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Oregon: A State Proud of Its Firsts : Women Hold Top Posts in Politics, Law Enforcement

Charles Hillinger's America

March 31, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — The husband of the new police chief of this city laughed when asked what effect his wife's new job was having on their lives.

"Well, I don't see as much of her as I did before. And, she quit cooking when she became chief," replied policeman Gary Harrington, 42.

His wife, Penny Harrington, 43, in her "penthouse suite" office on the 15th floor of Portland's new Justice Center overlooking this Pacific Northwest city chimed in:

"Do you know a police chief that cooks?"

Penny Harrington, the 5-foot-6, brown-haired, hazel-eyed veteran of 21 years on Portland's police force, Jan. 24 became the first female police chief in the history of America's 300 major cities.

Oregon is a state with a history of many significant firsts, of numerous political and civic leaders and individuals who have been mavericks in their own way.

So, Penny Harrington's selection by Portland's new colorful populist Mayor Bud "Whoop Whoop" Clark, was not totally unexpected. It fit the Oregon pattern.

Detective Jeff Barker, editor of the Portland Police Assn.'s in-house monthly Rap Sheet, in an editorial wrote: "Chief Harrington was not appointed as part of a flamboyant stunt.

"It is fair to say that if an election had been held to select a new chief throughout the bureau (department), Penny Harrington probably would have won it."

For Harrington, being selected chief from the force of 710 men and 86 women was a culmination of a struggle combating sex discrimination every step of the way.

She was the city's first woman police sergeant, first woman detective, first woman lieutenant, first woman captain and now the first woman chief in the bureau's history. It required the filing of 42 sex discrimination suits for Harrington as she moved along through the ranks of Portland's police department.

More than 9,000 letters have been mailed to Harrington at the Portland Police Bureau congratulating her, letters mainly from policewomen throughout the nation, from women in other jobs, especially those affected by sex discrimination and from young women aspiring to work in law enforcement.

"I have the letters in grocery sacks in my home," said the police chief. She has been asked to address womens groups in nearly every state. "Of course I can't. I have too much work to do running the department," she added.

"I'm glad my appointment inspires other women," she continued. "Many women accept discrimination because they fear that if they file sex-discrimination suits and win they might face reprisals."

Her top priority is to put more officers on the street walking beats, to get police talking to people in a positive way, to have them become more involved with the community "rather than just citing them. Police should not be viewed as an invading force.

"People tend not to know the police. They are uncomfortable with the formal attitude of many police. The 'Yes sir. No sir.' posture. They want officers to be more sympathetic and understanding."

Permitting Beards

She has relaxed the forces grooming code, permitting beards, goatees, mustaches and long hair--"no purple hair. Our officers have been so military-like, so out of touch. Now they will look like everybody else. They will be more comfortable. People will be able to relate to them better."

She is emphasizing politeness. "I will not tolerate discourtesy, using inappropriate force."

Harrington is asking all of her officers to suggest ways to improve the department and she's looking for new crime-prevention techniques.

"I think it is good for a large city to have a woman police chief," said Harrington. "There are many added benefits. I am friendly. I am here to help, to work more closely with the citizens of this city."

The previous police chief and three deputy chiefs, all with nearly 30 years service, retired long before Mayor Clark appointed a committee of five--a black woman, a nun, a businessman, a former city attorney and a professor of political science--to select four finalists from a field of 18 officers from the city aspiring to the job.

Committee members gave oral and written tests to the candidates, then met with Clark who appointed Harrington, "not because she is a woman, but because she is an extremely well-qualified police officer with the respect of her peers. She knows the turf," said the mayor.

Yes, Bud Clark fits the Oregon mold. He has captured the imagination of the nation, mainly because of the "Expose Yourself to Art" poster he posed for seven years ago, showing a bushy-bearded man in a flop hat, no visible trousers, socks and shoes, opening his coat as he stands before a statue of a nude woman in downtown Portland.

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