When the highest-ranking African American woman in the Washington State Patrol abruptly retired in August, she was lauded as a “trailblazer” who had risen to become the first black woman sergeant, lieutenant and captain in the history of the nearly 100-year-old agency.
At the time, Monica Alexander said she felt like she had “plateaued” and there was nowhere else for her to go in the patrol. But her reason for retiring early, after a 23-year career, was also more complicated.
In a recent interview at her home near Tacoma, Alexander spoke about a lack of diversity in the state patrol and her feeling that she was not afforded the same opportunities as her male colleagues.
“I love the state patrol,” Alexander said. “But that does not mean we can’t improve, that does not mean that we can’t take a deeper dive into lifting up women and lifting up minorities in that agency.”
Alexander, 57, said when she joined the state patrol in 1996, she was the fourth black woman hired as a trooper and the only one serving in the agency at the time.
“That was fine for me because I felt like I could make a difference in that area,” Alexander said.
Alexander often speaks about her first years as a trooper. She was a single mom with a young son and frequently had to work overnight shifts. Her off-duty colleagues helped out with childcare. Alexander said she tells that story because she wants to encourage other women who are considering a career in law enforcement.
When Alexander was promoted to sergeant in 2003, it was front-page news. “Promotion a milestone for trooper and Patrol,” read the headline in The Seattle Times. Founded in 1921, the patrol had never before had a black woman sergeant.
From there the firsts continued as Alexander was promoted through the ranks to lieutenant in 2013 and two years later to captain.
But it was a lonely path. There was no other African American woman ahead of her in the agency to serve as a role model and there was no one coming up right behind her either. Alexander said she lacked the formal and informal mentoring that was readily available to her male counterparts. So she looked to women outside the agency, like former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.
In 2015, Alexander became the captain in charge of the patrol’s government and media relations division. In that role, she was the face of the Washington State Patrol at the Capitol. She met with lawmakers to advocate for the agency’s needs – including higher trooper pay to stem a tide of retirements and transfers to other agencies. In 2016, the Legislature approved double-digit pay increases for the state patrol.
Alexander also worked closely with state lawmakers on high-profile issues like untested rape kits and the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“She was incredible, she was a really strong advocate,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat who sponsored several bills to address the backlog of sexual assault kits that had piled up on shelves and not been tested.
For Alexander, the work on both issues was gratifying and meaningful. She traveled the country to tour crime labs and meet with rape victims and traveled the state to meet with tribal members.
But earlier this year, she let the chief of the patrol, John Batiste, know that she was ready to transfer to a new assignment.
After four years in government and media relations, and more than two decades with the agency, Alexander felt she’d paid her dues and hoped for some options.
“When I got to a certain point in my career and based on my seniority I was looking forward to having some choices,” Alexander said.
Instead, she said, Batiste said he needed her to head up the human resources division.
“When I was assigned Human Resources, at that point I knew what I was going to have to do,” Alexander said.
Alexander said human resources is a “great assignment” and acknowledged that she worked at the “pleasure of the chief.” But she also considered the assignment “very confining” — especially after working in government and media relations — and it wasn’t where she envisioned spending her final two years before her planned retirement after 25 years with the agency. Instead, she wanted to go back to working with young troopers, guiding and mentoring them.
She was also interested in opportunities to gain additional leadership training either at the FBI Academy or the Northwest Command School. But Alexander didn’t feel that would be possible while heading up the human resources division, given the demands of the position.
“It felt like there was a ceiling,” Alexander said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t valued, what I had given, all the money I had put in the bank, my account was empty.”
Chief Batiste, who is also black, called Alexander a “pioneer” and a “superstar” in the agency but rejected the idea that she was limited in her career advancement. He noted that human resources was an assignment where she could have a role in shaping the patrol.
“I think Monica, like a lot of us, myself [included], were extended all sorts of opportunities and those opportunities are what you make of them,” Batiste said. “I don’t think Monica was shortchanged by any stretch of the imagination.”
