A Civil Rights Advocate and Community Leader
Debbie Montgomery is on track to keep setting records. Recently, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., she participated in the march—for her third time. Watch the news story here.
An Unexpected Career Turn
Debbie grew up during an era of civil rights activism and became the youngest person ever elected to the National Board of Directors of the NAACP at age 17—a position she held for six years. She participated in the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and joined King again two years later in a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to advocate for voters’ rights.
The last thing she expected to do with her career was become a police officer.
When Debbie received a call from the Saint Paul mayor in 1974, she was working as a city planner. The mayor, an acquaintance of hers, asked her to take part in the first citywide effort to hire African American officers for the police force. Saint Paul had 600 police officers, and only four were African American. She agreed, though intended to return to her job as a city planner after trying out the training academy. “I had a master’s degree and a steady job,” she said. “This was a favor for a friend.”
Forty years later, she’s retired from a long career as a police officer—the first female police officer on the Saint Paul police force—holds two masters’ degrees, has four adult children, has received countless awards for her groundbreaking work, and holds the distinct honor of seeing her name on a street sign in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. Now, she’s teaching the next generation of law enforcement officers at MCTC
The Struggle of the First
In 1975, the police department used the Westpoint Physical Agility Test as the bar for its upcoming officers. “To this day, I’m the only woman who competed against men—with men’s standards—and passed,” said Debbie. There were no uniforms for women and no separate locker rooms. Because most of the men in the training academy were six feet tall, Debbie worked with trainers to learn modified takedown techniques. Some colleagues accused her of taking a job away from a white man, saying she only received the job because she’s a black woman. “This was an era of very active civil rights activism,” she said. “At the end of the academy, I realized that if I didn’t take a job, I would be seen as giving up, and future women who wanted to become officers may not have this opportunity.” Shortly thereafter, Debbie became the first female officer on patrol in the Saint Paul Police Department.
She held her unexpected career as a police officer for 28 years. During that time she raised four children and went back to school at St. Thomas University. She became one of the first two people at the university to graduate with a master’s degree in police administration and police community education. “At that point, I was encouraged to consider teaching.
Teaching the Next Generation
Debbie arrived at MCTC in 2007 after teaching for 10 years at Century College. Now, due to legislative changes and a retiring workforce, “the next decade is crucial for the training of new law enforcement officers,” she said. Her course addresses ethics, theory and service learning, and requires 30 hours of volunteering with a culture “different from the one you grew up in.”
“As police officers, we become social workers, psychologists and human resources,” she said. “If you’ve got familiarity with a second language, you’re going to excel at your ability to get a job. The ability to communicate is crucial. Cultural competence is crucial.”
Debbie teaches her students to build relations, deal with conflict and navigate remediation as well as how to write a resume and practice interviewing skills. “I’ve networked with MCTC’s resources to make sure students are successful,” she said. “Ninety-eight percent of what police do is public relations. People call when they don’t understand the system, and they don’t know who else to call.”
Her work continues both inside and outside the classroom. For decades Debbie has inspired local youth to pursue law enforcement, including three of her children, and more recently, the first Somali woman on the Saint Paul police force who has done her own groundbreaking a generation after Debbie.
Her extensive accomplishments have not gone unnoticed.
Last year she was awarded the Heritage Award
by the International Association of Women Police, and traveled to South Africa to accept the award. Most recently, she received a distinct honor from the Saint Paul City Council: anyone who drives down Marshall Ave. from Lexington to Western—in Saint Paul’s historic Rondo Neighborhood—will travel a route now known as Deborah Gilbreath Montgomery Ave.
Photo: A copy of the Pioneer Press from May 9, 1976.
Published December 2014