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Q&A: Police Chief Jennifer Paster on her career, departmental challenges, and why she’s getting a social work degree

Brookline Chief of Police Jennifer Paster in her office. Photo by Sam Mintz
April 2, 2024

Jennifer Paster, the first female chief of police in Brookline history, joined the Brookline Police Department as a patrol officer in 2000 and was appointed chief in May 2023.

Paster’s appointment as chief came after she spent nearly a year as acting chief, following the termination of her predecessor, Ashley Gonzalez, who was fired after just months on the job for sexually harassing female employees.

Paster has spent much of her career focusing on restorative justice and crisis intervention. She has worn several hats in the department, including as a DARE officer in the schools, BPD’s first intelligence analyst and a deputy superintendent.

In an interview with Brookline.News, Paster, 47, talked about her experiences as a female police officer, the state of Brookline police amid staffing issues and budget cuts, her plans and goals as chief, and her nearly-complete quest to obtain a master’s degree in social work. She declined to comment on the tenure of her predecessor.

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This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Brookline.News: How did you end up being a police officer?

Jennifer Paster: I grew up in Brookline on Brook Street, one of eight kids. My oldest brother was a police officer. He joined the department in 1994. He is the person who planted the seed for me when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, after graduating from Union College with a dual degree in sociology and psychology.

I did my honors thesis on the issue of police discretion and decision making, but I hadn’t really considered it as a career for myself.

At the time, all of the police officers I knew were middle-aged men. It was not really a door that I saw was open for me. My brother encouraged me to sign up for the test and get that ball rolling, and he introduced me to a few women who he assumed I would be able to relate to better. Two of them are still here in the department. In very casual meetups with them, I began to see it as something that I could do.

Once I got in here and started, I really loved the job. I really liked the overnight shift and some of the cases that would come up. I did feel like I was welcomed right from the beginning. It was a serious job; a lot of responsibility was put on me when I was 23 years old. But it was exciting, and I really did enjoy the cases that allowed me to help people.

Brookline.News: What was it like being a woman in a male-dominated field and department?

Paster: It’s not lost on me that when I started, when I stood for roll call in the patrol division, I was standing next to the first woman that ever worked here in the department, Judy Hobin. I’m sure we had very different experiences.

I don’t feel like I faced barriers, at least not getting into the department. Any of the obvious forms of discrimination that I faced were really from people I would meet on the street. They weren’t internal.

I won’t say it never happened. There were a few comments here and there, but mostly from people that retired shortly after I started. I’m one of four brothers, and I played ice hockey on the boys’ team. It wasn’t an environment that I was uncomfortable in. I didn’t know any differently.

One of the nice things about the residency requirement, is that so many of the people I came to work with were people that I came up with. They were my peers.

Brookline.News: You’ve been in the job as chief officially for almost a year, and longer than that if you count time spent in an acting capacity. How’s it going?

Paster: Overall, I think it’s going pretty well. One thing I’ve done well is pick my command staff. I’m surrounded by really good people who have the best interests of the department in mind. That’s helped me to focus on the outward things that impact the town more broadly.

Brookline.News: How would you describe the state of the department? How’s morale and staffing?

Paster: I can only speak from where I sit, but I think things are much better. It’s hard to measure morale, but I look at staffing levels, we’ve had two people leave for other departments since I’ve been in the seat. And after that, things have been pretty steady. We haven’t seen officers leaving for other departments. We’ve done really well with recruiting. I’m proud of the number of officers that we’ve been able to hire, and the quality of the officers we’ve been able to hire.

Brookline.News: Despite that recruiting, the department currently has 18 vacancies. Do you feel like you can adequately cover the public safety needs of the town?

Paster: If you look at our organizational chart, the department’s divided into four divisions. Patrol is the biggest. Patrol is the uniformed officers that most people are used to. That will always be the priority to fill those shifts, and so I have no intention of cutting down on the number of uniforms on the street to answer those types of calls when we go short.

If we’ve determined for a shift that we need 11 officers on the street, if we don’t have 11 coming to work that day, we offer it as overtime. And if nobody accepts it, then the officers from the prior shift get forced to stay.

It impacts the newest officers, because the forcing happens by seniority. And we don’t like to see our officers come on, bright-eyed and ready to go, and then just slap them down with ‘you’re getting forced.’ That’s something that can definitely kill the spirit of anyone coming in.

