Barstow Again Ahead Of The Curve In Distaff Empowerment

BARSTOW—Despite its status as an outback desert railroad town, the City of Barstow has nonetheless established itself as being on the cutting edge in San Bernardino County – and elsewhere in California and the United States – in terms of gender equality in its public affairs.
In 1966, Ida Pleasant was elected Barstow’s mayor, the first female mayor in San Bernardino County history, paving the way for her eventual successors, Katie Islas-Yent and current mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre.
In 2007, then-Barstow city manager Hector Rodriguez selected Dianne Burns, who had spent two decades with the Los Angeles Police Department as a patrol officer, homicide detective, sergeant and lieutenant of a gang suppression unit, to replace Lee Gibson as police chief. Rodriguez selected Burns within four weeks of Gibson’s May 1, 2007 departure, but it took a majority of the city council another month to achieve a consensus about Burns’ suitability for the position. Her résumé included credentials as a gang task force leader on the mean streets of Los Angeles and possession of a law degree, and she was deemed qualified. She was given a contract effective July 2 of that year.
The department was 11 short of its authorized strength of 38 officers when she took command. Things did not go all that smoothly for her, as at least some of the department’s officers had difficulty accepting a woman as their commander in the oftentimes machismo-driven atmosphere of a law enforcement agency. Burns attempted to work through that challenge and instituted several positive changes that were hailed by the community. The department gained five officers over the first 21 months of her residency as chief and she was able to get the city council to invest in bringing the department to full staffing in May 2009 when six officers were sworn in.
Burns instituted a shooting and tactical training school just outside of Hinkley and mandated that officers take target practice at least once every two months. She then rewrote the department’s policies and procedures manual, which had not been updated since 1983, and she co-authored an internal affairs manual for the department, which until that time was non-existent. She simultaneously sought to improve the interdepartmental relationship with the sheriff’s station in Barstow and encouraged officers in the department to become actively involved in community programs such as Cops for Kids, Neighborhood Watch,  Cook and Serve for the Homeless, and local neighborhood street fairs.
Burns tenure in Barstow had a less then stellar end. In July 2011, Burns went on vacation, which was not anticipated to last for more than two weeks, and did not return at the end of her summer hiatus, When she did not return, city manager Curt Mitchell placed her on administrative leave. She remained absent from the department for more than six months while Mitchell and the council conducted a review of an unspecified issue relating to her job performance.
On February 24, 2012, as Mitchell’s assessment of Burns was drawing to a close, the Barstow Police Officers Association, representing 30 officers, corporals and detectives, and the Barstow Police Management Association, representing six sergeants and lieutenants, provided a vote of “no confidence” in Burns’ ability to continue to lead the department. The groups then sent a letter to Mitchell referencing the votes and excoriating Burns for “poor performance” and “extreme favoritism,” as well as a “hostile work environment” that the unions said was the product of her oversight of the department.
Despite the insurrection, Mitchell restored Burns to her position on February 27, 2012, mindful that her contract was up on July 2 and that she would be due for another review before it would be renewed on July 2. Mitchell had not yet completed that review nor arrived at a decision about whether he would recommend to the city council that Burns be retained when she tendered her resignation.
Despite the cloud under which her career in Barstow ended, Burns, and the city broke the gender barrier in the ranks of San Bernardino law enforcement.
This week, Barstow again turned a corner with respect to gynic empowerment.
With Barstow Fire Chief Rich Ross now set to retire on June 19, Captain Jamie Williams has been selected to serve as the Barstow Fire Protection District’s interim fire chief.
Williams is less likely to encounter resistance from those she will supervise than did Burns in her role, having long served in the department. and having been accepted as “one of the boys.” In 2009, Williams was elected president of the firemen’s union, the Barstow Professional Firefighters Association
A 1998 graduate of Barstow High School, Williams immediately obtained employment as a firefighter and at the age of 36 has an 18-year career in fire service. She began as a paid-call firefighter in Hinkley and later became a firefighter at Fort Irwin, where she attained the rank of captain. One year later, she went to work for the Barstow Fire Protection District. That was in 2008. Her last eight years schooled her with every aspect of the district’s operations.
Williams said Barstow can count on more woman firefighters in the future, as the recruitment effort has broadened. She said the department’s primary recruiting tool is the Fire Explorer Program.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve always had a female in the [Explorer] ranks,” Williams said. “Usually we have one to two. Right now we have two. One just got into Fresno State. This is her second semester. So, we’re really excited for and proud of her. The other female just got promoted to paid call. Of the new recruits it’s nine to one, so we have nine males and one female.”

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