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Retired Detective Chronicles Women's Advances in the LAPD

History: Gail Ryan, who joined the force in 1967, saw some milestones herself and has researched many more.

January 14, 2001|NEDRA RHONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the snap of a finger, retired Det. Gail Ryan can rattle off a list of LAPD firsts:

Who was the first policewoman?

Alice Stebbin Wells. She had to convince the City Council and the Police Commission in 1910 to hire her.

Who was the first Latina policewoman?

Josephine Serrano Collier. She was recruited in 1946, the first year women were trained at the Police Academy.

What is the highest rank a woman has achieved in the LAPD?

Deputy Chief Margaret Ann York was appointed in June 2000.

After a 32-year career in the Los Angeles Police Department, Gail Ryan, who rose from jail bookings officer to auto theft detective, has a new assignment these days: She is the unofficial department historian of women in the LAPD.

Her current mission is to write the definitive book on how women penetrated the ranks of the LAPD--an endeavor she is pursuing with the same moxie and determination that landed her the job of her dreams.

The project, which will chronicle female firsts from the late 1800s to the present, is based on stories Ryan researched and wrote for law enforcement publications while on active duty.

Ryan has even created a mini-museum of photos at the Newton station, where she worked for most of her career. One photo from 1967 shows a smiling Ryan standing among nine women in blue--sporting the high heels and purses then required of LAPD's female recruits.

At the time, Ryan's family and friends thought that she should pursue a profession more popular among women: teaching.

"They all thought I was studying to be a teacher," she said. "[Police work] was not a job women went out and got."

But Ryan wanted to be just like her father, a homicide detective in the Newton Division. When she took the police exam in 1965, no women had been hired for several years and the role of women in the department was limited.

She passed the test and was put on a waiting list to be hired and assigned. It took two years.

"Back then, women had to work the jail, juvenile or communications," said Ryan, who wanted street patrol.

First assigned to Harbor jail, Ryan booked strung-out prostitutes before transferring to the juvenile division, where she handled child abuse cases and runaways. Desk duty followed, including a stint in public affairs.

"I was thinking, I can do more--I have more education than these men do," said Ryan. But other than occasional undercover assignments, Ryan's career was limited to office work.

A lawsuit settled in 1980 ended the separate designations of policeman and policewoman. Previously a policewoman's job was largely restricted to administrative work and jail bookings, not street patrol or detective work.

Ryan attended three months of training for field certification in 1983. When the 1984 Olympics strained patrol personnel, Ryan was finally assigned to a patrol car. She worked the streets in auto impound and auto detective assignments until her retirement.

She built her reputation as an LAPD history buff in 1991. She had put her sleuthing skills to work and verified that a Newton officer killed in the line of duty in 1946 had never been officially honored by the department.

She tracked down the family of slain Officer Norbert Huseman in Arizona and organized a memorial, complete with officers dressed in authentic 1940s uniforms.

Today Huseman's picture hangs in the lobby of Newton Division as the only officer in the station's history to be killed in the line of duty.

Ryan earned the department's first Human Relations Award for her work on the project.

After that, people began contacting her with family stories about "first women" achievements.

The granddaughter of Georgia Robinson, the first black policewoman in 1919, told Ryan about her grandmother. She had worked for three years as an LAPD volunteer before being sworn in as a jail matron.

Once, an officer's wife gave Ryan a trunk of her great-grandmother's memorabilia. She was the descendant of Mary Ross, the first female detective, who later opened a private detective agency.

Ryan remains devoted to her work in progress, fascinated by the tales and facts that she continually unearths. She lives in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where the water and mountain views offer a soothing backdrop to her creativity.

"I was always fascinated, even as a child, by people who were ahead of their time--all of these women doing stuff in the 1920s and 1930s," Ryan said.

Richard Kalk, founder of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, said Ryan's contributions are invaluable.

"Gail has helped us immensely in finding out about the history . . . things we didn't even know about," he said.

Today, 1,700 women are employed by the LAPD, far more than when Ryan joined. Along with York's appointment to deputy chief, 2000 brought another significant first: In April, Ann Young was the first African American woman appointed captain at the Van Nuys Division.

"I think it's wonderful because [Ryan] is documenting so much of our history," said Det. Paula Feinmark, vice president of the Los Angeles Women Police Officer's Assn. "Her research is so thorough, and she is such a great writer."

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