HUGHSON — Janet Rasmussen started her career in law enforcement as a high school senior. She volunteered weekends and summers as a clerk and dispatcher at the Hanford Police Department.
One day when the police chief walked through the room, Rasmussen reflected on her future.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, the chief of police,' " she said. "And I remember thinking, 'As a woman, I never will know what that feels like or be in that position.' "
This was in the mid-1970s, and Rasmussen thought becoming a dispatcher would be as far as she would rise in law enforcement. But she was wrong.
She became a police officer and sheriff's deputy in Tulare County. Rasmussen joined the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department in 1991 and her assignments included working as a hostage negotiator, field training officer and police academy instructor.
Rasmussen also ran the Stanislaus County Jail and the Honor Farm before becoming Hughson's police chief in 2005. Hughson is one of the four cities that contracts with the Sheriff's Department for police services.
Rasmussen, 53, retires Friday after 36 years in law enforcement.
"God had other plans for me," she said. "I really have been blessed. I had one of my friends (say), 'It's a good goodbye.' It is because there are no regrets. I feel like I've done everything I could to the best of my ability."
Rasmussen will spend her retirement doting on her nearly 2-year-old grandson and traveling. She is planning a family trip to Madeira Island in Portugal, which is where her father's parents came from.
Hughson City Councilwoman Jill Silva said she was impressed whenever Rasmussen recognized one of her deputies at a council meeting or told the council about a layoff.
"You could just tell in the words she said and the way she said it, she took a lot of pride in her staff and it tore her up when she had to let people go," said Silva, who also is the county's assistant chief probation officer. "You could tell she really cared."
As a child growing up in Kings County, Rasmussen wanted to become a veterinarian. But as a high school senior, she was with two girlfriends one day who were talking with a Hanford cop. He suggested one of the friends look into becoming a dispatcher.
Rasmussen was intrigued and talked to her high school counselor. The counselor set up interviews with the Kings County Sheriff's Department and the Hanford Police Department. The Sheriff's Department was not interested, but the Police Department was and she started volunteering.
Police work appealed to Rasmussen because it was a way to help people.
"We see people at their absolute worst," she said, "whether they are a victim or a suspect. We have an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. We can give people hope.
"I felt like that was something I able to do. On each call I went on I thought, 'If I were the victim, how would I like to be treated?' Whether in patrol or the jail, I made sure I treated people with common decency. You'd be surprised that even people behind bars will respond to being treated with compassion."
Fighting a stereotype
When Rasmussen became a peace officer, she had to battle the prejudice that women should not be cops. She said the stereotype was that women did not belong in patrol cars because they would sit in the cars and cry because of the pressure and stress.
Rasmussen said her track record and the track record of other women of her generation dispelled those misconceptions. She said she believes the barriers women faced starting in the 1970s and 1980s have disappeared.
Sheriff's Lt. Tori Hughes said in her 12 years with the department, she cannot recall another female officer with any local agency who has served as long as Rasmussen.
"I think that is a huge success, not only for Janet but for anyone who gives 36 years," said Hughes, who is Patterson's police chief, one of the other contract cities. "We see more in a week than most people see in a lifetime."
Hughes said it can be intimidating for women to enter law enforcement.
"Being a female, you always have to prove yourself," she said. "In training, the first thing fellow officers want to see — can you fight? If you are not afraid to get in there and take care of business."
More women on the force
Women made up nearly 12 percent of the officers with local police departments in 2007, up from 7.6 percent in 1987, according to a Justice Department study. The study also found that after reaching a high of 15.6 percent in 1997, the percentage of female deputies with sheriff's departments declined to 11.2 percent in 2007.
But the study says a change in methodology may account for some of the decline.
Rasmussen had a lot of firsts in her career, such as first female patrol sergeant for the Tulare County Sheriff's Department and first female police chief for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.
But she said her advancement came through hard work and the bumps and bruises that come with experience.
"I did not want a position because I was a woman," she said. "I wanted the position because I earned it."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.