Photo by Daniel McLemore
Texas Sheriff Zena Stephens didn’t make history by worrying about what other people think.
By Naomi Rougeau.
You’ve likely never heard of Beaumont, Texas (pop: 118,000), a petrochemical-refining hub on the Texas Gulf Coast that lies near the swamp-lined, alligator-inhabited border between Texas and Louisiana. It’s also the seat of Jefferson County, where Sheriff Zena Stephens recently took office, becoming the first African American female sheriff in the history of the state of Texas.
Despite the “old-school mentalities,” as Stephens puts it, that still permeate the area, the 51-year-old won the top law enforcement post thanks in part to a unifying message that reached across racial and party lines (in a county that Donald Trump carried), boundless energy, and a stellar track record.
It also doesn’t hurt that Stephens is remarkably calm under pressure.
Last March, when a gunman pulled up to her campaign headquarters, shouted a few racial slurs, and fired shots into the building while driving off, Stephens’ reply was simple: “I don’t know if it was a random act or whether it was targeted, but I just think it’s ignorance.” And ignorance is not something that Zena Stephens has any time for.
Naomi Rougeau: Congratulations on your new position. How does it feel?
Zena Stephens: I keep telling everyone that I’m humbled by it. Everybody keeps congratulating me, but the truth is the community really did a great thing. We crossed some gender lines, we crossed some racial lines, and we certainly crossed some political lines. I think the entire community needs a pat on the back for that.
NR: Were you aware when you began your campaign that you’d have the potential to make history?
ZS: People started talking about it, but I didn’t join the Beaumont Police Department, get a job at the sheriff ’s department, or run for sheriff so that I could be the first. I don’t want to be the best female sheriff, I want to be the best sheriff. I did it because I felt that I had the best skill set to make a difference in our little corner of the state by providing some real leadership.
NR: Certainly one faces a fair amount of opposition in any election, but were there any incidents that surprised you?
ZS: When we decided to run— and I say “we,” because it was very much a family decision—there were some very powerful people in the community that requested to speak with me, and I found some of the questions I was asked incredibly eye-opening. For example: “What guarantee can you give us that you’re not going to turn the sheriff ’s department black?” I’m like, really? Wow. So I just said, “Look, I’ve worked for the sheriff ’s department for 17 years, and I’m looking to hire professionals.” But that set the tone and helped me define my platform. Part of our campaign slogan became “One County, One Community,” “One Choice: Me.”
I grew up in this community, but I didn’t grow up in a segregated community, so I have healthy relationships with people of all races and political leanings. Because of that, I was confident that I would receive crossover votes, despite what my opponents may have assumed.
NR: So your win didn’t come as a surprise?
ZS: No, and I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but I don’t do anything with the expectation of losing. I knew it was going to be hard work, but I told my campaign team that whatever happens, we are not going to go negative, we’re going to stick to our mission, and we’re going to remain positive—and if you want to work with us, you’re going to have to do that.
NR: What is your primary mission as sheriff?
ZS: For me, it’s about changing the direction of our community, because I’m tired of fighting. It’s time for a changing of the guard, and I really believe we need to rebuild intergenerational trust. I have a 22-year-old, so I’m a mother of a millennial, and they’re tired of all the silliness, too. Our generation has to start making people accountable. Part of what I said during my campaign was, “If you’re a bigot or a hate-monger, if you’re trying to hurt people, we need to start embarrassing people like you, publicly.” We need to stand together. We don’t have to agree on every issue, but we all should be able to agree that it’s time to stop hurting people.
“Our generation has to start making people accountable.”
NR: What are some of the ways you’re implementing those ideas?
ZS: The first thing I did as sheriff was get rid of people in the department who I believed were less than professional in terms of how they dealt with coworkers or with people on the streets. I simply chose not to reappoint them. The second thing is, we’re hiring people who better represent the community, namely minorities. Staff-wise, we’ve increased LGBTQ representation 50 percent and added to the number of females, African Americans, and Latinos. Sheriff ’s departments and police departments should reflect the entire communities that they serve. And when you do that, it makes it harder for those old-school mentalities to survive.
