1st St. Louis County female officer reflects on days gone by
ST. LOUIS (AP) — When Winona “Jean” Schrieber became the first female St. Louis County police officer in 1957, her uniform had a brown skirt and high heels but no place to put her gun.
So she kept it in her purse.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Schrieber’s role as a pioneer in the department was honored by St. Louis County officials to mark the 60th year of female police officers in the department.
But Schrieber’s era was a dramatically different world for professional women.
She grew up in the Central West End in St. Louis, but was orphaned at a young age and eventually became a registered nurse.
But when Schrieber read about the first female police officers at departments on the east coast, she knew it was something she wanted to do. She went to the St. Louis police chief.
“I told him, ‘If you ever hire women, let me know,’” she said. “I thought that it sounded like an interesting job, and it was.”
Shortly after her request, the department decided to open the officer jobs to women, complete with power of arrest and the authority to carry a gun, in the summer of 1951.
In a sign of the times, a writer in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote then that giving the women the same powers as men would mean “a light touch on the shoulder would carry as much authority as a heavy hand.”
Schrieber was chosen as one of the first seven women to become officers out of more than 70 applicants and entered the St. Louis Police Academy.
“The training was very rigid,” she said. “They taught us judo and how to fire a gun — I had never even held a gun in my hand before. Before that I didn’t even know the difference between a city ordinance and a felony.”
Schrieber officially became one of the first seven female officers with arrest powers with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in July 1951. The first women were paid the same salary as their male counterparts — $3,480 a year, which is equivalent to $33,143 today.
Schrieber had several roles with the city police but was often used as a decoy to trick unsuspecting criminals in her precinct in Soulard.
“I was a decoy for the gypsies,” she said. “They would steal everything they could back then, so I would pretend to be a customer to help catch all the pick-pockets around.”
When a commander wanted to assign Schrieber to parking patrol, however, she avoided the fate by transferring to the juvenile department, where she worked with youngsters who got in trouble with the law.
She considers working with the troubled youth one of the most fulfilling tasks she got to do as an officer.
A few years into her employment, Schrieber got pregnant with the first of three children she and her husband would have.
“The city, they didn’t know what to do with me then,” she said laughing. “They had never had a pregnant police officer before. It was: ‘We’ve got a hot potato on our hands.’”
The commanders took her off duty temporarily during the pregnancy, she said.
After 4.5 years, Schrieber had to resign in 1955 when her husband, Victor, was hired by the department as a police officer. The department’s policy at the time forbade married couples’ both working on the force.
So she looked elsewhere and again became a pioneer. On Aug. 20, 1957, Schrieber became the first female officer with the St. Louis County Police Department.
“At first they weren’t really sure what to do with me,” she said.
County police often had Schrieber accompany male officers on undercover work. A man alone would raise suspicions that a couple would not, she said.
“All the men in the department were always respectful to me,” she said. “But yes, some of the people were shocked because they had never heard of a policewoman back then.
“They didn’t know what to think.”
As in the city, Schrieber’s work with the county also often focused on juveniles. She tended to tell them to check in with her instead of jumping to referring them to juvenile court in minor cases.
“I tried to help them rather than refer them,” she said. “And that was not appreciated back then like it is now; most felt they should have gone straight to the court, but that gave them a juvenile record, and I didn’t want that.”
Recently, Schrieber was at the St. Louis Zoo when a woman with grandchildren of her own stopped her and said, “I know you, I remember you,” Schrieber said.
The woman told Schrieber that if it hadn’t been for her, she probably would have spent her young years in a juvenile detention center and thanked her.
Schrieber worked in the county police department for 22 years total, also taking on roles in recruitment and becoming a speaker traveling around to community organizations to discuss public safety issues.
She retired on March 17, 1979, and spent the next two decades as a volunteer at a veterans hospital, an usher at Washington University events, a driver for those older than her and a deliverer for Meals on Wheels.
“I always kept busy,” she said.
Now 91, Schrieber lives in the Affton area. Her son and daughter, who traveled from California, watched as she was honored by the St. Louis County Police Department.
Schrieber stood next to her original county skirt-and-blazer uniform surrounded by 13 of the 120 current female officers with the department who now — yes — have uniforms with a place for their gun.
Among them was Capt. Melissa Webb, who said she had an hourslong discussion with Schrieber about the history of women in the department. Webb is a commander in charge of 70 officers today.
“Without you opening that door, we wouldn’t have been able to walk through it,” Webb told Schrieber. “I thank you.”
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com