Kanawha County Sheriff's Department names first woman captain
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Debra Walters is still getting used to the title of captain.
"It feels pretty good," she said. "I probably thought I would make lieutenant but not captain."
Walters, who has been in law enforcement for more than 36 years, recently became the first woman captain in the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department.
The Parkersburg native majored in criminal justice at West Virginia State, and after graduation joined the Dunbar Police Department, where she served for two and a half years. From there, she went to the sheriff's department and worked her way up through the ranks to corporal, sergeant and lieutenant.
On Aug. 27, she was promoted to captain.
Advancement is based on the combined scores of written test, seniority and evaluations.
Walters oversees the security team at the Kanawha County Judicial Annex with its seven circuit judges, five family court judges and 10 magistrates.
"Usually, 1,000 people come through these doors every day," she said. "We've got all kinds of hearings."
During her years in law enforcement, she has worked at the jail, handled road patrol, worked airport security and served in the warrant division.
"Unfortunately, we see a lot of the same people over and over," she said. "I see some of the same people I saw in the jail and the jail has been closed at least 20 years. I see people I knew as kids."
While some seem to get in trouble repeatedly, there are others who stop by to tell her they have stayed out of trouble and they appreciate the advice she gave them long ago.
She has tried to follow the golden rule throughout the decades.
"I try to treat people like I'd want to be treated," she said. "Sometimes people just want somebody to listen to them. We do try to listen and see if we can help."
When she first joined the sheriff's department, there were only a handful of female officers. While that number has continued to grow, there are still more men.
As a woman officer, she has had few problems.
"One challenge would be that probably a woman is not as strong as a man," she said. "They may want to test you."
The most prevalent issue has been that someone will ask her a question and then ask a male officer the same question. After the person gets the same answer, she asks, "What? You didn't believe me?"
Then she shrugs it off.
While serving with the Dunbar Police Department, she met her husband, William, who was also an officer there. He is now retired. They are the parents of Noah, 25, a certified public accountant who lives in Washington, D.C. He came home to see his mother promoted to captain and brought along his girlfriend.
When he was young, she left road patrol to work inside.
However, that doesn't mean there is no danger involved in her current position.
"Anybody could be in danger," she said. "After what happened to those troopers, I have told the guys to search every prisoner extra carefully. We don't want a prisoner with a gun to open fire. It has never happened and we don't want it to. We don't want that tragedy happening."
She feels fortunate that she has never had to pull her gun, but she is also aware that could change at any moment.
"We've had fights in here," she said. "I've been with six or seven prisoners by myself. As long as you follow procedures and are careful, hopefully everything is OK."
Sometimes those who walk through the doors of the annex need advice, information or reassurance.
"We ask people what they need and try to help them get to the right area," she said. "A lot of people have never been here. They might have a ticket or want to sue."
She has seen records move from handwritten to computerized and witnessed better equipment for officers. However, dealing with people has remained a constant.
When she isn't working, she enjoys staying busy in the community, such as working the concession stand at South Charleston High School athletic events. She has also sold Avon for 30 years. For a little down time, she grabs a good mystery to read.
Her advice to new police officers would be, "Don't give up. Hang in there. The hours are long and it can be tough. Some people are not the nicest and can be argumentative. But good things happen to those who wait. I believe that. I have worked hard to get here."
As for Walters, she has never questioned her decision to go into law enforcement and has no plans to leave.
"Why would I retire? We have the best bosses in the world right now."
Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1246.