Life on the road: Carter gets first female sergeant

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   When you're newly divorced and have two young children to support, you'll consider doing just about anything to make ends meet. Even becoming a law enforcement officer.
   That was the position Sgt. Penny Cornett found herself in, in July 1993 when she hired in as a jailer at Carter County Sheriff's Department. The state had just mandated that jails housing female inmates also have female jailers.
   "They hired four the same time I was hired, one for each shift of the jail," Cornett said.
   Asked why she turned to law enforcement, Cornett said, "Sitting here today ... I have no idea. Long-term career choice? I was the mother of two young children that had to work part time because if I worked full time I couldn't afford to pay day care.
   "After I started here, I could afford day care and work full time, and then work toward a career. Day care back then was like $60 a week per child -- and I had two. So if I actually had to pay a baby sitter to work, I would be working for zilch after I got done paying my baby sitter."
   Cornett spent 2-1/2 years paying her dues by working the jail until she could test to go to the road.
   "I tested in the fall of '95. I tested second and came out after Dean (Jones)," Cornett said. She actually went to the road in the fall of '95 to gain prior patrol experience and didn't go to the police academy until March 1996.
   After being certified, Cornett became the first female officer on patrol. Now, she is the first female sergeant in Carter County.
   There are two police academies in the state, according to Cornett -- Donelson and Walters State.
   "Walters State's PT (physical training) requirements were way above Donelson's. It was terrible. We got up every morning and had to salute the flag at 6 a.m. in formation out in front of the building. Then we ran to the school across the street, which was about a quarter mile. We did an hour of PT and a two-mile run every morning, then we went back to the police academy and showered and ate and were in class by 8 a.m.
   "We didn't get out of class until 10 p.m.-10:30 p.m. We only broke for eating. They gave you an hour for lunch and an hour and a half for supper. But we smart people," she said, laughing, "when we got an hour and a half for supper, we'd go eat real quick, get in the bed, set the alarm clock and go back to class."
   Walters State's training is more military disciplined, according to Cornett.
   "Everybody wore the same thing. If you had one thing on that was different from somebody else, then you were doing push-ups and sit-ups as punishment.
   "Walters State was tough. I didn't think I was going to make it. But I had two kids to support -- I was recently divorced -- and I pushed my way through," she said.
   As a female officer, Cornett has encountered stereotypical opposition in her field.
   "Some men do have a problem with women in law enforcement. But you have to show them that you can do it and you have to earn their trust, then they come to respect you as just another officer -- not a male/female thing.
   "But when I first came here, women had never done this before here. We had a long way to go when I first started, but now it's fine. Everybody does well with the women here," she said.
   One of the questions on the oral exam she had to take to be promoted to sergeant was posed to her by Public Defender David Bautista.
   "Mr. Bautista asked me if being a woman in law enforcement was a disadvantage. My answer was, being a woman in law enforcement is an advantage because most women have already taught their male children that hitting women is not tolerated, so they've got that mindset; whereas, if a male officer was to go up to arrest them, ego and testosterone come into play.
   "If I go up to arrest them, the woman thing in the back of their mind that their mama has been telling them all these years -- to respect and don't hit women" comes into play, according to Cornett.
   "I can talk to a man whereas another man probably would have to fight. Don't get me wrong, I have scuffled with a few people out there, but I've never actually had a man say, 'No woman's taking me to jail,' " she said.
   Law enforcement is just like any other field involving emergency response: You win some, you lose some, you buck up and go on.
   When Cornett first began patrol, some of the things she saw on the job haunted her. Incidents such as "when I would respond to someone who hung themselves or respond to a vehicle accident that had kids in it -- the kid thing will always bother you, it doesn't matter. But you get thicker skinned as you go along.
   "The one that stands in my mind the most is a man hung himself up in Valley Forge. I would go home and close my eyes and see that man's face. That lasted probably a week, week and a half. Now, I don't do that. You learn how to shut it off, or deal with it in other ways," she said.
   "The public would say we're cold. They would say, 'You're so cold-hearted. You're standing here and this person is laying over here dead.' It's not that we're cold-hearted; it's that we've seen it so much.
   "A lot of women when they come up and say that their spouse has threatened to kill them and we just keep going on with what we need to do, they say, 'Well, you don't care.'
   "It's not that we don't care, it's just that we hear this 15 to 20 times a day ... We're law enforcement and there's protocol that we have to do and paperwork that we have to file. We can't stop and discuss counsel. Law enforcement is not counseling," she said.
   Cornett said her sons, Bo and Schaun Carter, ages 10 and 12, "are pretty cool" about mom being an officer.
   "I've been in this so long. I think they were 3 and 5 when I started law enforcement, so basically, they've grown up with it ... But there is a different mindset when mama's in uniform and mama's not in uniform.
   "My youngest one is thrilled to death that I made sergeant, but he said that my badge didn't say it, so I had to go get a new badge that said 'sergeant.' "
   Cornett's husband, Carter County Deputy Kenneth Cornett, probably was more happy for his wife than she was for herself.
   "Kenny knows I deserved it and that's basically all he said about it: 'Congratulations, honey, you deserved it,' " she said.
   One of the good things about working for the sheriff's department, Cornett said, is the camaraderie you develop.
   "You're family. It doesn't matter who you are, if you and another officer had words 15 minutes ago ... if you go out there and you say, 'I need help,' that officer is going to be there," she said.
   Cornett perceives patrol work as less dangerous than working the jail.
   "When you're on patrol, you can get into a dangerous situation because the backup is so far away ... You're looking at 45 minutes in some cases. Also, out on the road, it's an open space, whereas when you're up in the jail, you're confined. You walk into a block that's got 30 people in it and they jump you, there's nowhere to run," she said.
   The most dangerous call, by far, when working the road is a domestic situation, according to most officers. Cornett agrees.
   "Always domestic, because family is family, whether family is fighting or not. A lot of times you will get out here and one person has beat the other one up, but when you go to arrest the perpetrator, the other person turns on you because that's family," she said.
   One of the biggest frustrations for most law enforcement officers is the court system. While younger officers out on the road are doing everything they can do to learn, according to Cornett, "the older officers are saying, 'Every time I arrest them, they go to court and they let them go or reduce it to a lesser charge.' "
   Officers sometimes develop the attitude: "Why should I go out here and bust my hump if the court's going to let them go?" Cornett said.
   "But we can't control what happens over there. It all boils down to getting your ducks in a row. If you're going to present a case to the judge, make sure that it's a case you can present. Don't go over there with nothing and then get mad when it's thrown out, dismissed or whatever. ... In every aspect of the criminal justice system, it all comes down to the same thing: You don't have enough people to do the work," she said.
   There's one thing Cornett would like the public to know:
   "Law enforcement officers are human just like everybody else. We're not made of stone, we're not supernatural. We're going to make mistakes. But you have to do the job the best you can do. And this is with anybody.
   "If you get a bad seed -- somebody that has done something wrong -- it makes the whole department look bad, and we're not all that way," she said.