The Women of LAXPD, Part 2: Assistant Chief Latasha Wells Amerson

Photo courtesy of LAWA

In our new series of articles entitled “The Women of LAXPD,” LAAPOA highlights the women who make the Los Angeles Airport Police one of the most diverse departments in the country, with an emphasis on the female leaders who’ve helped move the profession forward. Read Part 1 here.

In January 2020, LAAPOA applauded the emergency appointment of Latasha Wells Amerson as assistant chief for the Los Angeles Airport Police Department’s Office of Operations, a promotion that was made permanent in August. Overseeing the patrol, traffic and security services sections, which encompass nearly 1,000 of the agency’s 1,200 members, Amerson was the first woman of color in LAXPD history to be promoted to assistant chief from within the Department — a crowning achievement in an impressive career spanning nearly 30 years. In addition to rising through the ranks at LAXPD, she is an accomplished attorney, an adjunct professor in the College of Business and Public Policy at California State University Dominguez Hills, and the founder of the Latasha Wells Amerson Leadership Institute Boardroom Leadership Academy, a youth mentoring nonprofit. LAAPOA invited her to share her experiences as a woman in law enforcement, her thoughts on the issues facing female officers, and the secrets of her success as a leader dedicated to her profession, her family and her community.

What motivated you to become a law enforcement officer?

I spent a number of years in the Navy Junior ROTC in high school, attended mini boot camp and learned discipline, marching maneuvers and drill team, but I was not a stellar student. I was underperforming and had little interest in many of my courses, except English, which I have always loved, and most of my electives. My high school counselor, Ms. Cornell, recognized this and took the time to learn what my interests were. From our conversation, she gleaned that I would like a law class elective, and I did! When she followed up with me, I had decided I wanted to become a police officer and lawyer.

As a woman and a law enforcement officer, who were your mentors and role models?

The most important role models in my life have been my mother, Jackie, and my Aunt Sheila (who passed away in 2015). They were amazing women of humble beginnings who persevered through difficult times and always modeled education to us. I remember very vividly attending my mom’s college classes with her at Los Angeles City College, my sister and I occasionally drifting off to the empty class next door and pretending to be in college. My mother is a woman of great wisdom. She is encouraging but does not hold back on correction. She is vibrant and energetic and has a can-do attitude. She has been my inspiration from the very beginning. My aunt was a shyer version of my mom, always quietly supporting you, even slipping extra cash in your pockets or purse without your knowledge. If she were encouraging you, she became very assertive, often reminding me that I was Jackie’s child, like my mom was the most important person on earth — and she was. My mom and her sister modeled education, but they also modeled teamwork and sisterhood. They looked out for one another and shared responsibilities. Women need to find sisterhood in other women. This becomes your infrastructure for success.

What has your experience been like as a woman in law enforcement?

I must say, earlier in my career things seemed a bit easier. I attended the academy and found refuge in one of my classmates, Jowunder Woodard-Smith, who was also an Airport Police officer and took me under her wing. When you go through something difficult together, it bonds you. As I climbed the ranks, things began to intensify, and I realized my idyllic views of kindness, fairness and equality were not shared by everyone. Sometimes I think I am still learning that lesson. If I am disappointed or upset, I do my best not to remain in that place. Moving on can be difficult, but nothing is more difficult than letting your ambitions pass you by because of your response to others. I am intentional about not allowing the challenges of being a woman in this profession change who I am as a human being.

What are some challenges you have faced, and how have you overcome them?

Biased perceptions can be a reality for someone like me. I think people take the first look at the obvious race and gender and sometimes think they can get away with something, until they realize they cannot. I am a firm believer that you teach people how to treat you. When there are offenses, even slight ones, you really owe it to the person to share your concerns so you can clear the air and move forward, but most importantly so the individual is placed on notice about how seriously you take your role as a leader. I never let anyone else decide what kind of leader I am. That is a decision only for me.

What have been some of your most rewarding moments?

I have many. My family is at the center of my life, and every milestone any of us makes is a rewarding moment for me. I also find tremendous fulfillment in working with such a diverse team of professionals. Thinking of my team has allowed me to refocus when exhaustion is head-on with contention. Not wanting to let them down as a leader propels me forward when I am at the end of myself and the work needs to get done.

How did it feel to become the first woman of color in Airport Police history to be promoted from within the Department to the rank of assistant chief?

