Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
10:56 pm EST
Tuesday, November 30, 2021

To Protect And Serve

Women in law enforcement take on many roles on the job and at home.

The women who serve as law enforcement officers throughout Lake and Sumter counties have traveled various paths to their chosen profession. They manage challenging schedules at work and at home, face concerns about their safety from family members, and strive to be role models. And there’s no job they’d rather have. Here are the stories of eight of these women.

As a teenager, Jessica Howell became a mother during her junior year at Mount Dora High School and dropped out of school.

“I don’t think anyone thought I would do much with myself at that point,” she says.

Jessica Howell. Photo: Fred Lopez

People couldn’t have been more wrong. Jessica obtained her GED, attended Lake Technical College’s Institute of Public Safety, and became the first member of her family to get a college degree, a bachelor’s in criminal justice administration from Columbia Southern University.

Now she’s a corporal with the Mount Dora Police Department, where she’s worked for 12 years.

“As a young mom with limited opportunity, I faced a lot of difficulty and obstacles. I made the decision to go back to school because I wanted to make a better life for my son,” Jessica says. “When I decided to become a police officer, I felt it was a profession that I could be proud of, that my son could be proud of, and that it would allow me the opportunity to be a strong role model for my son as well as a loving mother, and allow me to provide a stable environment to raise him in.”

Working in community relations, Jessica promotes community involvement and crime prevention, and also responds to calls for service. On road patrol the previous three years, she often encountered dangerous situations and was honored by the department for apprehending an armed bank robbery suspect.

She raised her son, Joshua, now 15, on her own until a few years ago, when she met her future husband, Jeramy, who also has a son, Jase, 5. Balancing home life and work can be difficult, she says.

“As a mother, my first concern is always my children, and long hours can really inhibit my ability to give them the time I would like to,” Jessica says. “Over the years, I have sacrificed time with my family, I’ve missed soccer games and school recitals, and been late to parent meetings. But I make sure my family knows they are my number one priority by making the time we do have together count.”

Athena Ross. Photo: Fred Lopez

When it comes to juggling work and family, Athena Ross has a built-in advantage: her husband.

She and her South Sumter High School sweetheart, Michael, both majored in criminology at the University of South Florida and attended the police academy together. Now they’ve been married nine years, have a 3-year-old daughter, Brylee, and are sergeants with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.

“My husband inspired me to make the choice to become a law enforcement officer, and we have helped each other from the start,” Athena says. “I am so grateful I share my work and home life with my husband, who supports me and understands what I face in the field when I am not at home. I think he understands better than a spouse that is not a cop would.”

Stress and safety are concerns for the couple, but the job’s not a drawback to family life.

“I don’t think it is hard to balance my work and home life because I don’t think about it, I just do it,” Athena says.

Athena, who has a master’s in criminal justice administration from St. Leo University, started at the sheriff’s office 12 years ago. As a road patrol supervisor, she responds to 911 calls that can involve homicides, child abuse, domestic battery, and other tense situations. That sometimes creates stress for her family, especially since she became a mother.

“I don’t think at first my parents or siblings really understood what it would be like for me as a female deputy,” Athena says. “My parents have always expressed concern for my safety in the field and they would rather see me do something less dangerous. As the years have passed, they have just adapted to it, and I try not to tell the scary stories that would worry them more.”


All in the family

Like Athena, many women in law enforcement have partners at home who work in the same profession.

Amanda Galbreath. Photo: Fred Lopez

Deputy Amanda Galbreath, of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, lives with her boyfriend, Robert Casaburi, a master deputy with the LCSO, and together they have five children from previous relationships.

Born in Leesburg, Amanda was inspired to go into public safety by an uncle, Steve Race, a captain with Lake County Fire Rescue.

“He recruited me at a young age as a volunteer firefighter,” Amanda says. “Every call I responded to, I became more and more interested in the law enforcement aspect of the call.”

On road patrol, Amanda works 12-hour shifts and also serves as a field training officer. She and partner Richard Sylvester recently received a Meritorious Service Award for taking a knife away from a man who was trying to commit suicide.

Amanda’s parents are proud of her accomplishments though they were “not very excited” about her job choice in the beginning, she says. Her mother gains some relief by keeping tabs on Amanda on the job through a phone app. 

