Folsom chief Cynthia Renaud is the only woman running a police department in the Sacramento region. She also helps run the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where she is set to become its president in 2020 – the second woman to hold that post in the organization’s 125-year history.
You can easily spot her on the executive board page of the IACP website. There, a smiling photo of Renaud, 47, stands out among the portraits of 13 older white guys, chiefs all, and the stern image of a police commissioner from the Bahamas.
This juxtaposition is emblematic of Renaud’s career, one where she never fit the tired profile of the burly or bombastic law enforcement leader but achieved positions of power anyway.
“I always wished I had this great story of knowing I wanted to be in law enforcement from the time I was a small child, but I didn’t,” she said.
Instead, Renaud, who has emerged as an oft-mentioned candidate for bigger opportunities, arrived at her chosen profession for the most basic of reasons: She needed a job.
Growing up in Long Beach, Renaud was pursuing her love of literature at Long Beach State when circumstances intervened. Her dad had died when she was 16. Her mom died a few years later. She was living with a sister who was a single mom with a baby.
“I realized I had to provide for my family,” she said.
She started out as temp employee working for the city of Long Beach, going wherever they sent her while she looked for a more permanent, higher paying job. Someone in the city, she can’t remember whom, suggested law enforcement. You should try a police ride-along, that person said.
She did. “It was fun and exciting,” she said. She could make $15.96 an hour at the police academy, which was a lot of money for her then. She put her education on hold and joined up. She took her sister to Sizzler to celebrate. “It was a big deal for us,” she said.
There were women in her class, but not many. That was in the early 1990s, but even now, women make up only 11.9 percent of full-time law enforcement officers in the U.S., according to a 2016 report from the 21st Century Policing Task Force, assembled by then-President Barack Obama.
Renaud served 20 years in the Long Beach Police Department, working her way up the ranks, from patrol to detective to supervisory positions including commander. She was sworn in as chief of police of Folsom on May 2, 2011, and oversees 73 officers. She is the first woman to hold the top job in Folsom. Also worth noting: A woman has never led Sacramento Police Department or the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
She currently is not a candidate for the job of sheriff in Sacramento County, and that’s a shame. Sheriff Scott Jones, after saying he wouldn’t run for a third term, has thrown his hat in the ring. Previously, Jones had handpicked and publicly endorsed one of his top lieutenants, Kris Palmer, to succeed him. Then, in January, Palmer unexpectedly dropped out.
It would be much better for a department criticized as a “good ol’ boy network,” one that lost a massive workplace discrimination lawsuit to four female deputies, if fresh faces were poised to chart a new course for the largest law enforcement agency in Sacramento County.
There is a story about why Renaud is not in the mix for sheriff, and it begins and ends with her love for her current job in Folsom. She said didn’t consider running for personal and professional reasons. But there are practical ones as well.
Running for sheriff costs money, and it takes time to raise funds. In 2010, for example, when Jones edged out now-Assemblyman Jim Cooper, both spent about $1 million campaigning. Imagine what a candidate would have to spend eight years later in a competitive race.
Running or not, Renaud has many admirers.
“She sees public safety as far bigger than police on the streets, but rather as the critical need to work together as a community to achieve that,” said Anne Marie Schubert, the district attorney of Sacramento County.
“The greatest lesson I’ve learned from her was simple yet very profound,” Schubert said. “If we can stop violence in the family, we can stop violence in our community.”
As a lover of words and stories – she eventually earned both a bachelor’s and master’s in literature from Long Beach State while working full-time as a cop – Renaud was moved by the works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.
She said she was drawn to the recurring themes of social displacement and how otherwise productive people were ruined by the circumstances of their lives. She saw parallels on the streets of Long Beach, where the violent offenders and drug dealers she arrested too often came from violent households.
Renaud became a devotee to prevention. She said she was inspired by Adam Eaton, a former Long Beach police sergeant who oversaw child-abuse cases and believed passionately that the department needed to partner with civilians to create more opportunities to intervene sooner in the lives of abused kids before they grow into abusers.
“Interacting with gang members on a daily basis, I got to know their stories,” Renaud said. “I heard about their lack of family structure. I knew they witnessed domestic violence. I saw the cycle of learned behavior. Violence in the home led to violent actions in the streets and communities.
“I’m not a social scientist, but I have to believe in the same way racism is taught, so is violence,” she said.
Renaud is a moderate Republican, and a world apart stylistically from Jones, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican in 2016 and has positioned himself as a partisan lightning rod in the region, even though his job, like Renaud’s, is a nonpartisan one.
In Folsom, Renaud quietly has been focusing on the well-being of her officers as a way of reducing violent clashes with suspects on the street. She is pursuing a program in which officers would devote parts of their day, particularly before they head out on patrol, to meditation and breathing techniques to lessen stress.
“When I got hired to be a police officer, there were still ashtrays in the squad room,” she said. “Now it’s about cross training, what are you eating, fitness. ... But if you show up to work in a bad mood, chances are you will take it out onto the streets. Working on mindfulness and mediation can be geared toward de-escalation of force, a lessening of force, making us healthier human beings and better partners with our community.”
Renaud has a 15-year-old daughter. Her husband is a retired policeman. She has relocated her sister from Long Beach to Folsom. Her phone rings often with bigger job offers, which she has so far turned down. She said she is happy with being actively involved with her family, her community and her department.
But don’t be surprised if one day soon, her name is circulated for a higher profile job in law enforcement. The profession needs leaders like her more than ever.