Survival as a single parent was all Ellen R. Stetson had in mind when she entered law enforcement 16 years ago.
She had no thought of being a trailblazer. The new police chief at Cal Poly Pomona, who has nevertheless blazed a trail, said it was "$250 more a month--that's all" that launched a career.
"That was a lot of money in 1972," said Stetson, who is the first woman to head a police department at any of the 28 California state universities and colleges and one of only two woman chiefs of a law enforcement agency in California.
She was a divorced mother of a little girl, working as a statistician at UC Irvine, when she saw an advertisement for police candidates that encouraged women to apply.
Stetson, who has spent her entire career in law enforcement in the UC system, began as a patrol officer at UC Irvine.
Stetson--"Ellie" to her friends--credits her success to determination and social upheavals of the 1970s.
"The women's movement was just taking off and I think universities have been in the forefront in hiring women and minorities in law enforcement," she said.
The only woman candidate for patrol work when she attended police academy and the only woman patrol officer on her first force, Stetson now heads a department of 14 sworn officers and 19 other staff members. Cal Poly has 19,000 students.
"It's just a matter of time before more of us become chiefs, and do it successfully," Stetson said.
A trim woman with fluffy brown hair, Stetson looks younger than her 41 years. She was among 43 applicants for the $61,000-a-year job after longtime Chief Thomas D. Smith retired. As with most campuses in California's college and university systems, Cal Poly has its own police force, rather than security guards.
The only other woman police chief in California is Roni Moore of Imperial City, who heads a staff of eight officers in a city with 5,000 residents.
At Stetson's swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 15, several guest speakers made unabashed references to femininity as a desirable factor in police work.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block said Stetson's appointment as police chief "is indicative of advances that have taken place in law enforcement."
Where police were once expected to be "men of steel," Block said, "now it's anything but--they have to be able to deal with a full range of emotions." Block lauded Cal Poly "for having the wisdom to choose Ellen Stetson for this trailblazing post."
Dorothy Roberts, executive director of business operations at Cal Poly, said Stetson was chosen because a search committee "rated her No. 1. She was simply the most outstanding candidate," Roberts said. "I'm her supervisor and I'm most impressed with her education and law enforcement experience."
Stetson said she hopes she can be "a role model for women headed into top management, showing that they can enter non-traditional fields and be successful. My being here gives a sense that there is some progress in what women can do."
She said she believes she was the first woman to enter the Orange County Sheriff's Academy with the intention of becoming a patrol officer and graduated at the top of her class.
"There had been bailiffs and marshals, but never a woman in that academy with the full intention of going out into the streets in a patrol unit," she said. "I don't think I fully understood that this was such an uncharted job for a woman. I was just determined that I wasn't going to be a quitter."
That determination prevailed in 1974 when she went to UC Santa Barbara, a campus that was then still turbulent four years after rebellious students had burned the Bank of America branch in nearby Isla Vista.
It was there that she suffered her only injuries, which were minor, when she was attacked by a suspect during an arrest.
"Until then I had never thought about the danger. I guess I thought I was invincible," she said. "I think a lot of people go into police work for public service, and they don't think much about danger."
Nine years later she joined the police force at UC Berkeley, which she described as "the hub of the nine UC campuses--the biggest, the most prestigious and the hardest work. If you can survive Berkeley, with its politics and crime, you can survive anything. The crime--especially drug dealing and violence--is unbelievable."
In contrast, she called Cal Poly "a beautiful oasis," with its history as an agricultural school and where engineering and business are now emphasized. "They're the most straight-arrow types of courses you could have," she said.
"It's refreshing--the whole environment is so different," she said. "But I wouldn't have traded the Berkeley experience for anything. I learned so much there."
The biggest crime problems at Cal Poly, she said, are auto theft and burglary, often committed by people from nearby cities.
Throughout her career, Stetson has continued her education. She earned a bachelor's degree in human resource management from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and expects to receive her master's degree in public administration from Cal State Hayward in March.