Laurel police Cpt. Constance Speake who will be retiring at the end of August. (Andrew Michaels / BSMG)
Laurel Police Capt. Constance Speake, the city's highest-ranking female officer, said she has had to work extra hard to prove herself a worthy asset to her law enforcement colleagues over the last 25 years. But, Speake said, her natural competitive and persistent attitude was an aid in her training and working alongside male officers as she eventually became Laurel's first female captain.
Speake retired from the Laurel Police Department this month, and on Aug. 8, Speake began the next phase of her career as a deputy sheriff with the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office, stationed at the Annapolis courthouse.
"[Laurel Police] handle calls for service, barricades and things like that, where the sheriffs' responsibilities are at the courthouse, serving protective orders, eviction notices and all that. It's a totally different job," Speake said. "I love going to Annapolis and I'm very excited about the change."
Overlooking Laurel Lakes on Aug. 11, Speake sat on a bench at Granville Gude Park, taking a break as an instructor at the department's Cops Camp, where officers teach kids various skills and training from the Police Academy. As boys and girls participated in the camp's obstacle course, Speake said gender roles within law enforcement have made significant strides.
In her 25 years of service, Speake said the number of women in Laurel's police force has grown, but women are still outnumbered by men.
"From day one, even in the Police Academy, females who I have seen in my career have to do it better than their male counterparts," Speake said. "They expect more of you. … You have to have a commanding presence. I've seen some females not be as successful because you have to come out of your shell."
Law enforcement caught Speake's eye during her time in the Army in the mid-1980s, where she worked with the National Security Agency for three years. Looking through a window into law enforcement, Speake said the field appeared active and exciting, something that appealed to her outgoing nature.
She applied to be a police dispatcher with Laurel Police Department in 1988, and continued in that job for four years.
"Being a dispatcher can be quite stressful because you have officers out on the road [and] they're calling you and they may need assistance," Speake said. "You also have people on the phone who you're talking to, saying 'Someone's breaking into my house.' You have to multitask."
Speake said her time as a dispatcher strengthened her desire to become a police officer, leading her to the Mount Rainier Police Department in 1992.
Three years later she returned to Laurel as a patrol officer.
While she worked in the community policing unit, covering National Night Out, Fourth of July celebrations and other large-scale city events, Speake climbed ranks in the department. She eventually became a street sergeant and then the first female SWAT team member around 1997.
Laurel's SWAT team is an additional assignment within the department, she said, unlike other agencies with full-time SWAT teams. After being chosen for the team, Speake had to complete the three-week Prince George's County SWAT instruction.
Laurel city officials announced its plans for the Hometown Hero banner program to recognize Laurel residents and their family members for service to the U.S. Armed Forces and local law enforcement, fire and rescue organizations.
"The cool thing about that was that I was one of the few females who had even made it through a three-week SWAT school," she said. "At the time I got on the team, there weren't many females actually on SWAT teams. Every operation that I went on, you learn. You're a young officer and you just keep learning more and more."
Setting up barricades and serving search warrants became second nature, Speake said, as she transitioned from an active member to a SWAT commander.
"When you become a commander in charge of those people, you know what needs to be done," she said. "It's a comforting feeling to know that you've already been an active SWAT member. A lot of commanders can't say that. You're outside looking in, but you've got your squad."
Naturally, Speake's safety was a concern among family members, but the mother of two said they were always very supportive. She said her husband, Richard Speake,was also a law enforcement officer with Laurel, and also worked for the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office after he retired from Laurel 12 years ago.
"We know what each other's capabilities are so that's not really an issue," Speake said. "My daughter, who is now 14, I've been a police officer since she was born and so was her father. She and my stepdaughter are used to us being police officers. They worry about us, but they're very proud that we've chosen this profession."
Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin has worked with Speake throughout her career in Laurel, and said the city will be losing a "phenomenal asset" following her departure.
McLaughlin said Speake's role in as a department leader has changed the stigma of females in law enforcement.
"The mentality has changed," McLaughlin said. "The atmosphere has changed, significantly, throughout her tenure. She was very instrumental in breaking some glass ceilings, not so much in the city of Laurel but in policing in general."
Speake's dedication and loyalty was unlike any other, McLaughlin said.
"I wish her a lot of success and good luck," he said. "She will be missed and whoever is placed in her position has some big shoes to fill."
Leaving the department as its highest-ranking female officer means so much, Speake said, but she will miss the family of officers even more.
"There have been highs and lows as there are at any job, but it's a fantastic agency," Speake said. "I've had a lot of great opportunities [and] I've got to do a lot of things I've really enjoyed, a lot of excellent training. There are wonderful people here and I think this is a great community to work for."