Kim Jacobs is the city's first gay, female police chief. But the new attitude she's bringing to the department has nothing to do with gender.
Kimberley Jacobs was seeking a quick dinner when she stopped into the Ashland, Ohio, Pizza Hut.
What she found was a place in Columbus history.
In the summer of 1977, Jacobs, an Ohio State University sophomore majoring in natural resources, was eating with her family when she looked up to find a tall stranger standing military-straight by their table, looking at her and posing an even stranger question.
"Have you ever thought of a career in law enforcement?" he asked.
A 5-foot-8 hurdler on the Ohio State track team, Jacobs was young, lithe and athletic-which made the visitor, who turned out to be a lieutenant from the nearby Ohio State Patrol post, hope she might wish to be part of his unit's recruiting class. It was the heady days just after passage of Title IX and a bourgeoning women's rights movement was under way that, in Ashland at least, was focused on getting more females in police work.
Two months later, Jacobs was back at Ohio State, now as a sociology major, and her criminology courses soon sold her on the career that would take her to heights never before seen in Ohio-and barely seen anywhere in the country.
On April 5, Jacobs completed her climb from patrol officer to take the helm of the Columbus Division of Police, becoming the first woman to hold the post-one of only a handful of female chiefs in a major metropolitan area-and the first open member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community to wear the city's top badge.
"The glass ceiling has been broken on two levels," says Mayor Michael Coleman. "One, a female, and two, a LGBT member. It says how progressive the city is, how open we are. It's a big deal."
With a firm handshake and a bright smile, Chief Kim Jacobs comes out from behind her desk to welcome a visitor into her spacious office overlooking Columbus from high atop police headquarters on Marconi Boulevard.
She's only been on the job a few weeks, but the space is already her own, with an image of a rose and the word "passion" framed on the wall, Ohio State mementos on the bookshelf, family pictures on the crafted cherry wood desk and a suit of armor in the far corner, which she proudly shows off as a symbol of her family name-Knight.
Bespectacled, with close-cropped hair, a sparkling gold "chief" badge on her crisp white shirt and her black shoes polished to a mirror shine, Jacobs is the picture of conventional police leadership-until she begins to speak. It's then that her easy demeanor, hearty laugh and sense of enthusiasm reinforce that this is a chief unlike any the city has ever known-in ways that have little to do with gender.
"I hope people see the passion I have for the job, and for the people who are here, and for the work that we do, and the people that do it," Jacobs says. "We do it differently in Columbus. We have a level of professionalism that other agencies don't. We have it very good here. We do it Columbus' way."
Despite the ease with which she wears the badge, Kim Jacobs' initial career aspirations ran more toward canine care than K-9 units. Growing up with her father, Calvin, an OSU extension agent, her mother, Dottie, a nurse, and four siblings, Jacobs had memorized practically every dog and horse breed from an early age. A photo of 1973 Thoroughbred Triple Crown champion Secretariat, rather than any teen idol of the day, adorned her bedroom wall.
She entered Ohio State to become a veterinarian, but didn't fit with the course work. After changing her major, Jacobs started focusing on another passion-running hurdles for an Ohio State track team that included future Columbus School Board president (and current Columbus Urban League head) Stephanie Hightower.
That chance Pizza Hut meeting after her sophomore year, however, put Jacobs on an even clearer path.
Jacobs graduated in June 1979, took the Columbus police test in July and was hired by the division in October. She soon realized exactly how challenging it could be as a young woman in a quintessentially masculine world.
"When we started it was very different for the other officers and citizens," she says. "Some citizens wouldn't even know if I was a real cop. They'd be like, 'Honey, you need to get a man here. I'm not sure you'll be able to handle this.' And I'd say, 'Well, you're stuck with me.' "
Women on the force at that time were almost as rare as unicorn sightings. Jacobs joined the force just four years after Columbus began training female patrol officers, and only 1.4 percent of all officers in the early 1970s were women, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Women and Policing. Jacobs says she might hear another woman on another radio channel, but she'd rarely see one. "You'd just hear of them," she says.
