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Women bridge gap in leading Kent, Ottawa county law enforcement

Michelle LaJoye-Young and Valerie Weiss
Left to right: Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young and soon-to-be Ottawa County Undersheriff Valerie Weiss.

OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — While there’s nothing unique about women in law enforcement, it is rare to see them in leadership roles.

But that’s changing in West Michigan.

Two of the area’s largest agencies, the Kent and Ottawa county sheriff’s departments, will have female undersheriffs by the end of the year.

Kent County’s Michelle LaJoye-Young and Ottawa County’s Valerie Weiss have nearly 50 years combined experience in law enforcement. The pair is among just three undersheriffs in the state of Michigan.

The rarity is based on statistics. Fewer women in law enforcement means fewer females at the top ranks.

Both say there was no lack of opportunity on the way up.

“I haven’t felt any struggles with coming up through the ranks,” said Weiss.

“I’ve had great mentors, people who have helped me become better,” said LaJoye-Young.

An undersheriff is basically in charge of operations for the department, overseeing everything from jail procedures to the road patrol.

LaJoye-Young, the daughter of a former mid-Michigan sheriff, started her career as a corrections officer with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department in 1989. She rose through the ranks until being named undersheriff last year.

Weiss began her career in Coopersville in the mid-90s, moving to the sheriff’s department when the agency took over law enforcement in the city.

Now a captain, Weiss assumes the undersheriff duties at the beginning of next year when current Undersheriff Steve Kempker takes over the top spot.

Both LaJoye-Young and Weiss say there have been advantages to being a female in a male dominated business.

“You’re going to have a different perspective based on the walk that you’ve walked. That will often go to(ward) taking a different approach to a situation,” said LaJoye-Young.

Diversity is a term heard often as law enforcement struggles to overcome the many obstacles it has faced in recent years. Both Weiss and LaJoye-Young say they believe their voices and influences can play a major role in dealing with those issues.

“When someone’s looking to go into law enforcement and they see more diversity in the agency, they’re going to be more apt to want to work for that agency,” explained Weiss.

“Diversity in the leadership ranks is really, really important for retaining employees, developing and helping them to foster and to become great police officers,” said LaJoye-Young.

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