By Shirley Knight
Photo by Dalton DeHart
WIN—What’s Important Now? This is the motto Debra Schmidt uses to navigate life and work. Whether she’s coordinating various divisions as assistant chief of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, rescue-diving in murky, dangerous waters, or dreaming up new ways to make a difference, Schmidt demonstrates her focus and resolve.
Thirty years ago, Schmidt moved to Houston from Wisconsin to join the sheriff’s office as a deputy. Today she is the first female chief at the third-largest sheriff’s agency in the nation, where she is responsible for thousands of employees.
In her career, Schmidt has served five different Harris County sheriffs. The last four have alternated between being Republicans and Democrats. After Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia promoted Schmidt from captain to major, he asked her to research, write, and help implement LGBTI policies. His Republican successor, Ron Hickman, demoted Schmidt and halted progress on LGBTI issues. Then in last November’s election, Hickman was ousted by Democrat Ed Gonzalez. Sheriff Gonzalez subsequently selected Schmidt as one of his assistant chiefs.
“Who gets elected sheriff is important,” Schmidt says, “because that person not only sets the direction of the department in terms of priorities, but also has a huge influence on the culture within the agency.” The LGBTI initiatives were the result of complaints Sheriff Garcia had received about how transgender inmates were treated. “He came to me and said, ‘We can do better,’ and I agreed with him,” Schmidt says. “All people deserve our respect. We’re one human family here.”
Beginning in 2012, Schmidt set about researching LGBTI policies in other sheriff’s departments around the country, and found very few. She collected what she could find and adapted the information. “We brought internal stakeholders to the table and said, ‘What is actually going to work, given our limitations in facilities and staffing?’ Once we got the policy about 90 to 95 percent done, we brought in more people from the community.” For example, she says she worked very closely with Lou Weaver, a consultant and LGBT community liaison.
She says there was some initial pushback from some staff members. “I think that came primarily from people not understanding why we were doing this, and maybe some of their own insecurities and questions.” To mitigate discomfort and confusion, she set about educating the staff. “We had classes at the academy,” she says, “and we also had a 12-hour online training class that was developed [with community input].” She notes that more than 3,200 out of 4,600 employees have gone through the training.
Another initiative Schmidt began to implement was the Safe Zone Project, which was to involve employees who would volunteer to wear a rainbow-flag pin as “an outward sign to the LGBTI community that we were allies and safe people to talk to.” After being halted under the previous Republican administration, the entire LGBTI policy is progressing again under Sheriff Gonzalez with input from the Citizen’s Advisory Committee.
“In terms of our LGBTI policy, we are really setting the standard,” Schmidt says. “For example, Maricopa County [Phoenix, Arizona] has taken our policy exactly the way it’s written and instituted it. Multnoma County [Portland, Oregon] has also taken our policy and instituted it.” While producing the standards, Schmidt was selected to participate in a panel discussion in Washington DC. She says, “I gave our take on what we were doing with LGBTI prisoners and their needs, and the policies became part of a national best-practices document.”
Asked how she’s managed to persevere, Schmidt says, “I think a lot of it was just hanging on to doing a good job. It’s much more than the person who is in the number-one chair in the office. It’s continuing to do good work for the community. It’s bigger than any one of us individually.”
When asked how it feels to be the first female on the command staff, she says, “I’m honored. It comes with a great deal of responsibility to the men and women of this department. It’s an honor and it’s a challenge, and it’s my hope that it helps pave the way for other women so that they can rise up through the ranks and see that there’s an opportunity for them to sit at the table and help guide the direction of the agency.”
One hallmark of Schmidt’s career is that she creates new work for herself. While serving as captain of the Training Academy, for example, she decided to establish a museum for the agency. “I think it’s important to capture history,” she says. “There are important things that happen that get lost otherwise. There’s a lot of opportunity for us to learn from our past—important lessons that will help in our future.”
Another initiative is a mentoring program, which she says “really helps set the culture within an agency. If the mentorship program is done right, it helps bring people up in a good, positive culture, and it helps give them direction and support in trying to achieve the mission of the agency.” As for the career advice she gives, Schmidt remarks that “keeping the ‘why’ in mind is central. You have to have a strong reason why you choose this profession, and you have to be very flexible. Policies change, people change, technology changes, and you have to be able to make those changes and adjustments.”
Schmidt also goes above and beyond the call of duty by using her interest in scuba diving to benefit the department. As a member of the Sheriff’s Office Dive Team, she enters even the murkiest water to recover bodies, evidence, and stolen property. Once, while looking for stolen vehicles in the San Jacinto River, she says she found a pickup truck. “This was all black-water diving,” she says, which means there was no visibility and the search was all done by touch. When she got to the bed of the truck, she says something very large bumped into her and knocked her back. “I think to myself, ‘Whatever that was, it was big. I don’t want to know what that was.’” After finishing the search and prying the license plate off the vehicle, she surfaced and found her team anxiously waiting. They told her a large alligator “broke the surface like a Poseidon missile, smacked down on the top of the water, and swam east as fast as it could.”
Schmidt also has interesting stories from her days with the Fugitive Warrant Division. In this role, she once flew to Guam to pick up a man wanted for murder. The man was suicidal and had to be watched at all times. After flying for 18 hours and spending 12 hours in Guam, Schmidt had to turn around and fly back to Houston without sleeping. During the trip, she kept all utensils away from the man except a spoon. Another memorable trip was flying to Miami to retrieve a 450-pound man who had to be moved with a forklift and transported through the airport on a food cart.
After 30 years in law enforcement, Schmidt maintains her sense of humor and adventure. When she’s not on duty, Schmidt plays ice hockey, is a member of a band, hosts pirate parties, and leads dive trips to various reefs.
When she moved to Houston in 1985, she only knew two people. Now, she says, “I love Houston. It’s my home. I have no intention of moving back north.” She says she has seen the area grow exponentially over the years, and one of the things she enjoys is that Houston is a “very culturally rich city.”
“What I love about America is the same thing that I love about this agency,” Schmidt says, “it’s the people who are in it. It’s the richness of our culture. It’s people caring about one another. I don’t always see that in this job,” she continues, “but even though I’ve been in this profession for as long as I have, I have not lost my faith in humanity.”
As for the future, Schmidt says, “Every year, my New Year’s resolution is a prayer that I can do what I can to help us achieve peace. What I’d like to see in the future is a more peaceful America, from the inside out.”
Shirley Knight is the founder of AwakeNow.org.