Debra Schmidt had been working at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years the day she hit her lowest point.
It was May 2015, and a new sheriff, Ron Hickman, had just taken the reins, replacing the man who had elevated Schmidt to major, the highest rank of her career. Schmidt had been riding a wave of progress at the time: Along with the recent promotion, she had also been instrumental in developing nationally acclaimed LGBTI (the “I” stands for intersex) policies that seemed to usher in a new era of tolerance and acceptance at the historically conservative sheriff’s office.
But that day, Hickman called Schmidt into his office and told her she was being demoted. Back to captain, back to civil service. She would no longer sit at the sheriff’s decision-making table. Her pay would be cut significantly. A mostly white, all-male command staff would take over.
In the ensuing days she had to stand by as Hickman slowly dismantled portions of the LGBTI policy. He terminated the contract of a transgender man hired to provide deputies in-classroom training. He ordered that the LGBTI pins Schmidt had just received in the mail instead remain in boxes. He even removed a rainbow flag from the HCSO website.
“That day was one of the most difficult days of my career,” Schmidt says of the demotion, “because it caused a lot of self-doubt. You know, that confidence that I had had was shaken to the core, and you ask yourself, ‘What did I do wrong?’”
Still, Schmidt decided to stick it out. She kept busy as the leader of HCSO’s dive team, and as the curator of the HCSO museum she had founded. She continued the Pink Badge campaign, raising thousands for breast cancer after losing her niece to the disease in 2008. And she directed the training academy — a favorite assignment of Schmidt’s, where she felt she could set the tone among new deputies and cultivate the right culture.
Then came the 2016 election — and for the fourth time in Schmidt’s career, a new sheriff.
She got a call from Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez in mid-December. He wanted to meet her. He wanted to talk about whether she might be interested in joining the command staff. And he wanted to know her opinion, too, about other colleagues she believed were worthy of higher ranks. “I was extremely hopeful,” Schmidt says. “He said he wanted to make things better for people that work in the agency.” In other words, Gonzalez wanted to promote from within — an extreme morale booster in the office, Schmidt says, given that most previous sheriffs, including Hickman, had simply brought on their buddies from other agencies.
On New Year’s Eve, Schmidt finally got the news: Gonzalez had pulled her up the ranks even higher than she had been before, making her the first woman in history to achieve the rank of assistant chief in Harris County — fourth in command in the sheriff’s office hierarchy.
“She had the same perspective of making sure all employees feel respected and included — making sure we treat all people with a certain level of respect and dignity,” Gonzalez says. “How we treat individuals both under our care and externally sends a loud message, and we’ve gotta make sure we’re responsive to different needs that different populations may bring.”
To Schmidt and Gonzalez, that means bringing back the LGBTI policies Hickman weakened during his short tenure. It means developing a mentorship program, particularly for women — a program for which the sheriff’s office is “way overdue,” Schmidt says. And it means bridging the gap in communities with historically rocky relationships with law enforcement.
“There’s a great responsibility that comes along with a promotion like this,” Schmidt says. “And by that I mean doing the right things for the right reasons.”
Debra Schmidt can still remember how a new male colleague welcomed her during her first week on the job at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
It was 1985, and Schmidt, who had been teaching high school English in northern Wisconsin, had just quit her job and moved cross-country to become a cop in Houston — though she was by no means a rookie. When she wasn’t helping teenagers digest Edgar Allan Poe in Wisconsin, she spent most of her free time throwing herself into harm’s way: first as a volunteer firefighter in rural areas, then as a sheriff’s deputy in Door County, working nights and weekends and learning emergency, high-speed maneuvers in the parking lot of Lambeau Field.
She came to Houston after a friend tipped her off, telling Schmidt that one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country was looking for deputies. Schmidt got hired on a Friday. She moved to Houston and started by Monday.
But it didn’t take long before Schmidt discovered that some men apparently preferred to judge her by her gender rather than her performance — as one of the first male deputies she met made clear.
“He said, ‘You know, women in law enforcement are good for two things: One, somebody has to make the coffee, and two, somebody has to make those late-night stakeouts more interesting,’” Schmidt remembers, telling the story from a Sugar Land coffee shop. “It was that blatant. I just looked at him like he was out of his mind.”
That was the environment in which Schmidt learned to climb the ranks in the earlier decades of her career. In the 1980s, Schmidt said, the men of the sheriff’s office seemed to assume women in law enforcement became cops for only three core reasons: They were lesbians, they were looking for a husband or they wanted to sleep around. “There was always some underlying reason why you were in law enforcement that had nothing to do with the mission of achieving public good,” Schmidt says. “Somehow, it had to do with sexuality.”
