|Thursday, October 29, 2020
By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole News and Guide
Weber, who has thrived in male-dominated institutions, hopes to guide Jackson Police Department well into the future.
Three decades ago Michelle Weber was given her choice of U.S. Army gigs as a reward for graduating at the top of her University of Wyoming Reserve Officer Training Corps class. Her choice was helicopter pilot. For a reason she now recounts with a smile and arm stretch, the aspiration didn’t quite pan out.
“My arms weren’t long enough,” she said. “I pleaded with them.”
Having short arms was only a temporary setback. Weber’s backup selection, engineer officer, was not blockaded by the stringent physical specifications sometimes demanded of those who serve in the military. She relished the role, which segued into a 22-year stint with an Army Reserve company.
Weber, 51, is today the acting chief of the Jackson Police Department, having been selected in the wake of Todd Smith’s retirement last summer. Although in an interim position, she’s vying for and eager to hold the permanent post.
The job of acting chief of police has Weber commanding a 28-person patrol staff, including reserve officers. Policing in America remains a maledominated profession — barely more than 10% of officers nationally are female — but at least for the time being Jackson is bucking the trend, and the department is tilted more toward gender equality. Today there are seven female officers on patrol.
“We have more females working for this department right now than we have ever had in the history of the police department,” Weber said. “I have one in background right now, and assuming she gets hired that will be eight females on patrol. That’s a crazy statistic when you think of the percentage of a police department to consist of female officers.”
Internal records suggest that it’s not an entirely rosy picture for all women in the Jackson Police Department and that there are misogynistic elements to the culture.
In August the News& Guide published a story that detailed a former female officer’s complaints of a fraternity- like culture where she was hit on by her boss and didn’t feel safe, according to court documents filed in Teton County Circuit Court.
“There were frequent racist, sexist and toxic comments regularly made,” the departed officer wrote. “I often left the station if I did not have pressing work there in order to avoid these conversations and this environment.”
Former Lt. Roger Schultz asked the officer if she was a lesbian in front of “many co-workers,” the documents alleged. Weber, then a sergeant, was “completely appalled.”
Just before that story broke Weber was promoted to be the acting police chief. She condemned recent actions within the department and promised to do better. “The current transition provides us an opportunity to thoroughly reassess our policies and procedures, programs and operations, to look for areas where we can be more efficient, effective and community-oriented,” Weber wrote in a letter.
Professionally, Weber said she’s never felt handicapped because of her gender, even having spent much of her career in a male-dominated workforce.
“I feel fortunate,” she said, “because I would say a lot of females don’t feel that way.”
Weber’s path to policing didn’t directly stem from her military days, which included noncombat tours of duty in South Korea. She also didn’t necessarily have a yearning to get into law enforcement, even though while in Laramie as an undergrad she majored in criminal justice. Instead the move to the police department was more of a logical next step.
“I think it was just trying to find the right field where I could best serve my community,” Weber said. “I was spending a lot of time away from home with my military duties. It was kind of a tradeoff. I told my husband that I’ll get out of the military and enter the law enforcement field, though truth be told I did both for about seven years.”
In 2004, at 35 years old, she came on with the police department, having bested 36 other prospective officers in fitness tests at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy in Douglas. “I can hold my own,” she told a News& Guide reporter for a “Close Up” story at the time. The dedication to fitness has persisted. Sitting down with the newspaper 16 years later, she had just come off a long weekend when she ran backto- back-to-back half marathons near Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks.
In her earliest days at the police department, Weber trained on patrol under Tony Matthews. Now she’s his boss, a reversal in hierarchy he welcomed — and prophesized.
“I don’t know if she would remember this, but while she was training I believe I told her I fully expected that she would be my supervisor someday,” Matthews said.
“And here we are.”
The veteran officer dubbed his current chief a “good, open leader” and the right person for the job during a moment in history when police departments nationwide are under heightened scrutiny.
“She’s super dedicated to public organizing and is very dynamic going out and meeting with different groups in the community,” Matthews said. “She’s prepared herself for this through education, training and her own desire. She’s got a ton of self-driven desire to be the best she can be and expose herself to everything that she can so she’s aware of what’s going on.”
Weber went back to...