By David Allen
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Calif.
As the new leader of the Chino Police Department gave me a tour of the headquarters, colleagues we encountered employed a respectful form of address never before used with a police chief in this community: ma’am.
Karen Comstock was sworn in Dec. 11 and appears to be only the second female police chief in San Bernardino County history.
Comstock’s rise is unusual in one respect. Only 25 of 330 police chiefs in California are women. Yet she’s a good fit in Chino, where she joined the Police Department as a teen volunteer nearly three decades ago and spent the past five years as a captain.
“She worked her way up the ladder, every rank in the department. I don’t think we’ve ever had a chief who did that, starting with Explorer Scout and cadet,” the previous chief, Miles Pruitt, told me days before his retirement.
While Pruitt said Comstock’s shattering of the glass ceiling is “great,” he was quick to say she is highly respected and that her promotion is the logical next step.
As Pruitt told the City Council on Dec. 2, “if you like what’s going on at the department, you can credit Karen for a lot of the innovation and creative ideas.”
Chino deployed on-body cameras for its officers in April, making the department among the first locally to do so. At 45, Comstock is among a younger generation of police administrators comfortable with technology.
She’s homegrown too, although she spent her early years in El Monte. Her family moved to Chino for an affordable home when she was in fourth grade.
“All my family members were like, ‘Where’s Chino?’ I thought we moved to the middle of nowhere,” she recalled with a smile.
Her first day of school was on Doris Dickson Elementary’s opening day. (On her walk home, she got lost.) She went on to attend Ramona Junior High and Don Lugo High, where she graduated in 1987. A handmade banner outside her office reads: “Your Don Lugo family is proud of you, Chief Comstock.”
Her promotion might easily not have happened. In 1997, seeking a change from patrolling the streets of her hometown, she left for the Carlsbad Police Department.
“I realized I’d made a terrible mistake,” Comstock said. “I was back three months later.”
She contrasted herself with slugger Albert Pujols, who threw away his hometown good will in St. Louis for greener pastures with the Angels, with inconsistent results. (As a Cards fan, I appreciated the analogy.) She might not be a good fit in just any police department, she said, but in Chino she feels she is.
“I feel very honored to be the chief of such a great department. And we are a great department. Not perfect,” Comstock said. “but great.”
She doesn’t dwell on her status as her department’s first female leader. Doing so might make it seem like she didn’t earn it, or that simply being chief isn’t achievement enough.
Perhaps out of modesty, she considers herself the county’s third-ever female police chief, including not only Dianne Burns, who led Barstow’s department from 2007 to 2012, but Michelle Scray, the county’s chief probation officer.
I had to ask her twice for her reaction to get a direct comment.
“While I feel honored to be the first woman, it’s a testament that anybody who joins the department and works hard can accomplish any career objective they have for themselves,” Comstock said.
As you’d expect, it hasn’t been easy.
Originally she’d entertained thoughts of becoming an English teacher. Then on career day at Don Lugo High in 1985, she met two Chino police reservists — one of them was Pruitt, the future chief — and signed up for a ride-along.
They didn’t capture any killers that night, but squeezed into the back seat of a police cruiser with three other students, Comstock found the evening fascinating.
Then 15, she became an Explorer Scout and, after graduation two years later, a cadet. Chief Jim Anthony hired her as a reserve officer and she joined the department full time as an officer in 1990 after graduating from the academy.
Her parents, Randy and Christine McGuffee, were supportive, but they had qualms about the riskiness of a law-enforcement career.
“I think they were mortified their oldest daughter was going to be a police officer,” Comstock reflected.
Other relatives were protective, too. One day on patrol Comstock had pulled over to talk to a pedestrian when she noticed a motorist across the street watching from a parked car. When backup arrived, Comstock approached the looky-loo driver, who turned out to be her aunt Marsha. She had stood by in case her niece needed help.