If a lot of the male officers had their way, those women might not have been around for long.
Jacobs recalls officers who refused to work with her, and the time a fellow officer in front of the entire roll call rubbed her rear end and bellowed, "Hey Kim, you losing some weight?"
Jacobs' response? "I put my hand on my gun and said, 'Don't ever touch me again,' " she recalls with a pointed look. "Everyone realized he screwed up, and they knew I stuck up for myself. They knew I didn't run and complain.
"I've never been a victim."
It took a few years, but her reputation finally began to take precedence over preconceived notions of her gender. Jacobs proved a quality officer who was fearless in the pursuit of criminals. Her main patrol beats were Franklinton and the Hilltop where, teamed with partner Mike Jacobs-to whom she was married for 21 years-she did her best to maintain order in an often-orderless neighborhood.
"It seemed like the people who lived in Franklinton had to show they were going to fight the police," she admits. "There was a lot of wrestling matches and resisting and running away from the cops.
"There were also a lot of people who needed us to solve disputes and neighborhood problems. But I remember we would drive through and try to be friendly, say hi to the kids. One boy ran out, and his mom stood on her porch and says, 'Get away from them!' That was the sad part."
Such challenges taught Jacobs that being a woman could actually work to her advantage. Since she couldn't necessarily use her muscles to get a suspect into custody, Jacobs says she had to rely on her powers of persuasion.
"I'd say to them, 'Let me talk to you. Let's sit down in the car. Everyone has to get handcuffed to get in the car,' " she recalls. "Then I'd tell them, 'You are under arrest.'
"You learn how to communicate well-that is your tool. That is your weapon."
That same tool also began to open doors toward the administrative floor.TERM LIMITS
No matter how good a job Kimberley Jacobs does as police chief, she will give up her badge by 2022.
Jacobs is the second person appointed under city guidelines that mandate a police chief may serve no more than two five-year terms, and at the end of the first five years, he or she will be evaluated and could be replaced.
Former Chief Walter Distelzweig was hired under the same rules in 2009, but he had already planned for his January 2012 retirement when he took the position.
The policy results from the city's experience with former Chief James Jackson, once called Columbus' "chief for life." Jackson retired in March 2009, after 19 years in the top position and more than 50 years with the division, which included a lawsuit against city leaders who unsuccessfully sought to fire him in 1999.
Mike Jacobs and the officer then known as Kim Knight split as patrol partners in 1984, since department policy forbids officers who date to ride together. After they married in September 1984, she spent three more years on patrol before making her first move up the chain of command, becoming a sergeant.
Her motivation: to be the supervisor she never had and help move the division forward.
"I knew I had the ability to make recommendations and have a voice in some things early on," she says. "There were better ways of doing things. I thought I could make a bigger difference."
After seven years as a patrol officer, Jacobs spent four years as a sergeant, most of it assigned to the Patrol Administrative office, before a promotion to lieutenant in 1991 sent her to Patrol Zone 3 to serve as the patrol deputy chief's administrative staff lieutenant. In 1995 she earned the rank of commander-the first woman in the division to do so-assigned to communications, Internal Affairs, Patrol Zone 4 and the Training Bureau.
In 2009, Jacobs applied for the chief position, but when it was awarded to Walter Distelzweig, she became one of his six deputy chiefs-also the first woman so named-assigned to the Patrol East, Patrol South and the Administrative subdivisions.
There were benefits to her promotions beyond higher pay and responsibility, she says.
Sexism has a way of quieting with a rise up the chain of command, as the rank-and-file "are afraid to say anything to you," Jacobs says with a laugh. She also directed changes she felt benefited the division, from helping communications employees stay occupied when calls were slow, to reorganizing Internal Affairs to handle citizen complaints.
Jacobs says the secret to her administrative success is simple: Have justification for what you feel is the right thing, and then do it.
"That's my view on decision-making," she says. "If I can explain to the media, the employees, my family, my pastor and the officer involved, I must be doing the right thing. I always have justification for what I do and why I am doing it that way."