One time, a deputy working the jail informed her that their lieutenant “had time for her” on Friday nights so he could “get to know her better.” Schmidt said thanks but no thanks. Another time, a male captain called Schmidt’s female co-worker into his office — where he put a porno on the VCR and tried to come on to her. “Sometimes your life became hell when that happened,” Schmidt says. “But I was a woman making the same salary as my male counterpart in the ’80s. I felt lucky.”
Things got easier after Schmidt met the women who would become her mentors and the greatest role models of her career: Susan Nixon and Virginia Quinn, two of the only females she knew in supervisory positions at the time — “the pioneers,” as Schmidt describes them. They had worked their way up to captain — uncommon for women then — and Schmidt sought to follow suit. She never once considered leaving the agency, brushing off the petty sexist jabs like lint on her uniform.
“I felt like they weren’t gonna stop me,” Schmidt says. “I had my goals in mind. I knew what I wanted to accomplish. And I wasn’t gonna let them hold me back.”
Schmidt’s first promotion came in 1989, up to sergeant. She rose to lieutenant in 2002 and finally to captain, the highest civil-service rank, in 2006. She spent a large chunk of those years tracking down felons in the criminal warrants division, and leading the HCSO dive team into rivers and lakes to find debris and evidence, cars and bodies. As a leader, Schmidt was popular — in fact, even Sheriff Gonzalez, who has known her for only a couple of months, talked about Schmidt as if she were fit for a Dos Equis commercial.
As Gonzalez put it: “It’s like she’s the most interesting person in the world.”
When Schmidt isn’t in uniform, she’s playing guitar in a band called The Ghost PepHers. She’s playing forward on a women’s hockey team called Ms.Conduct. She’s scuba-diving — the “fun diving,” she says. She’s skiing. And, what appears to be a favorite among her colleagues: Sometimes, Schmidt says, she’s being a pirate — usually at the Renaissance Festival. Schmidt and friends are building a life-size pirate ship in the backyard, where she often hosts pirate-themed parties just for kicks.
“I like to do things that make other people happy — you know, help ’em on that journey,” she says. “I think this whole essence of community involvement [at the sheriff’s office] is kind of a spin off of that. That’s who I am at the core.”
Shannon Powell — a 36-year veteran of HCSO who retired in 2015 and who worked under Schmidt’s command — says Schmidt’s charisma was contagious at work. It made her a fun leader, he says — but, more important, Powell says it was her commitment to fairness and standing up for what was right that made her a highly respected one. Throughout his career, Powell, who is black, says he experienced racism in the form of slurs or discrimination from white supervisors, especially in the earlier years. Schmidt was a supervisor who confronted it head on.
“She doesn’t stand for it,” Powell says. “She would tell you, up front, ‘If I hear any of you using any slurs, degrading any person for their sex, for their race — whatever it is — you will hear from me. And I will deal with you accordingly.’ You did not want her to deal with you accordingly.”
Powell says he felt the culture of the sheriff’s office begin to shift once Adrian Garcia, the county’s first Latino sheriff, took office. He went in a new direction, away from the good-ole-boy system of a bygone era, and brought more diversity into the command staff. This was a big deal for minorities in the office, Powell says. In addition, at one time three women were also among Garcia’s top commanders, including Schmidt, who became a major in 2012.
Not long after, the two began crafting the LGBTI policy that would soon become a model across the country.
It was 2013 when Lou Weaver, a transgender man and LGBT consultant, got a call from Debra Schmidt, inviting him to come tour the Harris County Jail.
For a guy who had never worked a day in law enforcement, he would soon find that he had just signed up for a big job: helping the third-largest jail in the country understand how to keep transgender inmates safer, how to be more sensitive to the LGBTI population’s needs. The policy review had been prompted by various complaints about the treatment of transgender people in the jail, Schmidt says, and when Garcia called her into his office to broach the topic, he simply said, “We can do better.”
Schmidt, Weaver remembers, wanted to make sure community stakeholders had a say in how.
“She set the tone from the beginning of being respectful and being mindful,” Weaver says. “Showing that they are trying to be more aware of the LGBTQ community is really important to our community — just to say, ‘Hey, I see you, and hey, it’s important to us that you’re safe.’”
Schmidt got to work reviewing 20 to 25 LGBTI policies at agencies across the nation, crafting Harris County’s by pooling the best attributes of each and adding her own flair. The results made national headlines. And by 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the National LGBTQ Task Force were inviting Schmidt to speak on national conference panels about protecting this population of inmates in the jail, and simply treating them with dignity in a bleak place.