It was a feeling of exhilaration and responsibility. It was a win for me, but also for others who had long waited for internal promotions to the rank of assistant chief — both women and men, but especially for women. I hope it inspires other female officers to go for it!

What are your goals as assistant chief?

My number one goal is to demonstrate perfectly imperfect leadership to my team through recognition, empowerment and inclusion. People need to know you don’t expect them to be perfect, but you do expect from them to give their best. This frees them from the impossible, which can be a huge distraction to empowerment and meeting the mission.

What other accomplishments are you proudest of in your career?

I always feel proudest when the victory is a shared one, when we manage to get things done as a team by collaborating even under less-than-ideal circumstances. I promoted two and a half months before the pandemic. This has offered many challenging circumstances that required all of us to work in ways we had not anticipated before. It has both stretched us and strengthened us as a team, and gave me the Cliff’s Notes version of leadership in my new role as Assistant Chief of Operation, managing ways to meet the deployment needs and ensure the facilities are safe and sanitized while managing families and children attending school online. Ninety percent or more of my team must navigate these very important responsibilities while working in the field, and they have! I am very proud of them all for their commitment during these difficult times.

What factors have contributed to your success?

My success is the sum total of all of my experiences, both negative and positive. Every person who has encouraged and believed in me, and those who haven’t, have all played a role in my success. The positive experiences and encouraging people gave me hope and motivated me, while less pleasant experiences encouraged me to find ways to continue to develop and invest in myself in ways that were nontraditional to law enforcement, but certainly provide additional skills desirable for any leader, including those in law enforcement.

What are some of the issues you see facing women in law enforcement, and how do you think they should be addressed?

I think that when we get to a place in society when we are no longer celebrating firsts, it will be a sign of greater equality for women in terms of opportunities. Women need a chance, not a handout. Some of the obstacles facing women include a lack of support and opportunities for mentorship. This is difficult when there are fewer women leaders to provide the support to offer greater access to development, mentorship and encouragement. The ability to provide authentic mentorship requires trust, and that must be demonstrated over time. This can be addressed through voluntary mentorship opportunities, sage advice, professional development and encouraging female officers to take on collateral duty opportunities that offer exposures where their skills can be highlighted in a manner that benefits the employee and the department.

How can male officers and agency management show their support for female officers?

Many of the male employees do a great job supporting women in the organization. Perhaps, however, male officers may not be as aware of the hardships female officers may face. I think taking the time to get to know one another is the best way to determine how you can assist another person, but being respectful of the female officers’ skill and capabilities is important. So I would say, give me acknowledgment: If I rock, tell me I do! If I need help, help me. Make sure I feel welcomed and supported authentically. See me when I am present, and hear me when I speak. This, of course, should be reciprocal.

Why do you think it’s important for women to be represented in law enforcement? How can more women feel welcome and succeed in this field?

Women play a significant role in law enforcement at every level and in every capacity. Long ago, women were used in limited capacities, but our contributions to the success of law enforcement are undeniable. Gone are the days when physical strength is the single controlling factor of whether women can do the job. Women have many capabilities, including physical and emotional strength, and our contributions are far and wide. When women see female officers, it offers hope and a vision that they can be an officer as well. If you can see it, you can be it. Promoting and highlighting women in law enforcement is an excellent way of doing this. This article and the department’s video on the women of APD are significant to the advancement of women in law enforcement.

What is your advice to women considering joining law enforcement or just starting out in the profession?

Join us! Believe in yourself. Life does not have to be perfect or ideal for you to succeed. Don’t let fear or naysayers keep you from your dreams. No matter what the career choice is, the message is the same. Whatever burns in your heart has your heart, and it will not be quenched until you take the steps to go after it. Also, find someone you trust and look up to who can help guide and encourage you.

What do you wish more people (both within the profession and outside it) knew about women in law enforcement?

Externally, I wish more people realized that many of us join this profession to help people and make a difference in society, and we are much the same as anyone else in the community; we love our families and believe in the work we do. Internally, I wish more people took the time to realize that the job can be difficult for us in ways they may not experience. Seeing someone as your sister, mother or daughter helps to bring perspective. Societal biases are a part of every profession and community. Women are resilient and strong — both mentally and physically — and some of the most revered leaders of today, but we still have work to do.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

Women’s History Month is an important time to recognize the many contributions and roles of women as professionals, sisters, mothers, daughters and friends. Just as I look forward to the time when we are no longer celebrating firsts, I hope one day awareness of our contributions will be so normal that Women’s History Month will be year-round!