“Most law enforcement officers could agree that our chosen career is a calling,” Amanda says. “I am devoted to making our community a safer place to live in. My career is challenging in many ways. It allows me to help others solve problems and make better choices. It gives me a huge sense of pride to protect the community that I was born and raised in.”

And she comes home to an understanding family.

“In our home, our work is constantly discussed as it truly is our family business,” Amanda says. “My kids think that it’s pretty cool that their mom works to make our community a safer place. Robert is very supportive and inspiring. He makes me want to be a better person and the best deputy every day.”

Having a spouse in the same job isn’t always easy, says Clermont police Officer Erin Razo, who’s married to a sergeant with the department and has four children ranging in age from 3 to 18.

“With both my husband and I being in the same line of work, it can be difficult at times. We have a strong family foundation which helps us get through it,” she says. “One of the drawbacks is that we miss family events together. We sometimes go days where we only see each other in passing.”

On the other hand, Erin thinks it’s also beneficial that she and her husband work in the same field because they understand how demanding the job can be.

Born and raised in Florida, Erin graduated high school in Citrus County, and completed the police academy in 2008. She has taken several law enforcement-related training courses.

“I chose to become a police officer because I wanted to do something that mattered and to be a part of something that had purpose,” she says.

Erin has been with the Clermont police for nine years and currently works 12-hour night shifts in the patrol division.

“I respond to all types of calls for service ranging from simple traffic-related calls to high-stress calls,” she says. “My family does worry about me responding to high-stress calls, but they know that I have been trained to do my job.”

Amanda Abston. Photo: Fred Lopez

Given today’s turbulent society, it’s only natural for people to be concerned about the safety of the police, says Senior Officer Amanda Abston, of the Leesburg Police Department. She says she relies on a great squad of officers who look out for each other.

“I have encountered several situations that could have resulted in injury or worse during my time in law enforcement,” she says. “As police officers, we are often called to deal with precarious situations involving desperate or irate individuals. These subjects are often intent on causing harm to whomever gets in their way, and more often than not, law enforcement is that entity.”

Amanda always wanted to go into law enforcement because “police officers get the opportunity to influence their communities and make a difference in people’s lives.” She attended Lake Tech’s Institute of Public Safety and is continuing her education at Seminole State College. Her husband, Ryan, is a Leesburg police corporal, and she has a stepdaughter. 

She’s currently assigned to road patrol and also is utilized as a field training officer. Like most officers, Amanda works 84 hours during a two-week cycle. 

“The most difficult aspect is probably the schedule,” she says. “My husband and I always have different schedules. One of us will always be on night shift, while the other is on day shift. Working 12 hours a day, especially when it is night shift, makes it difficult to have any family time together and often requires giving up a lot of sleep.”


Changing directions

A job as a finance manager in the automobile business would seem to beat working 12-hour night shifts and risking your life. But it wasn’t enough for Crystal Stuller, a deputy with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.

“The job was a lucrative position, but I realized there was more to life than just making a paycheck,” she says. “I wanted a career that brought fulfillment and happiness and found just that in law enforcement.”

Originally from Pasco County, Crystal went to the police academy at the College of Central Florida Criminal Justice Institute in Ocala.

Crystal Stuller. Photo: Fred Lopez

“Initially, my family was concerned about my decision to pursue a career in law enforcement, but their concern quickly turned to support once they realized I was determined to pursue that line of work,” Crystal says. 

She’s assigned to the Professional Standards Bureau, where she primarily conducts background investigations of new employees and also conducts internal affairs investigations. Previously, she was on road patrol for several years.  

“As a law enforcement officer, you never know what you will encounter and have to be prepared for anything at all times,” Crystal says. “The job of a deputy can be very stressful due to the everyday risks that are associated with the position.”

The deputy also has the responsibility of taking care of her 4-year-old daughter.

“As a working mother, it can be very challenging trying to juggle work and home life at the same time,” Crystal says. “I am grateful for my family and my close friends, who have provided a good support system and have helped me balance my professional and personal life.”

