Zena Stephens breaks racial barriers, glass ceilings to inspire others

Zena Stephens broke political, racial and gender boundaries to become the first female African American elected sheriff of Jefferson County, TX. Up photo by Noah Dawlearn.

Zena Stephens broke political, racial and gender boundaries to become the first female African American elected sheriff of Jefferson County, TX. Up photo by Noah Dawlearn.

Last year, while then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was upsetting expectations and slowly climbing his way to an electoral victory, Nov. 8, Zena Stephens was experiencing a similar victory in her bid for Jefferson County sheriff. She won the county with 51.4 percent of the vote, a county Trump won by 424 votes, defeating Ray Beck for the post previously held by 20-year veteran Mitch Woods.

Stephens is the first black female sheriff elected in the state of Texas and one of only two currently serving in the United States. Since the election, she has been a guest on “Harry,” the one-hour daytime television show of singer Harry Connick Jr., has been interviewed by Texas Monthly and has been approached by the BBC. She said her newfound fame reflects Jefferson County’s positivity.

“I’m excited that our community is getting some notoriety for doing something positive,” she said. “Our community crossed gender, racial and even political party lines to elect its first African American female sheriff in the state, so that’s special.”

Law enforcement wasn’t Stephens’ first choice for a career — she originally wanted to be a lawyer. She joined the police academy only after graduating from Lamar University with a bachelor’s in political science. She said this was due, in part, because she didn’t see many black, female law enforcement officers growing up.

“We did see attorneys on TV,” she said. “You thought, coming up, that was a profession back then that you could make a good living at, and use the ability to argue points and the idea that you could go help people that weren’t getting the benefit of our system. I always wanted to do that, and I am doing that now, just from a different (viewpoint).”

For that reason, Stephens said representation is important for young people who are deciding what they want to be when they grow up.

“I think if that means that I’m a role model, if young ladies see me and now believe that they can become sheriff or have careers in law enforcement, I think that that’s wonderful,” she said. “For me, I never wanted to be the first anything. I just wanted to be good at my job, but if it can be used for a positive message for females or for African Americans, I think that’s special.”

Stephens has been a law enforcement figure for 28 years, both in Beaumont and as police chief at Prairie View A&M. Adjusting to the life of a politician was different, Stephens said, because she ran to be sheriff, not a politician, so that she could effect positive change.

“I’m serious about that in terms of I’m an African American, and I’m a woman, and I’m a cop,” she said. “I’ve heard what people have said on both sides, and all sides concerning that issue, and so I really am trying to fix it.”

Stephens said one way a police department can change how the community views law enforcement is through diversity. One way to change how a community views its police force is for its police force to look like the community.

“Since I’ve been elected I’ve been trying to hire more people from the LGBT community, I’ve been trying to make sure we hire more minorities — whether it’s women or Latinos or African Americans — because I think when people know that they may get stopped by a person who thinks like them or looks like them, they’re going to be treated fairly,” she said.

“People who are not progressive thinkers, who are not inclusive — I want to make them uncomfortable. What I’m doing is, I’m using that ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ system, only I’m kind of reversing it — where you make sure there are more people who think like I do in the sheriff’s office or the police department, than think the other way, and that’s how you begin to change a culture.”

Part of reshaping the police force begins with keeping rules consistent so that officers know what the expectations are, Stephens said.

“If the expectation in a sheriff’s department or a police department is that you can get away with violating use of force policies or all that stuff, you can’t discipline people,” she said. “For me, one of the first things I went in when I took over — and it’s not even an indictment on my predecessor — but I made sure everybody understood what my mission statement, what my culture is. We’re going to obey the law.”

One way a sheriff can maintain a consistent, professional culture in their police force is to recognize that some officers are not meant for law enforcement, Stephens said.

“There are some things that are deal breakers,” she said. “I believe if you’re a police officer, you should be a professional. If you make a mistake and it’s a mistake that isn’t malicious, if it’s not going to hurt anybody, those are maybe things that we can do progressive discipline on. But some of the things that I’ve seen, excessive use of force, some of those issues, we’re not going to do progressive discipline. I’m going to get rid of you, because everybody who wants to be a police officer doesn’t necessarily deserve, nor should they, be a police officer.

“I don’t want you to work for me if you don’t have enough common sense or people skills — you probably shouldn’t be in this business, because we’re going to be answering very volatile calls and volatile situations. When we show up on scene, most people aren’t happy. They’re already very emotional, so if we’re going to participate in inciting those emotions and causing more problems, I’m not going to do progressive discipline.”

Stephens said police officers have to meet certain criteria to be good at the job, and that lowering standards of hiring only leads to an increase in liability for a police department.

“To me, you’ve got to have some great communication skills to be a good cop, you’ve got to have a high level of patience and understanding, you have to have some compassion but you’ve also got to have good character,” she said.

Despite her early desire to be an attorney, Stephens said she showed the characteristics of a law enforcement officer even at an early age when she would play with her cousins.

“None of them are surprised today that I’m a sheriff or that I’m in law enforcement because they said, even as a kid, I was the one who always made sure that everybody did the right thing or followed the code, which I find funny because looking back, it’s kind of true,” she said. “I had 13 other cousins and we were all really close in age, and we all played and spent a lot of time together.”

Teachers can often make a difference in children’s interests, which Stephens said was exemplified in her early education.

“I had some really good government teachers for one, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “I loved history and government classes — watching, studying how that worked — so I had some interest in that. I was a part of speech and debate in high school and I was pretty good at it. You kind of choose careers — I don’t know if you choose them or they choose you based on your interests.”

Stephens said nothing is more important than family, which, she said, is reflected in her organizational philosophy.

“Parenting put a lot of things into perspective,” she said. “You figure out what’s important. If you talk to any of the individuals who work for me, I’m constantly reminding them we come to work to take care of our families, so I make sure that they’re wearing their vests and that they do certain things to make sure that they go home to their families at night. I think that that’s important.”

Stephens’ family is originally from Louisiana, though her parents grew up in Beaumont.

“My mom graduated from Hebert High School, my dad from Charlton-Pollard, so if you know anything about the history of Beaumont, those were two historically black high schools in Beaumont,” she said. “My mom had just been born when her family moved here looking for work, and the same thing with my dad.”

Stephens said she and her husband are avid sports fans, routinely attending Dallas Cowboy games, and that she played plenty of racquetball, tennis, volleyball and basketball growing up. In fact, her daughter, who graduated from the University of Texas last May, has been drafted to play professional softball. Stephens said her history with sports prepared her for her career in law enforcement.

“It helped me more psychologically, I think, than the physical aspect of it because I’m a competitor,” she said. “I hate to lose. Even if you go to the sheriff’s department right now, every one of my guys will tell you I’m constantly talking about how I was never a ‘B Team’ player. And if I was on the ‘B Team,’ I would work really hard to get moved on to the ‘A Team,’ and I tell them, ‘We’re not going to be a “B Team” sheriff’s department.’ We’re gonna be the best.”

Stephens’ election broke glass ceilings and racial barriers at the same time, but her overall message is that there are more stories like hers in Jefferson County than people realize, and that she hopes her story will be an inspiration to others.

Tim Collins

UP managing editor

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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