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Void at top as female Boston detective retires

Genevieve King earned respect through her quiet but firm leadership style, one colleague recalls.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Genevieve King earned respect through her quiet but firm leadership style, one colleague recalls.

The big man was going quietly. Officer Genevieve King and her partner, Eileen Vanderwood, were coaxing the suspect out of the house where he had been terrifying his mother.

As they prepared to cuff him, two male officers, who were also responding to the domestic violence call, burst in. Before King knew it, there was blood on the floor and a broken chair.

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Male officers “always think you’re a damsel in distress,” King recalled, smiling slightly at the memory of that 1986 arrest in West Roxbury.

For 38 years, King, 55, worked for the Boston Police Department, starting as a summer intern in the insurance division as a teenager and rising through the ranks to become the first female captain detective in the city. Her retirement earlier this month means the department has no female captains in its command staff. There have been only five female captains — the highest civil service rank an officer can achieve — in the department’s history.

As captain and deputy superintendent, King commanded the Brighton district and oversaw the drug, sexual assault, and domestic violence units and the forensics division.

‘The women are . . . the care­givers. I say to them, “Take the test. You don’t have to take the job.” ’

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Small at 5 feet 2 inches, she nevertheless earned respect through her quiet but firm leadership style, said Gerry Sanfilippo, president of the detectives union, who graduated from the police academy in 1985, the same year as King.

“She did her job and knew how to treat people,” he said.

Sanfilippo was one of the two officers who responded to that 1986 domestic violence call but recalls it differently.

In his version, Sanfilippo and his partner stormed into the apartment to find the two women struggling with the large suspect.

“It was two steps left, two steps right. It looked like they were trying to waltz around the guy,” Sanfilippo said. His partner grumbled, “this looks like the Arthur Murray dance studio” and knocked down the suspect.

“ ’Cuff him, girls,’ ” the partner said.

When he was told King’s memory of that day, Sanfilippo laughed.

“There may be some truth in that,” he said. “Maybe us men are a little too rash to act, where women won’t fail to have that one last conversation.”

King’s early years in the department were tough, Vanderwood said.

Many men doubted the pair working in West Roxbury, and other female officers seemed resentful of their plum assignments doing undercover drug investigations.

“I don’t know if I would have stayed on the job in the beginning if I wasn’t with her,” said Vanderwood, who was raising two young children at the time.

King and Vanderwood were reassigned to Roxbury, a more dangerous district where the women were friendlier, King recalled.

“You watch out for each other,” she said. “You don’t have time for that rivalry.”

But some male supervisors were still skeptical. A deputy split up the partners and assigned them to ride with men because he thought it was “too dangerous” for women to ride together.

Marked by those experiences, King was determined to help other women rise through the ranks. She invited women taking promotional exams to come to study groups.

She and Vanderwood would reach out to new female recruits and tell them to call if they needed advice.

In 2008, after five years of litigation, King and two other female supervisors were successful in their attempts to get locker rooms for female superior officers, a change that gave them the same rights as male supervisors, who had their own locker rooms.

King sees the dearth of female leaders in the department not as a symptom of sexism, but rather a byproduct of the difficult choices female officers face in a highly demanding and unpredictable job.

“The women are usually the caregivers,” King said recently in an interview in her Quincy home. Many assume a promotion could disrupt a schedule built around taking care of children or an elderly parent.

“I say to them, ‘Take the test. You don’t have to take the job,’ ” King said. “I think they always expect the worst.”

But King, who did not have children and met her husband when she was in her 40s, acknowledges that she had more time to study for civil service tests and advance in the department.

Genevieve King was appointed a deputy superintendent in 2009, but demoted back to captain detective. She believes politics were to blame, but the department disputes that.

Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe/File 2007

Genevieve King was appointed a deputy superintendent in 2009, but demoted back to captain detective. She believes politics were to blame, but the department disputes that.

Despite her success, there were still setbacks. In 2009, Commissioner Edward F. Davis appointed King one of his deputy superintendents, in charge of detectives. But a little more than a year later, she was demoted back to captain detective. She said she was never given a reason, but believes it was because Mayor Thomas M. Menino wanted certain people in the command staff. She was not one of them, King said.

“The perception is that you did something wrong when you get demoted,” she said. “People don’t understand the politics of the city.”

In a statement, the department thanked King for her years of service, but disputed the reason for her demotion.

“King’s 2010 reassignment from Deputy Superintendent to Captain Detective was based on performance, not politics,” the statement said.

The department also defended its female representation in the top ranks.

“The current Boston Police command staff is the most diverse in its history,” the statement read. “While there are at present no female captains, there are three female deputy superintendents.”

King said she is not bitter about the demotion or her time in the Boston Police Department. She left, she said, “because it was just time.”

She is golfing, spending time with her four stepdaughters, and working with an organization dedicated to helping women to get out of prostitution.

She and her husband, a publisher, plan to spend their winters in Florida. They met 12 years ago, King said, while she was on the beat. She pulled him over for speeding, and let him off with a warning.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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