Black History Month: The people’s sheriff

Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens

“I didn’t make history; this community made history,” Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens said of her historic bid for the elected office this past November 2016. The monumental election, which also saw a Republican come out victorious as the nominee for president from the typically Democratic-leaning Jefferson County, secured the veteran law enforcer’s designation as the first black woman to hold the post in the state – only the second black woman to be county sheriff in the country. However, Stephens has long held that she didn’t do it alone.

Family, friends, voters from her Democratic party as well as the Republican crossover votes she conjured up during election season – the whole community stood behind her, and she said she plans to stand up for her community in return.

“We crossed racial lines, party lines, to do what I think is the right thing,” she said. “And apparently other people thought that, too. That’s what should be happening. Why are y’all surprised by that?”

Born and raised in Beaumont, Stephens is a product of the local public school system and Lamar University. Once aspiring to the legal profession, Stephens skipped law school to instead join the Beaumont Police Department in 1989. From there, a career in law enforcement was forged, and Stephens would later also serve at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office as chief deputy and as chief of the Prairie View A&M University Police Department in a law enforcement career that has spanned nearly 30 years.

Stephens returned home to Jefferson County after Prairie View to throw her name in the hat for county sheriff as incumbent Mitch Woods announced his retirement.

“When I decided to run,” she said, it wasn’t to be famous – or to be a first. “I just wanted to be a good cop, to make a difference.

“I intend for it to matter that I’m here.”

And not only did she run – she won. Stephens has since been heralded as a trailblazer in her field. She has been interviewed for local and national TV appearances, and newspaper articles near and far. In an interview with Michael Hardy of Texas Monthly, Stephens’ addressed her foray into law enforcement, and the novelty of her presence in the field.

“There was only one other African-American female at the time” in a Beaumont Police Department of about 200 officers, she said. “Certainly the department has never been representative of the community. I probably never expected it to be, though. You just never saw a bunch of African-Americans in law enforcement back then. I did some recruiting for the BPD in the ’90s, where I would travel to all these historically black colleges and try to get students to consider going into law enforcement. It was just not an attractive field to minorities. So I hope with my being elected sheriff, we can change the view that young people in general — not just African-Americans — have about law enforcement.”

Stephens echoed her statements this week when she emphasized the importance of the racial makeup of an agency reflecting the public it services.

“It’s important for people to see people who look like me – who look like them,” she said.

Recently, while speaking at an elementary school in Port Arthur, Stephens was singled out by a young African-American crime victim wanting – needing – someone to tell her story, someone to talk to.

“We were just doing our regular speech about bad touch, and that victims need to tell someone, and an 8-year-old girl came and said to me, ‘My uncle touched me that way.’ Totally unexpected – broke my heart!” Stephens said. “She wouldn’t say it out loud, so I asked her to whisper it in my ear.

“It’s been going on for a long time, and why she never told anybody else I don’t know, but what I do know is that it’s important for people like this little girl to see someone she can relate to.

“That’s why I ran for sheriff.”

In addition to fielding and addressing the heartbreaking outcries from the most vulnerable of victims, Stephens said that she’s already holding community forums, has reorganized the sheriff’s office employee schedule and title system, reduced the payroll budget, put more patrol officers on the streets, and has built a team to put her and the sheriff’s office back in the community where her deputies belong.

“This is what we do; this is what we’re here for,” she said. “People are buying in. I may not know everything. But I’m smart enough to surround myself with people who do know everything.

“I’m really excited about the future. So far, this has been a crazy year – a fun year, but a crazy year.”