But Batiste also acknowledged that it’s not acceptable to have had just one African American woman reach the rank of captain in the entire history of the state patrol.
“That tells us we have a lot of room for improvement,” Batiste said.
Alexander’s retirement in August was sudden and emotional. In her final sign-off on the police radio, Alexander sat in her patrol car crying as a dispatcher read a tribute and her fellow troopers wished her well. “You go woman,” said one.
For the lawmakers she’d worked closely with, the news of Alexander’s retirement came out of the blue. “Sad and upset” is how Orwall described her reaction, adding that she envisioned Alexander as chief of the patrol someday.
“I don’t know that they always utilized her talents and I think they kind of missed an opportunity to really keep a leader that just had so much more potential in the state patrol,” Orwall said.
Speaker Pro Tem John Lovick, a Democrat who is a retired state patrol sergeant, said he was “just absolutely shocked” when he heard of Alexander’s retirement. “I honestly couldn’t wait to have her in my office for anything … she was just so talented.”
Lovick was sorry to lose a trusted friend, but he was also concerned about the impact on the state patrol.
“We need to reflect the community we serve and the lack of diversity, particularly with women, is really disappointing for us,” Lovick said.
A lack of diversity in state police agencies is an issue across the country from Massachusetts to Louisiana to California. The Washington State Patrol has 1048 sworn troopers, according to figures provided by the agency. Nearly 80% are white men. Fewer than 100 are women and just 45 identify as Hispanic. Twenty-six troopers identify as black and only two of them are women. When non-commissioned employees are included, women represent about 30% of the patrol’s workforce and people of color are nearly 15%.
“The fact of the matter is this is a white male-dominated organization,” Batiste said. “Moving forward, we want to ensure that we change history to a degree by having more females and more people of color.”
But Batiste, who joined the patrol in 1976 and has been the chief since 2005, said it won’t be easy.
“It’s a challenge for law enforcement, period, right now,” Batiste said. “All of us are struggling with finding people that want to do this job, keeping the people that we have in this profession. It’s especially difficult to recruit minorities and women to the profession.”
Acknowledging that this is a time for “honest reflection,” the agency earlier this month brought together its recruitment and communications teams from across the state to “discuss what’s working, what’s not working, and [brainstorm] new strategies and tactics.”
This effort comes as the state patrol approaches its centennial in June of 2021.
“We have recognized that our Centennial is an excellent opportunity to tell the WSP story to the public and to highlight the importance of women and minorities in our past, current and future service,” said state patrol spokesman Chris Loftis in an email.
Among the new efforts to reach a more diverse pool of trooper applicants is a plan to dispatch recruiters to historically black colleges and universities along with “outreach to other cultural affinity groups and organizations,” said Loftis.
From Alexander’s perspective, diversifying the ranks of the state patrol and other police agencies is imperative if law enforcement is going to confront a long history of mistrust in communities of color.
“I don’t think that law enforcement is going to get beyond this racial profiling and injustice until we can get people from the community to be a part of the agency,” Alexander said.
Another priority of hers is recruiting more women into the profession and helping them promote up through the ranks. Following Alexander’s retirement, there was only one other female captain in the state patrol and no female assistant chiefs – a position that’s never been held by a woman. There were also no other African American women above the rank of trooper.
Alexander said this gave her pause as she prepared to retire early.
“I had a long, long hard talk with myself about what does that mean for African American women in the agency, for myself leaving before I saw someone else coming up directly behind me,” Alexander said. “There was a little bit of guilt and sadness, but I also knew without a clear path forward for myself, I’m not about spinning my wheels.”
Despite her retirement, Alexander still retains close ties to the state patrol. Her husband, Johnny Alexander, whom she married in 2008, is an assistant chief overseeing the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Bureau and her son is a dispatcher with the agency.
In the end, Alexander’s retirement was short-lived. Soon after leaving the state patrol, she was recruited to a new job. She’s now helping train the next generation of police officers at Washington’s Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.