Remembering a local pioneer
SUFFOLK COUNTY—Near the birth of the women’s liberation movement, but well before the lawsuits for gender equality routinely began hitting the courts, one local woman successfully fought a system that was preventing her from moving ahead. Elizabeth “Betty” Schmidt sought litigation for her right to a higher rank on the Suffolk County police force and ultimately was able to pierce the glass ceiling of that agency, allowing for others to follow.
Betty passed away in 1981. Two family members actually came across a photo of their relative in the “Years Ago” column of this publication, which rekindled many memories of her. “She was my baby sister,” remarked Catherine Schmidt of Islip Terrace. She said Betty was a kind and gentle person who was committed to her profession as a police detective in a male-dominated field.
Betty, an Islip Terrace resident, graduated from East Islip High School in 1952. After high school, she worked as a stenographer for the then-Town of Islip Police Department. The Suffolk County Police Department didn’t get started until 1960. Betty also worked in the district attorney’s office for a while. “All the fellas she worked with encouraged her to take the police test,” Schmidt said. “She found that work intriguing.”
That’s when Betty began taking night courses in police-related studies at Adelphi University, as well as both Suffolk and Nassau community colleges. “She studied an awful lot and learned everything she possibly could,” said Schmidt. In 1963, Betty scored 100 on the police exam and became one of only a handful of women police officers in Suffolk.
Assigned to the Third Precinct, she started off her career as a detective with patrolman’s pay because in the early 1960s, women police officers were not permitted to go out on patrol. She worked in office administration, then in the department’s Narcotics Squad, organizing stings. It was reported that she was involved in the department’s first major narcotics raid known as Operation Snowflake. “She did setups for the raids and never got recognition for it,” said another relative, Mary Felice Humann.
After working for a time in the Juvenile Aid Services unit, investigating missing persons, Betty decided it was time for a promotion. In 1967, she sought to take the sergeant exam but was told by the Suffolk County Civil Service Commission that she was not eligible to do so because she was not on patrol, a requirement to move up to that rank. She did eventually take the exam—the same test given to men—and did very well. Though scoring at number 42 on the list, she watched as her male colleagues filled the 60 sergeant positions that became available.
“They kept telling her ‘no,’” said Schmidt. “She was so hurt and angry. It was so unfair.”
But Betty was determined to even up the work field and ultimately got a lawyer. “Never would a passive Betty Crocker woman back then take the police department to court,” said Humann. But that’s exactly what she did. In 1973, she filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the police department with the New York State Division of Human Rights.
A portion of the trial in 1973 was documented in larger daily newspapers. In one account, it notes that after the lawsuit was filed, Betty was transferred to a patrol unit, the first women to do so. However, that meant a demotion, which was something she was not willing to do. She noted that reassignment in her lawsuit. The department, though, claimed it was to test the public acceptance of women on patrol.
In April 1974, the state Division of Human Rights ruled that Schmidt was denied a promotion because of her sex and ordered the police department to appoint her to the first vacancy. In an article dated April 9, 1974, Betty remarked, “I’m happy that the decision was favorable to me.”
“She was happy,” said Schmidt. “But she ran into a lot of prejudice [on the job]. The men didn’t like being bossed by a female. They made it hard for her. But there were others that were loyal and tried to help her out.”
Sgt. Det. Betty Schmidt was transferred over to the barrier beach, where she had her own squad to patrol the area in spring, summer and fall. Her victory was short lived, though. In October of 1980, while on duty, she incurred serious injuries when a metal gate fell on her. It resulted in many hospitalizations and painful surgeries. She succumbed to her injuries in September of the following year. She was only 47 years old.
In a memorial that was published in a policewomen’s publication The Shield 370, which Betty also used to help publish, it noted that her personal victory was also a major one for women on the Suffolk County police force. It stated, “As a result of her endeavors, there are no limitations to a woman’s potential in this department.” And that’s a statement that has certainly proven to be true, since many women have since risen up the ranks to positions that now include commissioner.
“The Suffolk County Police Department has transformed since the 1960s when women were first known as policewomen and assigned to non-combative positions,” said SCPD commissioner Geraldine Hart. “Thanks to the efforts of some of the first female officers, like Elizabeth Schmidt, women in law enforcement are provided the same opportunities as their male counterparts and have proven to be equally effective. As the first female police commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department, I am proud to hold this significant role— but equally proud of the men and women who dedicate their lives to serving the residents of Suffolk County.”
“I’ve often wondered what Betty would say about how the times have changed,” said Schmidt. Humann added, “I think she’d get a kick out of how far women have come.”
Take the test
The Suffolk County Police Department test is coming up soon. Police commissioner Geraldine Hart said she’d like to see more women taking it.
“While 11 percent of our sworn members are female, we would like to see that number increase,” said Hart. “I encourage women who feel they have what it takes to be a police officer to register to take the Suffolk County Police Exam scheduled for June 15, 2019. The filing deadline for the exam, which is offered every four years, is April 3. To apply, visit suffolkcountyny.gov/civilservice.”
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