So we’ll fill those gaps [in patrol]. But you’re going to see shortages in detectives, community service, and up until this year, traffic was very short staffed. It means we can go to fewer events sometimes. If there’s a violent crime, we’ll authorize detectives to come in on overtime if there aren’t enough to work. But the cases we’re used to seeing, car break-ins, larcenies, credit card frauds, those types of things, they’ll get to them when they can.

Brookline.News: Four of those positions are being held open in fiscal year 2025, as the town deals with budget issues, so even if you were to find officers to fill those vacancies, you wouldn’t be able to fill all of them. Is that frustrating?

Paster: I understand it. When you need funds for other things, they have to come from somewhere. This year, it was decided that the police department was that somewhere. I pledged to not take away from 911 response, from officer safety, but the other areas, they’ll lose out. For example, I had envisioned when I came in, being able to fully staff the Community Service Division on the evening shift, maybe with a co-responder, a mental health clinician that would be a true co-responder. That’s something that is going to have to wait.

Is it frustrating? Yes. Because it’s something that is very important to me, and I think it would be a huge benefit to the community. But I understand.

Brookline.News: I saw on your bio that you’re working on a master’s degree in social work.

Paster: So close. Eight more weeks! I anticipate graduating from Boston College in May.

Brookline.News: Why are you doing that? How does it connect to your job, and what does it change about how you look at the job?

Paster: People who don’t know somebody in law enforcement – if everything they know from law enforcement is either from media or TV – really, you can take away the fancy equipment, sliding along the dashboard, the tactics and fancy stuff. At the end of the day, we’re in the people business. That’s what we do. We work with people; we deal with people. And we have to know how to talk with people, communicate with people, empathize with people, understand their needs. I think there’s a natural connection there.

A lot of times when we encounter people, whether they’ve committed a crime or they’re just in crisis and somebody calls about them, what are the underlying issues? It’s mental health, behavioral health, primary needs not being met. We can’t give somebody housing, but if our officers are equipped with the knowledge of how to get them to [the Department of Transitional Assistance] or what they can do about it, what are the other resources in town, that’s what we’re here to do, to help people. It’s thinking about public safety differently.

Brookline.News: Do you have any updates on Detective Duane Danforth, who was placed on leave recently following his arrest in Florida?

Paster: His court case is pending and so I can’t say much more than that, other than that he’s still on leave.

Brookline.News: Speaking generally, what’s your attitude or policy on discipline and managing issues like this that come up?

Paster: I just try to be fair and impartial. I don’t think our officers should be afforded less than what we afford our citizens. I think all the work that I’ve done with regard to restorative justice efforts, and trying to be mindful of extenuating circumstances, should be applied across the board.

Brookline.News: Last summer, you were dealing with a home invasion, a high-profile crime of a sort that rarely happens in Brookline. What was your experience like leading that investigation?

Paster: I would take full credit for leading that investigation, but I think we all know it was not me leading the investigation. That’s where I’m thankful to have really good supervisors, a strong detective division, with the supervisors assigned to that case, in particular, having a lot of experience and a lot of connections with other law enforcement agencies that led to a successful, so far, resolution.

Brookline.News: What other priorities are on your mind as you go into your second full year on the job? What’s at the top of the list?

Paster: Strategic planning is something that I really am ready to get started with. The first year, it’s kind of been just figuring out what’s what, getting a firm grasp on our budget and my responsibilities as they pertain to town government overall, as opposed to just the police department. I won’t say I’ve mastered that, but I am now ready to start looking to have a vision for the police department, what it should look like five years from now if things go my way.

Brookline.News: How are you thinking about gender and racial diversity in the department, and how people from diverse backgrounds are treated?

Paster: I feel like it’s been going really well. Our newest officers, our most recent classes, have been the most diverse we’ve ever seen. I recently signed us up for the [National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives] 30×30 initiative. They launched an initiative a couple of years ago, with a goal to have 30% of your officers be female by the year 2030.

That is directly related to the construction you’ll see soon here in the building, to expand our women’s locker room, and specifically our women’s supervisors locker room. When the building was designed, they didn’t foresee that there might be more than one or two female supervisors.

Currently, 18 of the department’s 116 sworn officers are female, six of whom are supervisors, according to information provided by the department. Three of the five student officers currently training at the police academy are female. Nine of the department’s officers are Black, 14 are Hispanic and 11 are Asian. Four officers of color are supervisors.