Karen Kerins is full of stories; they tend to pile up after a 40-year career in law enforcement. But she will turn the page Saturday as she officially retires from the Aberdeen Police Department as the longest-serving female sworn law enforcement officer in Harford County.
Kerins, 62, started her career as a Baltimore City police officer in 1979. She grew up riding horses on a farm, and wanted to be in the city’s mounted unit, but figured she could work her way up from hostler — taking care of the horses — which the city police department had an opening for. She did not get that job, but she found herself as a patrol officer in Baltimore.
At that time, the city’s police department had residency requirements; if she wanted to stay, Kerins would have to move to Baltimore within a year. She did not want to move, so she put out feelers to other departments. Bel Air’s police department had an opening, but gave the job to another person, she recalled. What she did not know at the time was that the department called Aberdeen’s police force to tell them about her.
“Abereden called me and I had never been to Aberdeen before — only to get my license renewed when they had [department of] motor vehicles there,” she said. “I went up and they said ‘OK, you are hired.‘”
Kerins was the first female officer in Aberdeen and has worn many hats since being hired in 1980 — such as K-9 handler and patrol officer — before landing on school resource officer, a job she cherishes. Though she was Aberdeen’s first female officer — so new, in fact, that the police department did not have female uniforms when she arrived — she was never discouraged from joining the police force, nor was she treated any different for being a woman, she said.
“They welcomed me,” she said. “They always treated me like one of the guys; they never disrespected me.”
Kerins was motivated to become a police officer because she wanted to have a meaningful career, and the work provided that reward. The children are, she said, what she will miss most about donning the uniform. Through her years, she got to know almost everyone in Aberdeen, seeing multiple generations in her various roles. Students who saw her in school would even recognize her in plain-clothes on the street, sometimes to the confusion of their parents.
“Everywhere I go, the little kids will run up to me and hug me; I am regular clothes,” she said. “It gives you a good feeling, helping the kids who have problems, just sit there and listen to them.”
Aberdeen’s chief of police Henry Trabert said Kerins built many relationships while working as an SRO, which made her a valuable part of the department. Trabert, who came to the department in 1986, said he did not immediately realize that Kerins was Aberdeen’s first female officer. He said the department would miss her for the good work and the friendliness she showed in her 40 years of work in Aberdeen.
“We will definitely miss her around here,” he said. “She came to work in Harford County when there was very few women working in law enforcement ... She was one of those pioneers.”
Trabert said the department is working on internally recruiting another officer to Kerins’ position. A replacement has to be chosen carefully, he said, because working in schools requires a special skill set and a love for the job, the likes of which Kerins had.
“You can not just choose someone to do it; the person who takes that position really has to love what they do,” Trabert said. “It has to be the right officer for the job.”
Being a SRO is a difficult job, Kerins said, with many considerations. You have to be a counselor, a mediator, a family member and, on top of it all, a cop.
Kerins said that being a good listener is indispensable, and fair treatment is a must. She prided herself on treating everyone the same and not letting anyone off the hook because she knew them.
“I feel good because I treated everybody the same all the time,” she said. “I always listened first and tried to feel it out first. Two hotheads are not going to solve a problem.”
Kerins has ridden horses since she was 4-years-old. She does not have one currently, but she hopes to change that soon. Her plan: “get my horse and ride off into the sunset for my retirement,” she said with a laugh.
Still, Kerins will miss the work. She said she was not completely sold on the idea of retiring, but saw the need to move on to the next chapter in her life.
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“I really did not want to retire but, I mean, sometimes enough is enough,” she said. “You cannot stay somewhere forever, you have to have your own life.”