That remains true even when her decisions prove controversial.
Such was the case three years ago when Distelzweig put Jacobs in charge of redrawing patrol zones, which resulted in the absorption of one patrol into surrounding districts and another split into two. In an effort to improve coverage, patrol schedules were changed to assign officers to the "busiest times of the day, the busiest days of the week," Distelzweig said in an NBC-4 interview in 2010. It resulted in fewer weekends off for officers-and a vocal backlash from the Fraternal Order of Police.
Jacobs says she tackled the task as she would any organizational project-with honesty.
"We had to do something to adjust our staffing and create new precincts that had been talked about since 1996," she says. "It was not a popular thing, but everyone recognized it as a needed thing. Once it started impacting assignments and lives, then it got nasty.
"I invited everyone to come to a meeting, and 400 to 500 came. I explained why not so many could have weekends off. I looked them in the eye and told them what we needed. That's what leadership is about-doing what you think is the right thing.
"It's the waiting and the unknown that are the worst, not the outcome. Once we get to the outcome, people settle in and do their job, and it's all good. I totally get how upset people were, but I knew it wouldn't be as bad as they thought."
But the ramifications lasted long after officers had come to grips with the new schedule. So bitter was the reorganization response that in December 2011, after the search to replace a retiring Distelzweig was under way, the police union said it was willing to go against its own policies and let Coleman hire a chief from outside the division.
All to keep Jacobs from the top spot.
"There are just a lot of issues internally right now," Sgt. Jim Gilbert, president for FOP Capitol City Lodge 9, told Columbus Monthly in December 2011. "Morale is terrible. It's continued to be terrible. You need somebody that is going to come in and pick that back up."
"A lot of the issues we have internally are with her," Gilbert added.
Coleman, however, was not to be dissuaded from seeking the best person for the job. The mayor says Jacobs scored highest in the three areas he identified as his main criteria: the ability to lead from the front, not from the rear; an eye for fiscal responsibility with the police budget; and a willingness to try new things.
"She is the right person for the right time," he says. "I have 100 percent faith in her. I know she cares about this department so much. She cares about the officers-all the rank and file. She is deeply passionate about their safety, their families.
"She loves the city of Columbus. She worked hard, and she has earned the privilege to be the chief. … She's earned it, and she deserves it."LGBT LEADERS
Kimberley Jacobs will accept that she is a trailblazer when it comes to women in policing, but as a lesbian in leadership, she is grateful the road was already paved.
"Other people who are gay have blazed that trail," says Jacobs, who has been with her partner Bobbi Bedinghaus for seven years. "I didn't have to. And I give them all the credit."
Jacobs was married to a man for two decades and said that allowed fellow officers to get to know her in a different light. Now, her sexuality is just part of who she is. "I haven't felt anyone make a big deal about it, which is great," she says. "It's a non-issue."
Although she won't define herself by her sexuality, she recognizes her new role gives even more credibility to a rising movement. "I think it shows gay people work hard, too," she says, "and they can be trusted."
Coleman says neither Jacobs' gender nor sexual orientation entered into his decision to hire her, any more than they entered into his choice three years ago to pass her over. But after selecting his new chief, he knew he had made a bold statement for Columbus.
"It was clearly a historic moment for the city, worth celebrating and acknowledging, and I'm proud I'm the one who made it," he says. "It sets the city in extremely good light around the country."
Even more importantly, Coleman says, he selected a chief who will lead with the well-being of the city, its residents and its police officers paramount.
Jacobs says officers need to know their chief "has their back," and she will strive to make their jobs easier so they will continue to serve the city.
"We ask them for 25 to 30 years," she says. "This is not a job where you come and go. These people have a calling. They sign on for the long haul. I want to keep them motivated by saying, 'I'm taking care of business behind the scenes, so you can do your job.' "
Chief Jacobs' openness has already caught the attention of many accustomed to a much different Columbus Division of Police-although those who know her are not surprised.
Jacobs has also earned the respect of at least one former adversary. Gilbert says that his dealings have been "very positive" with Jacobs since her promotion, and her accessibility has given him an increased level of respect for his new chief.
