When Montgomery County Sheriff John Fuson called then Sgt. Sheila Ratliff into his office in September, she had no idea he would offer her a promotion to lieutenant.
While a woman had previously held the title of a lieutenant for administrative purposes, Ratliff became the first woman POST Commission-certified lieutenant fully trained at a police academy.
Ratliff was promoted to lieutenant of the courts and process division. In October, she became the department’s first woman lieutenant in a supervisory role.
She is the first woman to hold a law enforcement position and the first woman lieutenant to move up the ranks to get the leadership position.
Fuson’s offer to Ratliff had one caveat that could have kept her from seeking the job.
Fuson told the 55-year-old wife, mother of three and grandmother, she would have to go through the police academy first, which would involve keeping up with a class of young cadets and a strenuous, physical-fitness training program.
Ratliff said the task was challenging, but it was well worth the effort.
“I’m not going to lie. It was scary,” Ratliff said. “I worried if I was too old and if I could get hurt. It was definitely a challenge but a challenge I accepted, but [it] was difficult.”
Fuson said he was confident in her abilities.
“It was a great accomplishment and morale boost for her, not that that was the point, but I had no doubt she would get through it,” he said.
After completing the nine-week program, Ratliff graduated March 29 with the 119th class at Walters State Community College Police Academy.
Sheriff: Ratliff was the right choice
Fuson said he appointed Ratliff lieutenant, because she was in the right position at the right time and had the right experience.
“That’s regardless of gender or race, anything,” Fuson said. “While it’s an appointment, some people may say it’s subjective, but you can look back through the appointments I’ve done, and you can see the rationale in them.”
The responsibilities at the courthouse require a certain amount of enforcement experience to train deputies how to respond when they encounter someone with a gun, drugs or involved in a domestic situation, he said.
The court security and the civil process were both experiences Ratliff brought to the table, according to Fuson.
“She’s had both of those hats on for a long time,” Fuson said. “She really knew how both of those worked. She has the respect of those who work in tAhose areas. To me, there was no question of who needed to have the position.”
Moving up through the ranks
During her senior year in 1984, Ratliff dropped out of Northwest High School after her mother suffered a stroke and needed her daughter’s daily care.
Years later, Ratliff studied and received her GED and spent much of her early career working in a local factory.
She married her husband, Michael Ratliff, in 1988.
“I came across an ad in the newspaper that said the sheriff’s department needed three court officers,” Ratliff said. “I began as a court deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in 1998.”
She was transferred to the civil process department in 2011 and became a sergeant in 2013.
As a lieutenant, Ratliff advanced from supervising seven people to supervising 54.
Nearly 23 years later, Ratliff said she loves her job and the people with whom she works.
“I get in there with them and work,” Ratliff said. “I really try to listen to their concerns and try to make things better. I tell them I’m always open to suggestions for improvements.”
Ratliff said she makes an effort to assist deputies about three days a week at the courthouse, especially if they’re short-handed.
“This has all been such a huge accomplishment for me,” Ratliff said. “I’m so grateful I have been provided the opportunity to do this and to further my career. I wouldn’t trade it. I would do it again.”