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Investigator goes from chasing cops to being one

Posted: Friday, January 17, 2003

Packing a piece, riding a hog, cuffing the bad guys - gosh, it's fun being a girl.

As one of only three women on the 47-member Juneau police force and with only five years in law enforcement, Investigator Kris Sell already has cracked difficult sex-offender cases, was the first woman to be accepted to the SWAT team, and learned to outrun the boys - all without forgetting who she is.

"I greatly enjoy being a girl," said Sell. "You don't have to lose your femininity when you become a cop. You just find a side of you that you didn't know you could have. I get the best of both worlds because I can be feminine and at the same time pursue some more masculine things.

"I enjoy needlepoint and crochet, riding motorcycles, shooting my AK15. Shooting's actually not that much different from needlepoint."

But Sell said growing up on a farm in Montana with her dad prepared her to look beyond gender roles. She said she was as comfortable milking a cow - as comfortable as one could be milking a cow, she said - as she was doing housework, because so was her dad.

From a young age Sell said she had the yen to investigate the world, ferret out injustice and right societal wrongs. She ended up in broadcast journalism in Missoula, Mont.

"I got the chance to live the most interesting slices of everyone else's life," Sell said. "I did a lot of cops and courts stories, and I got to know a lot of the cops because most likely when a semi was falling off a cliff at 2 in the morning I was the only other person there with them. ... As a journalist you can only know so much. You'll still always be an outsider."

Tip for a new cop

Juneau police officer Kris Sell got some advice early in her law-enforcement career from her uncle a sheriff in a small town in Nebraska. (Her aunt takes police dispatch calls in the couple's living room.)

The uncle told her what to do if she was called to break up a fight.

"He told me, 'Don't be in a rush to get to a fight,' " she said. " 'Give them a little time to tire themselves out.' "

But Sell wasn't satisfied personally, and financially she was barely making enough to live. In her mid-20s she decided to make a change. After moving from Montana to Juneau she entered the real estate industry. She was making more money, for sure, but the job "wasn't something you jumped out of bed every morning and were excited to do."

She heard the Juneau Police Department was recruiting and finally listened to her instincts, she said. She was accepted into the state-run law enforcement academy in Sitka and at age 28 she was embarking on her third career.

"My family not so subtly told me they thought I'd completely lost my mind," she said.

It wasn't just her family who had to accept Sell's change, she said.

"My husband had to get used to me cleaning my guns while I watch TV in the living room," she said. "And when I first got out of the academy my hair was really short and I had been working out pretty hard. ... I'm letting my hair grow out now. I think he's glad I'm out of my 'G.I. Jane' phase."

But the biggest adjustment was Sell's alone.

"Women think they have to have this inherent knowledge of how to contact a suspect and detain them, but you are taught all of that," she said. "You may not have had a football coach to teach you how to tackle somebody. I mean I was never allowed to climb a rope when I was a kid in gym class. ... But you'd be astounded at what you can accomplish."

Although it wasn't always easy, in Juneau at least there wasn't much of a "glass ceiling" to break through, she said.

"I think a lot of the people who may have had a problem with women on the force, if there were any, have been done away with through attrition," she said. "I mean some of the guys will use me to motivate the other guys. They'll say, 'You're being outrun by a girl.' But I don't mind. Because I am outrunning them."

If her male cohorts have a problem with her femininity, they don't show it.

"Usually when men and women work as closely as we do here, there is always some tiptoeing around so no one gets their feelings hurt," said fellow investigator Keith Mickelsen. "Kris does not have that problem. If we say something she does not like, she lets us know about it. It is dealt with and we move on. ... She does not harbor hard feelings."

Mickelsen admitted, though, that the guys sometimes have a little fun at her expense. He recalled a time when she bought a fetching pair of camouflaged semi-formal pants.

"She paid an outrageous price for these pants and was afraid her husband would find out," he said. "She begged us not to tell. ... I think she did tell him, but knowing Kris, she made it sound like she got a good deal because she could wear them dancing and to work in the same day."

Sell said she has never regretted jumping into law enforcement and hopes she can encourage other women to do the same.

"It's an awakening," she said. "It's painful in a lot of ways. You question who you are, what you can do, and you are totally changed. It pushed me mentally, emotionally and physically.

"I can't imagine being anything else for the rest of my life."

Melanie Plenda can be reached mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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