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At Long Last, Officers Fete Woman of the Year

November 7, 1994

With Donna Hanover Giuliani and Commissioner William Bratton attending, the Policewomen's Endowment Association presented its first-ever Woman of the Year award Thursday night. The recipient was the department's highest-ranking woman, Gertrude LaForgia, the first female promoted to deputy chief in 16 years.

"We [women] are a definite asset," the 28-year veteran and grandmother of six, who heads the public morals division, told the largely female audience. "And we have a lot to offer."

Referring to Bratton, who in previous jobs promoted women to the highest ranks, LaForgia said: "We have a police commissioner who is going to let us show him what we can do."

As superintendent of Boston's Metropolitan Police, Bratton brought in a woman Boston police sergeant as his deputy. When he came to New York, she succeeded him as superintendent. She's now the top law enforcement official in Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's administration.

LaForgia follows in a short but distinguished lineage. This includes Gertrude Schimmel, appointed the Police Department's first woman chief in 1978, and Theresa Scagnelli Melchionne, the first woman commissioner chosen from the ranks in 1965. Currently on the John Jay College faculty, Melchionne offered the following thumbnail history of women in the department: Until the '60s, she said, women could not become sergeants because policing was considered a man's job. "We met resistance from virtually all police commissioners and the entire line organizations (of ranking officers). They couldn't conceive of a woman supervising male officers."

Instead, women - in 1952, there were but 149 in the department - served only in the Youth Division or in the Bureau of Policewomen, which Melchionne headed from 1952-62. There, she said, the women served as "matrons," supervising female prisoners in station houses. A few were made detectives, but served only in narcotics or pickpocketing details. Melchionne was one of them, and distinguished herself during the 1950s police scandals involving Brooklyn gambler Harry Gross by going undercover to Gross' hotel disguised as a cleaning lady.

When women next attempted to become sergeants, she said, the line organizations insisted their salaries be lower than those of the men. Then, they insisted women supervise only other women. Finally in 1963, the courts forced the Police Department to approve promotions for women. But it was not until 1972, with the passage of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act - which prohibited discrimination by race, color, religion, national origin or sex - that the Policewomen's Bureau was disbanded and women fully integrated into the department. This, too, met with opposition. Male officers felt working with females would jeopardize their lives. Wives protested at headquarters.

Anyone who still believes this should have attended Thursday's ceremony. Besides LaForgia, three other women officers were honored. One was Sgt. Arlene Printable versionBeckles, who killed an armed robber, wounded a second and disarmed a third while having her hair done in a beauty salon. Another was Tina Chamberlain, a probationary officer who, while at home, saw six men breaking into parked cars, then escaping in their own car. Chamberlain grabbed her gun (but didn't even stop to put on her shoes), followed them in her own car and arrested all six without firing a shot.

Lastly, there was Linda Prezioso, of the Bronx's 44th Precinct, who helped rescue a despondent man about to jump from a rooftop. A month before and just a block away, another cop from her station house - Sean McDonald - had been shot to death as he investigated a robbery. "You can't help but wonder," said Prezioso, her voice breaking, "why it is we could be there for this young man who wants to kill himself but we couldn't be there for Sean?"

Marathon men - and women. Chief of Department John Timoney roared back into town from Dublin to run in the New York Marathon, one of three chiefs and 200 city police officers to do so. Timoney's time of 4 hours, 1 minute topped Deputy Chiefs Tom Baumann and Gert LaForgia (busy week). But Timoney was nowhere near that of Officer Grace De Pompo, who finished in 3 hours, 8 minutes. Deputy Commissioner John Miller was an also-ran in 4 hours, 52 minutes.

By the numbers. Here's the flip side to the 46 per cent increase in police brutality complaints reported last week in City Council hearings. Compiled by Crime Control Strategies Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple for the first 10 months of the year, they include:

BulletHomicides - The largest decline in history, with 300 fewer than last year's 1,946.

BulletRobberies - approximately 10,000 fewer than last year's 70,816.

BulletCar theft, down 14 percent.

BulletBurglaries, down 9 percent to lowest point in 25 years.

BulletPlus, there were 735 fewer shooting victims.

Maple attributes the declines to aggressive policing, such as cracking down on "quality of life" crimes by squeegee men, public urinators and low-level drug dealers. "If seen committing a violation, we question them and ask for identification," Maple says. "If they have none, we arrest them. Then we check outstanding warrants. Then we question them about more serious crimes, such as gun violations. Then they give us information about those crimes and we arrest the next bunch and start all over again."
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© 1994 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission