Portland Greets Its New Female Police Chief with a Warm 'May the Force Be with You!'

Penny Harrington wanted a promotion. It was 1969, and after five rough years in the Portland, Oreg. Police Women’s Protective Division, dealing with runaways, wife beatings, juvenile crime and battered children, she figured she deserved one. Her repeated applications to become a detective were rejected, but Harrington refused to be discouraged. Instead, she enlisted other disgruntled female police officers and filed sex-discrimination complaints with the state and federal governments. Both on the force and on the streets, Harrington was vilified as a “pushy broad,” a “rabble-rouser,” a “troublemaker.” Recalls Harrington, 42, “I got obscene phone calls and hate mail, but I stuck with it.”

And how. Many promotions and 40 sex-discrimination complaint victories (with no losses) later, Harrington’s Sisyphean tenacity has paid off. Last week the career policewoman copped a coveted appointment to become America’s first woman big-city police chief, beating out 17 other applicants. “I’m happy that she’s a woman, but what’s important is that we got a good police chief,” said Portland Mayor Bud Clark. “She’s been in the trenches fighting for the past 21 years.”

Around the police bureau, from beat patrol to top brass, the appointment of the incorrigible “rabble-rouser” was greeted with a chorus of enthusiasm despite the antagonisms of her decade-long legal assault. “Penny was seen as a problem person,” says Deputy Police Chief Robert Tobin. “There was a general attitude of ‘Be careful of what you say and do because she’ll sue us.’ But it’s obvious that every issue she tackled needed to be addressed.” At Portland’s busy East Precinct, which she commanded from 1982 on, the new chief earned praise for her street-smarts and her accessibility. “She’s a listener,” says Officer Scott Anderson. “She’s aware of what’s happening in the ranks below her.”

The oldest of four children of a steel-company foreman in Lansing, Mich., Harrington wanted to be a legal secretary until she visited her hometown police department during a high school “career week.” Graduating from Michigan State with a B.S. in police administration in 1964, she and her husband—a classmate in the same program—moved to Portland, where she ran up against entrenched police sexism. While her husband was quickly hired by the sheriff’s department, Penny languished in secretarial jobs for months before getting a position with the Women’s Protective Division. “Women couldn’t transfer, and they couldn’t be promoted,” she says. “Finally I learned the magic words, ‘I’m going to sue.’ ”

Her first legal victory helped land her a detective position in the burglary and fraud division; she moved steadily upward from there, though the battle took a personal toll. In 1971 her marriage broke up, leaving her with a 4-year-old son; three years later, suffering from physical and mental exhaustion, she spent nine months on disability leave. (Typically, she successfully fought to have the department pay to treat work-related stress problems.) Returning to the force in full health in July 1975, she moved from patrol sergeant steadily upward to the force’s top job.

Now her personal life has come together, too. In 1982 Penny married police personnel officer Gary Harrington, 42, with whom she lives in a spacious home overlooking the Willamette River. (Gary endures the predictable joshing with good humor.) As the commander of an 800-member force and a $40 million budget, earning $56,000, Harrington knows the new job brings new pressures. “Whatever I do will be dissected, picked apart and held up to the light,” she says. But she appears to relish the scrutiny. “I’m an example of someone who has taken on the system and survived,” she says. “Every battle has been worth it.”

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