West Windsor, N.J. – Detective Tara Russ '10 (A.S., Criminal Justice) and Officer Brittney Fornarotto '13 (A.S., Criminal Justice) are among a handful of female officers in their respective departments. Both are alumnae of Mercer County Community College (MCCC) and Farleigh Dickinson University (FDU) at Mercer, and both entered law enforcement almost immediately after college.
The duo returned to Mercer on March 28 to take part in a panel discussion about women in law enforcement, which also included Detective Michele Aversa of Princeton University Public Safety. The event, which drew approximately 100 female and male students was hosted by Elizabeth Bondurant, MCCC associate professor of Criminal Justice.
“Nationally, only about nine or 10 percent of all officers are women,” Bondurant said. She added that larger departments tend to be more accepting of female officers, but that number shrinks considerably in smaller departments.
In choosing their career paths, neither Russ nor Fornarotto was deterred by statistics. Fornarotto became familiar with law enforcement at a young age through her father, who worked on the K-9 Unit in Brick Township. “I grew up with two older brothers and was always a bit of tomboy. Law enforcement was definitely on my radar,” Fornarotto said.
Russ was the first in her family to enter policing. “My parents thought I was crazy. But they have a video of me at three years old singing the theme song from the ‘Cops’ television series, so they can’t say they didn’t see it coming,” Russ reflected.
Russ currently serves in the Anne Arundel County Police Department, which protects more than 800,000 residents, over 200,000 more people than the city of Baltimore.
Fornarotto chose to stay local, joining the Ewing Police Department, which operates in a township of 36,000 people. Prior to her arrival, the department had only six female officers. “My class consisted of three women, including myself. We brought the total to nine, in a department of about 90 officers,” she said. Compounding that disparity was Fornarotto’s job in the K-9 Unit, which skews heavily towards men.
Throughout the panel, Russ and Fornarotto reiterated the challenges for women in law enforcement. “Often, female officers are assumed to be timid, even though we go through the same training as our male counterparts,” Fornarotto said.
Russ added that despite the stigma, female officers play an integral role on the force. “Victims will request a female officer all the time in this unit. Even for routine searches, women are necessary on the job,” she said.
Russ and Fornarotto both expressed love for their careers and envision continuing with police work until they retire.
“No matter what, you have to work in an environment where you are valued and feel comfortable,” Russ said. “That opportunity might be in your backyard, or farther away. Just be prepared for it when it comes.”