Her field training officer gave her advice when she asked how to prove herself: Work hard and handle your beat. That would give her a good reputation.
“That’s what I stuck to. Work hard. My reputation will be built with these guys one day at a time,” Comstock recalled.
Veteran female cops say that men often didn’t take a woman in a uniform seriously.
“There was a time when they said, No, I want a real officer. And then they were sent to the watch commander, who was me,” said Katie Roberts, who began her career in 1963 and retired from the Ontario Police Department in 2004 as a captain.
I asked Comstock for stories.
“There’s such a flood of them, but they’re all so inappropriate,” Comstock murmured.
Suspects often would call her “hon,” “babe” or “sugar.” Sometimes she would sharply tell them to refer to her by her title or last name. It’s possible they were trying to be polite, she says now.
Then there was the Great Hairdo To-Do. In the early 1990s, management decided that Chino officers’ hair needed to be above the collar — no exceptions. Comstock and the only other woman on the force, Karen Cragg, both wore their hair in a bun or a ponytail. They were told they were out of policy.
“You’re basically telling us we have to wear hairnets?” Comstock recalled saying to a lieutenant, who replied, “If that’s what you gotta do, that’s what you gotta do.”
So that’s what they did, both wearing hairnets while on patrol. It was humiliating. A 7-Eleven clerk eyed Comstock as she bought snacks during her shift and cracked, “Are you moonlighting at McDonald’s?”
Male officers urged management to lighten up and after a week the policy was changed.
Cragg had joined the department three years before Comstock and treated her like a little sister.
“We knew we were walking into a man’s world. We accepted that, good, bad or indifferent. It was our choice. We wanted to be there,” Cragg told me.
At the end of their shifts, they often talked quietly in the locker room, going over the day’s highs and lows. If they cried, they did it there, in private, where their male peers couldn’t see.
Comstock was under additional pressure because she was pursuing a bachelor’s in business management and then a master’s in organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix while working a high-stress job.
“I went home sometimes pretty discouraged,” Comstock admitted. But she was determined.
“I wanted to be successful here as a woman. They kept investing in me. I felt I should keep paying that forward,” she said.
She made lieutenant in 2007 and captain two years later, working under Pruitt, a mentor. Her appointment as his successor was made by City Manager Matthew Ballantyne and announced in July.
Her friend Cragg, now an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, said Chino couldn’t have made a better choice.
“I always knew she was destined for greatness. She was just a kid when I met her, but I could tell,” Cragg said. “I want to cry, I’m so proud of her.”
When Comstock was sworn in, Cragg gave her a dozen roses — and a hairnet.
Comstock herself has an impish sense of humor. At the Dec. 2 council meeting, Pruitt was showered with accolades by council members and legislators. Comstock was then introduced as the next chief.
“I’m probably the one person here who’s happy Miles is leaving,” she deadpanned to much laughter.
Still, befitting a police chief, she’s kind of a square. Her office has a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a print of George Washington crossing the Delaware. She speaks earnestly about helping others and the positive feelings that engenders. “This will sound corny, but my biggest role model was my mom,” she said.
The chief is married to Donna Cox, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer whom she met in 1998 at a conference. They wed quietly during the brief window in 2008 in which gay marriage was legal in California. Some in the department may not know, Comstock said, because she doesn’t talk about her personal life unless asked.
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“My job is to lead the organization, not promote a cause,” Comstock said.
That organization was established in 1926 when Chino incorporated. Comstock is its 17th chief. The department has a $30 million budget, 157 employees and an average of 75 volunteers.
Of the 103 sworn personnel, just four are women, including Comstock. I had her count them and she was visibly dismayed by the result.
“At one point we had 11,” she said. Some leave for other departments, some for family reasons, others for a safer career. No woman has ever retired.
“I hate to lose them. We need diversity in the department,” Comstock said.
With a woman at the top setting an example, perhaps future female recruits will be inspired to stay.