ROCKVILLE — The Montgomery County Police Department (MCP) has named its first female African American police captain, Sonia Pruitt.
Pruitt assumed her new position as the director of community engagement on March 3 but has been working within MCP for the past 27 years.
Originally from North Carolina, Pruitt moved to the area to attend Howard University. She said that becoming a police officer was not always her calling.
“My father was a police officer, which (is) funny because I never aspired to follow in his footsteps. I didn’t think of it like it was a legacy,” she said.
Pruitt said that in college she thought she wanted to be a doctor or go into medical research. Upon finding out how repetitive the work is, and the odd hours doctors are often forced to keep, she considered other career fields.
“I just knew that I wanted to be around people and that I wanted some sunshine during the course of the day, so that’s how I ended up here (in law enforcement),” she said.
Once Pruitt got into police work, she made it her goal to rise through the ranks.
“I started thinking about my future (and I thought) I’d like to go climb the ladder as high as I can, so I aspired to be a captain very early on,” she said. “I didn’t know how difficult that was going to be or what challenges might present themselves, but I was up for it.”
Pruitt explained that in her opinion, rising through the ranks of law enforcement is more difficult for women, and especially for women of color.
“I say that because when you look at your average police department and you look at the demographics of the makeup by gender and race generally, almost always there will be less women than men and definitely less black women than any other class except for maybe Asian males and females,” she said. “I always found from my vantage point that there were always going to be fewer of us in the room at the meeting, on the scene, or at roll call, and you know I took notice of that,” Pruitt said.
She noted that despite the demographics, having women in law enforcement can be a real asset. She explained that in her opinion, women are less apt to reach for their guns and more likely to talk through a situation.
“I do happen to think that women are a great addition to law enforcement, because with us you get more negotiating; we’re not necessarily as apt to lay hands on someone for instance,” she said. “So, I think we have great value, but we live in a male-dominated society, and policing certainly was founded on being male.”
Pruitt said that law enforcement is not unique in this trend, either. Women trying to move up in any field will face a similar set of challenges.
Pruitt also spoke to the difficulties between police and the community. She noted that an issue that often appears is a lack of understanding between law enforcement and the public.
She explained that when issues arise that garner lots of media attention, it’s important for the police department to debrief the situation and find out why the public reacted the way they did.
“(The people) aren’t just mad because they want to be mad; they have a valid reason to feel some kind of way about why these things upset them,” she said. “To circle the wagons and try to justify something that looks pretty bad and is bad for a lot of people is not the answer to me.”
Pruitt explained that tackling these police incidents takes communication and honest listening.
During her years with MCP, Pruitt has developed experience in many departments, from the public information office to detective.
“I have to admit I purposefully did a variety of things in the police department because I wanted to see how the police department works and the best way to do that is to have a variety of assignments,” Pruitt said during a recognition ceremony hosted by the Montgomery County Council back in June. “My resume was so long that when I applied for captain, I had to shorten it by two pages because the system will only take four pages.”
In her new position as the director of community engagement, Pruitt is working on improving the relationship between the police and the people.
She explained that currently her department has four officers, but she is looking to grow that number.
“We need some more people because we have a lot of work to do, so for me in my entire existence in the police department in this position is to, in my opinion, work on building a much better relationship between us (the police) and the community,” Pruitt said. “It’s not just that we’re going to go have coffee with a cop, we want to have quality interactions where people feel free to give us their feedback.”
Pruitt explained that she doesn’t have a favorite method of engagement, but rather she just likes having conversations with people.
She noted that in this day and age community engagement with the police has the opportunity to narrow the gap between the police and the people.
“It’s probably going to take some thinking outside the box and it’s certainly going to take some courageous conversation,” she said.