Police Maj. Ann Starling is the first woman to reach the rank of major in the Largo police department.
She graduated from St. Petersburg College’s Southeastern Public Safety Institute in 2004. One of her first law-enforcement posts was inside an igloo-like structure as part of a wilderness adventure program. But life in a snow cave didn’t suit the Florida native.
Tampa Bay Newspapers interviewed Starling about her role as an administrator in the department, where she is “fortunate to be surrounded by strong, capable female leaders who inspire me every day, both in the Largo Police Department and the City of Largo as a whole,” Starling said.
Policing has become a different animal in recent years, as officers increasingly interact with residents facing mental health issues. Starling supervises officers who hit the street in their cruisers with guns and tasers, but Largo Police also use a laptop counselor program called Telehealth Remote Access to Crisis Evaluation to quickly provide mental health support to disturbed individuals.
Police also face emotional problems, often as a result of pressures on the job. Brendan Arlington, a 16-year veteran of the Largo department, committed suicide in January. The department’s officers, wearing black arm bands, lined Ulmerton Road for miles as a hearse carrying his body made its way to U.S. Highway 19.
Starling told Tampa Bay Newspapers a little bit about herself, her job, and how she got into policing. She examines the cost policing can exact on law enforcement professionals.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I grew up on a farm near a small North Florida town called Lawtey — population about 700! Before Largo, I worked in the prison and probation systems. I worked in a wilderness-adventure program in North Carolina where we taught youthful offenders practical skills for better decision-making and confidence-building. This included spending several days in a snow cave. I realized that this was not good for a native Floridian. I moved back to sunny Florida to thaw out and learned from the best as I got into policing.
Q: Who inspired you as a youngster in Lawtey?
A: The one person who comes to mind when I think of who mentored me is my mother, Elaine Starling. Although I had a wonderful childhood, I truly did not realize the impact that she had on so many people until she passed away. The number of people who told me how my mother had changed their lives was incredible. She embodied the words “humble” and “kind” and I can only hope that I can live up to her example. She was a true servant-leader who was kind to each and every person she met.
Q: You did the real policing, the crime-fighting stuff, too?
A: Absolutely! I started out as a regular patrol officer on the midnight shift and I loved every minute of it. I then trained as an Honor Guard member, a crime scene investigator and a traffic homicide investigator — all while working as a patrol officer. I also was the first female assistant commander of Tactical Apprehension and Control (Largo’s version of SWAT). The dedication and professionalism of these officers was such a rewarding and humbling experience.
Q: What’s the toughest part of being a police officer?
A: Adapting to the ever-changing needs of our society. The various “hats” every officer must wear are more than the academy can prepare them for, so we hire well-rounded and good-hearted police officers.
He or she plays the role of a marriage counselor, social worker, therapist, enforcer, parent — and the list goes on. It’s difficult for a 21-year-old rookie officer to play therapist. Or the veteran officer who plays the role of marriage counselor when his own marriage is on the rocks. Remember, citizens don’t call us when they’re having a good day. It’s important that we not take anything personally. We are there to turn chaos into calm.
Q: What’s the toughest role of a police supervisor?
One of the most challenging roles of a supervisor is trying to manage the amount of trauma and stress the officers deal with on a daily basis. We, at Largo, recently lost an officer — Brendan Arlington — to suicide, and it was one of the most difficult experiences of my career. He was a friend to everyone he met, but the toll this job took on him was fatal. Trying to intervene with officers dealing with seemingly insurmountable stress is difficult.
The memories of horrific scenes and the shocking realization that people do horrible things to each other is difficult to manage. It’s the supervisor’s role to attempt to recognize mental health issues and intervene with any officers or employees having difficulty. That is a hard ask of someone who may be dealing with the same memories.
Q: Do you lead through humor, through example?
Leadership style changes with each situation — certain situations require precision and teamwork. In that case, debating orders does not work at all. With that being said, most of the time I try to lead by example and never ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do myself. I do my best to foster a culture of trust through inclusiveness and making the officers and civilians feel like they are cared for and have a voice. I believe that building relationships with your employees is important and I believe in empowering my people to make the decisions we have trained them to make. If I have done my job, they will make the best decision available.
Q: Every officer should have a supportive someone. How about you?
I am married to my partner of eight years, Olivia. She is an intelligent and supportive woman who puts up with way more than she should and is sensitive to the profession that I have chosen. Although we do not have children, we have a niece, Skylar, and nephew, Ridge, that we spoil on a regular basis. Our immediate household includes a dog and two cats. As a gay female in a male-dominated field, I truly believe that the City of Largo has fostered an inclusive and supportive environment. I am very fortunate to work for a city that provides opportunities for growth for everyone.