Darla Blackwell. Photo: Fred Lopez

Darla Blackwell also switched careers after many years of building a life. The 1997 Eustis High School graduate had three kids, worked in retail, and attended Lake-Sumter State College on and off. She eventually graduated in 2016 and, on the suggestion of a neighbor, pursued law enforcement training. 

With the help of her parents and friends, she continued working full time while attending night classes at the Valencia College School of Public Safety in Orlando. In December, the single mother became an officer with the Mount Dora Police Department.

“As cliché as it sounds, I chose to go into law enforcement to help others and make a difference,” Darla says. “The experiences I’ve been through in my life have prepared me to be a mentor and an influence to those I come in contact with.”

Darla is in training as a patrol officer. Every encounter is treated as potentially dangerous because the moment an officer lets their guard down, they put their life in jeopardy, she says.

“My family is proud of my decision to go into law enforcement,” Darla says. “They understand the risks of the profession but know that with my training at the academy and at the police department that I am able to do my job safely.”

She even likes the patrol hours better than those in retail, where she worked eight to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

“In this profession, I have found it easier to balance work and home life,” Darla says. “The days at the police department are 12-hour shifts, but my days off are completely free for me and my family. I only work half the month!”

Another new officer on the job is Shelby Batchelor with the Lady Lake Police Department. At just 20 years old and with less than a year of experience, she has a long future in law enforcement ahead of her.

So, while she plans to earn a criminal justice degree one day, for now Shelby is focused on the present: working night-shift road patrol and protecting the streets of Lady Lake.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love my job,” she says.

Shelby grew up in Ocala and was inspired to attend the College of Central Florida police academy by her grandfather, who is retired from the Ocala Police Department, and other family members and friends who work in law enforcement. 

“My family is fully supportive of my career choice. I chose law enforcement because I genuinely love helping people,” she says. “The greatest feeling in the world is getting off shift knowing you’ve helped at least one person that shift.” 

She works a typical patrol schedule that switches up days during a two-week period and also rotates from nights to days periodically.

“At times I do think it can be difficult to balance home and work life, but I manage to make it work,” Shelby says.

She’s responded to several dangerous calls, but she knows she’s well-trained to handle them.

“My family knows I encounter dangerous situations and, of course, it worries them as it would any other family, but they know it’s the job,” Shelby says. “It’s a great feeling for me and them when I get home at the end of the day safely.”


The role of women

Some of these officers say they feel a “sisterhood” with fellow women on the job, while others say the greater bond they feel is with all officers, men and women, who risk their lives to “protect and serve.”

But the officers agree they’re in a position to influence other females, including their daughters. Here are their thoughts on being role models:

“I hope that I am a positive role model for women of all ages, to include women in my profession, my family and friends, and those I encounter in the field. I hope most of all I can be the best role model for my daughter.”—Athena Ross.

“I certainly strive to be a positive role model for the young ladies in my community. I hope that my interactions with them encourage them to want a career in law enforcement. I love interacting with the kids and letting them ask questions.”—Amanda Galbreath.

“I would like to think that I am a role model but not just for women. It takes a strong woman to do this job. I was raised to be strong and I hope that others can look at me and see that we can do this job just as well as anyone else.”—Erin Razo.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of myself [as a role model]. I would just hope to encourage other women to work hard and achieve their goals. They should not view their gender as any sort of hurdle when choosing a profession.”—Amanda Abston.

“I never thought of [being a role model] until my daughter was born, and I realized what an impact I have on her. I try to be a role model for my daughter every day and never forget that her little eyes are watching me all the time.”—Crystal Stuller.

“Any woman in a male-dominated profession is a role model for other women. It shows we can do anything we set our minds and hearts to. But my biggest motivator is knowing that I am a positive influence on my children. They have seen my struggles but know that with perseverance, they can accomplish anything at any time in their lives.”—Darla Blackwell.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a role model for women, but I hope I can encourage other women to pursue whatever they set their mind to.”—Shelby Batchelor.

Jessica Howell, the corporal who made a career for herself after dropping out of school as a teen mom, now uses that experience to her advantage.

“I now see myself as someone that can relate to young women going through difficulty,” Jessica says. “Someone that can show them you can make whatever you want for yourself with the right mindset and a good amount of effort.”