Under the new policy, gender classification specialists would be tasked with identifying transgender inmates and housing them separately from the general jail population. The policy addressed how detention officers would perform strip or pat-down searches on transgender inmates, allowing the inmates to request the gender of the officer they would prefer to perform the search. It required the officers to refer to transgender inmates by their preferred pronouns. It added sexual orientation and gender identity to the employee nondiscrimination policy, promising punishment to anyone who uttered a slur. And it established the Safe Zone and LGBTI liaison policies, the ones perhaps most visible to the community at large.
For the Safe Zone program, volunteer deputies and detention officers could wear rainbow pins to signify they were safe people to talk to if any inmates or community members were experiencing LGBTI-related harassment. As for the LGBTI liaison, deputies in the sheriff’s office volunteered to be point people who could respond to any of the community’s concerns or complaints about LGBTI people’s treatment in the jail.
Weaver had even been hired to train detention officers and deputies on the new policy — but the job didn’t last long. Hickman terminated Weaver’s contract upon taking office. He cut the Safe Zone and LGBTI liaison programs.
And he apparently had a problem with rainbow flags.
As chronicled by a local conservative blogger from Big Jolly Politics, Hickman found out about the LGBTI liaison program webpage at a downtown luncheon. Garcia’s administration had put a little rainbow flag next to the email address of the designated LGBTI liaison, and someone at the public meeting pointed it out to Hickman, asking whether any other “bacon, lettuce, tomato groups” had special consideration.
“You mean we have a rainbow flag on the website?” Hickman asked, reportedly shaking his head.
In less than 24 hours, the flag — and the LGBTI liaison program — was removed from the website. The rainbow pins Schmidt had just ordered never came out of their boxes.
Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff’s office spokesman, recalled Hickman’s reasoning during an interview in Debra Schmidt’s office last month: “The previous administration felt that they didn’t need to single out individuals, but that anybody who wears the badge of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy or detention officer should be considered a safe person.”
Schmidt, who exhibits a perpetual showing of modesty, respectfully disagreed.
“In a perfect world, Sheriff Hickman’s exactly right: Anyone who wears this badge should be a safe person to talk to. I absolutely, 100 percent agree with that,” she said. “However, in reality, we know from experience that that’s not always the case.”
Schmidt says it was the little things about the new policy that seemed to make the biggest difference for many transgender inmates. Things like removing gender-based restrictions on what male inmates or female inmates could order from the jail commissary. If a transgender woman needed makeup, a bra or women’s underwear, or if a transgender man needed shaving cream, it was no longer a problem.
“If it helps them feel like a whole person and makes them happier while they’re incarcerated, let’s do it,” Schmidt says. “We’re not treating people ‘differently.’ We just want people treated with decency and respect. We owe that to each other as human beings.”
Whenever she could, Schmidt visited the transgender inmates in their cells, making sure that everything was okay.
If there were ever a time Schmidt considered leaving the sheriff’s office, it was that day in Hickman’s office, the day of her demotion.
She started thinking about retirement. After 30 years, Schmidt says she could look back on her career and feel she had accomplished what she set out to do when she was still a kid growing up in rural Wisconsin: devote her life to helping people. It was a passion she developed after her mother died of cancer when she was nine, leaving her to grow up quick and learn to become the peacemaker of the family, helping her father as he struggled with alcoholism. As she got older, that passion evolved into public service. It’s why she initially chose teaching and volunteer firefighting — something she continued in Bellaire until 2007. And even if she were to leave the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, she knew she would still find new ways to keep giving back.
But something told her not to go.
“It wasn’t time for me,” Schmidt says. “I felt like I still had something to offer.”
Now at the peak of her career, Schmidt couldn’t be happier she stayed. Strengthening the LGBTI policies is one of her top priorities, and just last week she brought Lou Weaver back to the office and met with the jail’s compliance offer who oversees the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which seeks to ensure vulnerable inmates, such as those in the LGBTI community, are safe in jail.
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Schmidt has voiced concerns that Hickman’s administration was not fully enforcing the LGBTI policy, the parts of it that still existed at least — but that’s something the assistant chief can oversee going forward. Spokesman Ryan Sullivan said that jail intake staff still houses transgender inmates separately, but that none of the staff is a designated “gender classification specialist,” as the LGBTI policy called for. That’s just one example of what Schmidt intends to bring back — along with those rainbow pins still stowed away in packages.
Schmidt is also gearing up to lead the new mentorship program, particularly for women in the agency. She wants to ensure that any traces of a bygone era that may remain never deter any employee from believing there’s a spot for that person at the top.
Because even in the ’80s, when men may have had different ideas about why women chose law enforcement, that’s the belief that Debra Schmidt held onto.
“That’s where my heart was, in public service,” Schmidt says. “You get kicked along the way sometimes, but if it’s in your heart, and it’s what’s important, you just keep going.”