The first female officer in the county Police Department, Affton resident Winona ‘Jean’ Schrieber, 91, celebrates the 60th anniversary of her first day Dec. 21 with current officers, from left: Emily Wolfram, Melody Quinn, Lt. Diane Leonard, Schrieber, Capt. Melissa Webb, Dawn Neuman and Detective Laura Clements.
By Gloria Lloyd
Female police officers don’t seem revolutionary today, but county officials recently honored a south county resident for breaking barriers in 1957 as the first female officer in the St. Louis County Police Department.
County Executive Steve Stenger proclaimed Dec. 21 as Police Officer Winona “Jean” Schrieber Day to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first trailblazing days on the job of Schrieber, 91, who lives in Affton.
Schrieber was all smiles that same day at the county Board of Police Commissioners meeting as Stenger, police Chief Jon Belmar and Affton Southwest Precinct Capt. Melissa Webb honored her “pioneer spirit.”
Current female officers of all ranks and units crowded around Schrieber for photos. It was a stark contrast to Schrieber’s own experience, when the Police Department could barely figure out what to do with her.
“They tried me everywhere because they weren’t sure what to do with a female police officer, so I appreciate their putting forth their efforts and using me as a tryout,” Schrieber said.
After growing up as an orphan in the city of St. Louis, Schreiber originally trained to be a nurse. She decided to pursue police work after she read an article about the first female police officer in New York.
That job seemed interesting, she thought.
And since Schrieber was willing to be the first, many more women have followed her footsteps onto the force.
“I thank you from the current, the past and the future officers of our organization because without you opening that door, we wouldn’t have been able to walk through it,” Webb said.
Schrieber started her career by serving as one of the first female officers in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, or SLMPD, from 1951 to 1955.
The county department had only been around for two years when Schrieber signed up in 1957 as one of 120 officers and the 203rd officer in its history. By 1971, the department had 420 men and three women before a recruiting push helped by Schrieber pulled in a large female class from the academy.
Today, 133 female officers fly helicopters, serve on the bomb squad, investigate crimes and patrol everywhere in the county, Belmar said.
As a way of signifying Schrieber’s central place in county Police Department history, Belmar presented her with the last remaining charter ribbon, an honor that designates her as an honorary charter member of the Police Department. One of the department’s charter officers attended Schrieber’s ceremony.
To drive home how different the world was in 1957, Belmar noted that gas was 24 cents a gallon, “American Bandstand” was on TV, “The Cat in the Hat” was a popular book and the movie “The Ten Commandments” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
“She trod new ground,” Belmar said. “It’s amazing when you think about the difference between 1957 and 2017. It was a different world back then. For someone to have the courage to step into law enforcement 60 years ago is remarkable.
“I’m so proud because when I see these young police officers, these female officers right here, I think about the fact that it is no longer unusual for us to see a female cop on the beat. And it hasn’t been for a long, long time. But that’s because of people like you.”
Today the uniforms of female officers are virtually indistinguishable from their male colleagues.
But in 1957, Schrieber was given a uniform with a brown skirt and high heels.
More stylish than practical, it didn’t have a place to hold what some may consider the most important part of an officer’s gear.
“She was all outfitted in 1957, ready to go, and she said, ‘Where do I put my gun?’” Belmar said. “The answer that was attributed to somebody was, ‘Perhaps in your purse.’”
The original uniform with the skirt was on display at Schrieber’s ceremony, without the purse.
Her 1957 salary was $4,500, a notch above the average officer salary of the time of $4,400.
In the 22 years before Schrieber retired on March 17, 1979, she served as an undercover detective, a missing-persons detective and in the juvenile division, community relations and recruitment. She patrolled the South County Precinct her last year on the force.
An officer who came on board in the 1970s said, “‘Detective Jean Schreiber was a source of support and encouragement for all of us,’” Stenger quoted.
As an undercover officer, Schrieber was in the unique position to serve as a decoy, making it appear that she and another officer were a couple, which seemed less suspicious. As a detective, she investigated crimes including a serial rapist along Big Bend Road.
She wasn’t always given the respect officials now say she deserves. Starting out at the SLMPD, Schrieber’s supervisors tried to steer her away from police work to parking patrol, which she avoided by requesting a transfer to the juvenile division.
At the county, Schrieber became such an expert on juvenile law that she taught the Missouri Juvenile Code at the police academy. It became her specialty to work with children caught up in the system to try to reform them rather than send them straight to court.
That work with juveniles was her most rewarding time on the force, Schreiber told Webb in a recent two-hour sit-down chat they had about being a female police officer. Her efforts paid off in some cases, and the children she helped never forgot her.
Bringing up one of Schrieber’s stories from their chat, Webb said Schrieber was out with her daughter recently when a woman came up to her and said, “Do you recognize me?”
Schreiber didn’t recognize the woman, who revealed that she was one of the juveniles that Schrieber once gave a second chance.
“She said had Jean not been in her life she surely would have gone down the wrong path,” Webb said.
Schreiber raised three children while serving as an officer: Nanci, James and the late Richard. Nanci attended the ceremony from California with her husband, Stephen, and James attended from Florida with his wife, Janice.
Since Schrieber retired, she has continued to give back by volunteering at the St. Louis Zoo and in the St. Louis Visitors Center in downtown St. Louis. She delivered Meals on Wheels for many years and was a volunteer driver for the St. Louis County Older Resident Programs, taking senior citizens to the store, the doctor and everywhere else, according to Stenger’s proclamation.
Even today, “she continues to serve, using her walker to get around, as she brings candy and joy and gives back rubs to those in the nursing home who have few visitors,” Stenger said in his proclamation.