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Sheriff McGuffey Talks About Overcoming Homophobia And Changing Law Enforcement

Charmaine McGuffey, Hamilton County Sheriff
Courtesy of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department
There's a new sheriff in Hamilton County. Charmaine McGuffey was elected after running a campaign that promised reform.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Department fired Charmaine McGuffey in 2017. In response, she sued, ran for sheriff, and won.

When Charmaine McGuffey was sworn in last week, she became Hamilton County’s first female sheriff and the first openly gay person elected to that post.

McGuffey was fired by the sheriff’s department in 2017. In response, she sued for wrongful termination and ran for sheriff. Now, she’s recovered lost wages and returned to work—this time, as the boss.

She tells WYSO’s Jason Reynolds it's nice to break that glass ceiling.

McGUFFEY: It feels good because it makes me know and other people who are in my same situation know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. To have this happen just lets us know that Cincinnati and Hamilton County are becoming so much more welcoming for everyone, which is tremendous.

REYNOLDS: You’ve been forthright about the type of discrimination you faced while working in law enforcement, from having obstacles put in your way because of your sex to finding a homophobic slur aimed at you in the restroom at work. Can you tell us a little bit about those experiences and how they shaped you?

McGUFFEY: Well, yes, they did. Things would happen to me. People would threaten me, and when I say threaten, I mean they would threaten to out me. I’ve been in this business 33 years, and I was very private about my life. But there were people who would say “I’m going to go around and tell everybody that you’re gay!” Because they knew that that would affect my career. That could get me fired.

I never bowed to any of that pressure. I worked hard. In this business, as a woman, and a lot of women can relate to this, you have to work twice as hard as the men.

I do have to tell you that there were times, particularly the bathroom incident, when I did complain, and I was laughed at. I mean, they just laughed at me. You asked me how I felt about it. Well, I knew I was on my own. I knew that there was nobody to help me. It was not a great feeling. It was pretty lonely, but I lived through it.

REYNOLDS: You recently settled with the county out of court. They admitted no fault, but they did pay you for lost wages and benefits. You said that you were not only treated differently because of your sex and sexuality, but also because you actively spoke out about law enforcement using excessive force. Now that you’re sheriff, how will you make law enforcement more inclusive, and how will you stop officers from using excessive force?

McGUFFEY: I’ve already created more inclusion in my command staff. Historically, it’s been all white men that achieved high rank. I was the lone woman who sat at the command table for four years. But now, when you look at my staff, there are women of color and men as well. It is a mixture of people, and I’m still building. I’m building with intentional diversity.

And as far as the use of force question goes, I’ve already been reviewing incident reports and so forth and pointing things out to certain commanders that we can change. Not to be punitive with our officers, but things that we need to change in the environment that will help de-escalate situations. For instance, the food in the jail is horrible, and it’s been horrible for a very long time. We need to fix it. It’s a source of contention with the prisoners. It makes people angry. It’s a source of use of force—over the food! Well, we can fix that, so that’s what we’re going to do.

REYNOLDS: You also plan on starting a “Liaison Unit” that will help people better understand how the criminal justice system works and how to navigate it if they need to. You’ve even talked about having a phone line people could call to learn about the system and have specific questions answered. What inspired that idea? And what’s that unit going to look like?

McGUFFEY: That idea was inspired by the fact that we have two buildings here—two towers of jail—and whenever I would walk into the south building, which is where prisoners are released, there would always be people there stopping me and saying, “Hey! Do you know where Johnny is? Do you know when he’s coming out? Do you know where I can pay my bail?”

I would always stop and help them, of course, and I would call phone numbers because they would say, “I’ve been calling the number they gave me, and nobody picks up.”

Sometimes I would even walk them to the location if they were really unsure, and they were just so grateful to have that help. And I thought, we need to help all these people. This has to happen for everyone.

That’s where the idea came from. That and the fact that communities want to engage, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to engage with people, and we’re not going to be afraid to move forward with change.