 40-year-long career paints a picture of a woman who has set her own terms and charted her own trailblazing path. She was the first woman to work uniformed patrol in Nashville and first woman to achieve the rank of deputy chief 30 years later. After retiring from MNPD, she became Tennessee’s first inspector general, a post she held for 10 years. A deputy chief vacancy at the Franklin Police Department led Faulkner back to her hometown, and after just four months, she was promoted to chief, becoming the city’s highest-ranking female police officer in a department where women are outnumbered by men 17 out of 128 total sworn officers.
“This is a tough job,” she said. “It’s long hours, you miss your family, you miss holidays. Marriage, I can testify to, is extremely difficult. It takes persistence and a lot of backbone, but I can tell you one thing: there is nothing rewarding than this profession that I chose, and it was by accident. I stood on some strong shoulders that happen to be men, and now you stand on my shoulders. And that’s the way it should be.”
Faulkner now leads the state’s ninth largest police department, boasting the lowest crime rates per capita in a city with 68,000 residents.
Faulkner said one of her top priorities this year is suicide prevention, particularly among teens. Among children ages 14-19 who commit suicide in Tennessee, Williamson County was number three in the state just behind Memphis and Nashville in 2014. The next year, Williamson County surpassed Davidson County for second place.
“Our children are committing suicide. In 2014, Franklin Police Department had 47 suicide attempts and 4 actuals. Last year, we almost doubled that. We had 72 attempts and 4 actuals.”
Other priorities for the department include cracking down on heroine drug sales, human trafficking and prostitution, increasing diversity on the force and intensifying SWAT training.
“I send our SWAT team to just about every kind of school that I can find, whether its active shooter or dignitary protection because, you know, these people who run for president love to come to Franklin.”
The use of body cameras is also on her radar, saying the department already uses dashboard cameras and pocket recorders, but “realizes that body cameras are the next tool in law enforcement.” but is concerned that implementing body cameras will add costly budget increases for equipment and storage and infringe on citizens’ right to privacy.
Faulkner mentioned the important roles that her department plays in the city’s economic vitality and said that it is crucial for a place that has “the best of everything” in the form of small town charm, corporate headquarters, it’s also important for Franklin to have one the best police departments. She highlighted the contrasts in the types of things her officers do in the course of the day that may go unnoticed and unappreciated.
“They protect the innocent by confronting and arresting their aggressors. We respond to robberies in progress, and we help a resident who can’t remember where they parked their car at the mall. Our officers enforce traffic laws, and they play ball in the neighborhood with kids and encourage them to be careful and watch out for speeding cars. They arrest drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves, but they take the time to help a stranded motorist change a tire. They investigate fraud and identity theft cases, and they bring the mail and newspaper in for shut-ins during inclement weather. They take accident reports, and they notify next-of-kin when loved ones have been injured–or worse. And they attend the visitation of funerals of victims. Behind each badge beats a heart that cares about the people that they serve, and each other, and that is what I think makes Franklin extra special.”
This story first appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Point, the Chamber’s monthly publication. Read the entire issue here.