Woman in Blue: Chattanooga’s First Female Police Officer


written by Mary Helen Montgomery

 
  A headshot of Patricia Underwood Williams appears in a Chattanooga Times article from January 1, 1972, about Chattanooga women who made the news the previous year. (Chattanooga Public Library archives)

A headshot of Patricia Underwood Williams appears in a Chattanooga Times article from January 1, 1972, about Chattanooga women who made the news the previous year. (Chattanooga Public Library archives)

 

Patricia Underwood Williams graduated from Knoxville College in 1971,

a year earlier than all of her friends, and she wasn't sure what to do next. Her mother had heard that Chattanooga's police department was recruiting college graduates and suggested that Williams apply.

“They weren't necessarily looking for a woman,” Williams says. In fact, the department had never hired a female officer before. Williams became the first.

  A photo of Patricia Underwood Williams standing on the steps of City Hall appears in a Chattanooga Times article from July 9, 1971. (Chattanooga Public Library archives)

A photo of Patricia Underwood Williams standing on the steps of City Hall appears in a Chattanooga Times article from July 9, 1971. (Chattanooga Public Library archives)

Williams was part of a class of 19 recruits, nine with college degrees. After the class was hired, the Chattanooga Times ran an article about the new recruits, with just one accompanying photo, of “me standing on the steps on city hall with that short skirt on,” Williams laughs.

After completing 10 weeks of training, Williams began her work as a patrolwoman in the youth division. Her career as a patrolwoman turned out to be short-lived, just about 13 months. She decided to resign after one particular incident, that made her lose faith in the system.

Her career as a patrolwoman turned out to be short-lived, just about 13 months

“What broke my heart was when they did a drug bust at Brainerd High School,” says Williams. “They were putting the kids on school busses, they were arresting them like that.”

After her experience on the police force, Williams decided she’d rather help people in a different way. She went on to get a masters degree at Memphis State University and had a 40-year career working in criminal rehabilitation. Even though she didn't serve for very long in law enforcement, Williams paved the way for many other women to follow as Chattanooga police officers. The year after Williams was recruited, two more women, Melinda McKenzie and Helen Hill completed the police academy.