NR: What are the qualities you value most in a potential hire?
ZS: I think police officers need to be good communicators. When people are out there saying they don’t trust the police, we can’t just blow that off. I know it sounds like rhetoric, but it’s not: I’m passionate about it, and if people don’t buy into it, they’re not going to work here. Everybody that wants to be a police officer shouldn’t be a police officer, and we’ve got to do a better job as administrators across the country in hiring compassionate individuals.
“I don’t want to be the best female sheriff, I want to be the best sheriff.”
NR: How did you wind up in law enforcement?
ZS: It was a total accident. I graduated from Lamar University with a political science degree, wanted to go to law school, and I needed a job. The Beaumont Police Department was hiring, and before I knew it, I was in love with it. When I hit the streets, I got to chase people and drive fast. I’m an adrenaline junkie, and I became addicted to it. But I also like people, and most cops I know wind up meeting people on their beats and taking care of them, whether that’s through donations or mentoring or spending time in the community. I did a lot of that at the BPD.
NR: When you first joined BPD, what was the racial breakdown of the force?
ZS: When I joined in ’88, there was only one other minority woman, Aqua Delco, and we’re still friends. The Beaumont Police Department actually got sued in the ’80s for not having enough minorities in leadership positions. For whatever reason, minorities are traditionally not attracted to roles in law enforcement. I think we know why.
NR: Did you ever feel the need to prove yourself to your predominately male, white counterparts?
ZS: I really don’t spend time worrying about what other people think. You’d hear rumblings of “affirmative action” or whispers in the back hallways that minority officers got jobs because they were black or because they needed to hire a female. The reality was that most of us worked really hard. I only expect to get things because I work hard and I earn it, and that’s how I raise my daughter.
NR: But you certainly have a unique voice.
ZS: I’m an African American woman who gets asked the question every time I give a talk in a black community, “What should we tell our kids to do if they encounter the police?” So what I’m trying to do is bridge a gap as an African American, as a mother, as a woman, as a cop, so that people understand that our job as cops is to protect and serve. But guess what? Occasionally, good people make mistakes and do bad things. And sometimes, cops are doing their job and are misunderstood.
NR: In 2013 you accepted the chief of police post at Prairie View A&M University (28-year-old Prairie View alumna Sandra Bland was pulled over for a traffic stop near campus, though not by campus police, during Stephens’ tenure). What did you gain from that experience?
ZS: Prairie View was a great experience for me, because at that point I’d worked in traditional law enforcement for nearly 25 years. It’s a historically black university, so I got to spend a lot of time mentoring and conversing with young people who believe that they’ve been victimized by law enforcement. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, because it gave me some insight and the opportunity to breathe a little bit. It also taught me even more patience by looking at the world through a 19- or 20-year-old college student’s eyes and listening to how they not only view me as a law enforcement officer but, frankly, how they see whites who work in law enforcement. It was an eye-opener, and the opportunity to just listen was priceless.
NR: What are some issues that are unique to Jefferson County at the moment?
ZS: Right now we’re all being confronted with the immigration issue and trying to find the best way to deal. We have a large Hispanic community here, and I’ve been speaking with them, reassuring them that as new legislation is implemented, I have to do my job and obey those orders, but that we are going to do our jobs in the most compassionate way that we can.
“I only expect to get things because I work hard and I earn it, and that’s how I raise my daughter.”
In addition to my duties on the law enforcement and correctional sides of the office, I frequently liaise with the Coast Guard on matters of national security. Our port is the number-one supplier of jet fuel, and we hold 65 percent of the country’s strategic oil reserve. When people think of Beaumont, I’m not sure they realize that our county is 975 square miles and over 300,000 people, so I’m tasked with a large area.
NR: And you’re a wife and a mother, to boot.
ZS: Exactly. But I’m enjoying the challenge, I’m having fun and I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from the community, and that makes me feel good. But it makes me feel even better when the corrections officers and police officers who make it happen are happy, and morale is pretty high right now. Elections are tough on everyone, but we’re starting to settle down and adjust to the new normal.
Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo by JeffersonCounty Sheriff’sOffice, Chief ID InvestigatorSue Kelly