Not only does she answer the phone and email well into the night to keep communication lines open, but he also calls her an "out-of-the-box thinker," already striving to improve life for cops on the beat by simply listening.
"She spends a considerable amount of time at roll calls, stopping and talking to officers," Gilbert says. "We never had a chief stop and ask, 'What do you think about the computer reporting system? Give me some examples where I can do better to make changes so you can do your job better.' She spends a lot of time listening. She already has a legal-pad full of suggestions. She is working very hard to hear concerns."
And she is working equally hard to make her officers feel appreciated.
Jacobs tells the story of a recent visit to the burglary department, after she received a compliment from fellow members of her church regarding the work of an off-duty officer on special detail for a rummage sale.
Rather than just send a message, Jacobs stopped in to burglary and told the officer, "I just wanted to let you know I had a very good compliment about you-so good I wanted to pass it along in person. Thanks so much for letting people have a positive impression of you and the division."
"He was shocked," Jacobs recalls with a grin. "He says, 'I've never seen a chief here-the chief is in burglary!' Heads started popping up from cubicles all over."
Jacobs says she has the same attitude toward Columbus residents, who deserve a chief who comes to them, as opposed to ruling from on high. She attended her fair share of town meetings staged by longtime Chief James Jackson, but her approach leans more toward attending meetings set by residents for residents.
"We're part of the community, so I'll be part of that community," she says. "They meet when they meet. I'll be there, whenever it is."
With her present schedule, Jacobs seems to literally mean "whenever."BLUE CEILING
Supporters of women's equality may wish that Kimberley Jacobs represented a trend of more women becoming police chiefs, but statistics prove otherwise.
A survey by the National Center for Women in Policing found about 235 female police chiefs out of 18,000 departments, which equates to 1.3 percent, says director Margaret Moore.
Cities including San Francisco, Milwaukee and Boston have welcomed female police chiefs in the past, while some of the most prominent women in current positions include Washington, D.C.'s Cathy Lanier, Newark, N.J.'s Sheilah A. Coley and Tampa Bay, Fla.'s Jane Castor, who is also part of the LGBT community.
But their numbers are not necessarily growing.
"When some larger cities name a female chief, there is more of a focus on the national level…and that may make people think the number is higher than it is," Moore says. "Policing is still male-dominated. From 20 to 30 years ago, we have made some strides, but we are still not at a level where we are at a critical mass and can make huge changes."
She works seven days a week, which leaves little time for her longtime hobbies of bicycling, gardening, reading and golfing-or even for getting to the gym (though she tries to get in one visit a week). Jacobs, who divorced her husband in 2005, also tries to carve out time to spend with her life partner of seven years, Bobbi Bedinghaus, a sign-language instructor, and her grown sons, Sam and Pete, and to care for her ailing parents.
"[Bobbi] is very good about the long hours," says Jacobs, who also shares their home with Bobbi's daughter, Carly, an incoming freshman at the Mount Carmel College of Nursing, and a pair of Wheaten terriers. "She says, 'Do whatever you have to do.' Eventually it will slow down. There is only one chance to make a first impression as a chief. Every meeting I have in this role is important."
That role is made even more significant by the place Jacobs holds in history, and her recognition that failing in her new position will ripple far beyond her own career to shake up the future of women officers everywhere.
She has already told division recruiters she wants to hire more women, who currently make up 11 percent of the division's 1,860 officers, and knows the next girl sitting in a pizza shop dreaming of a life in law enforcement may be helped or hurt by Jacobs' moves.
"How successful I am will determine how quickly it happens again," she says of a female chief being named. "I recognize they might not want to take a chance on another one if I don't do well. … This is first time it's happened. But now that we are through the door, the door will stay open, in my opinion.
"It feels like a lot of responsibility…[but] I have a lot of confidence that as the team gets bigger, and people get to know me, we'll have a lot of success. When that happens, I won't be a female chief. I'll just be the chief."
Freelance writer Nicole Kraft teaches journalism at Ohio State University.