by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Michelle Lajoye-Young is living history; in 2015, she was appointed Undersheriff of Kent County and became the first woman in the history of the department to hold the position. She belongs to a small but burgeoning group. Today, women make up just 13 percent of law enforcement workers in the United States, while 7 percent are in positions of leadership, but the numbers are growing.
“I am definitely proud of being a woman in this field and having developed with some of the challenges it presents, but also capitalizing on the opportunities it presents,” Young, whose kind face often ruptures into a shining smile that reaches her eyes, said.
The portrait Young paints of her formative years is vivid: As the daughter of a Shiawassee County Sheriff, she grew up running through the hallways of the county jail, riding in a patrol car and most importantly, bearing witness to citizens approaching her father in public as they sought guidance for difficult situations they were facing. She was indelibly impressed by the manner with which her father listened, provided direction and always followed up as he helped people navigate challenging paths.
She recalls many nights waking to the trill of the ringing phone, dashing down stairs and lifting the receiver from the cradle to hear, “I need to speak with Sheriff Lajoye.”
“He gave people our home phone number,” she said. “And whenever they would call, he would talk them through whatever was going on. That is what police work is.”
Young goes on to explain how the lessons she acquired from watching her father work have endured through her 29 years in law enforcement.
“Those experiences with him really guided my goals,” she divulged. “It was quite an opportunity to understand that human beings go through a lot of things in life and some of the outcomes are not what they are proud of, but they are still human beings and still have hopes and dreams and goals and ambitions.”
When Young was a girl and the desire to impact her community in such a way was taking shape inside of her, women made up roughly 2 percent of all law enforcement workers.
“My dad was not happy when I choose to go into this field,” she expressed. “He was scared for me. It was dangerous. He knew what I would have to endure, but he is very happy now.”
According to a survey conducted in 2013 by the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, 169 women were leading more than 1,500 police departments, sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement agencies across the U.S.
Prior to her appointment to undersheriff, Young has worked in the department as a sergeant, lieutenant and captain. She credits the robust leadership skills that helped her elevate to these positions in part to her years with the National Guard and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), in which she served from 1985 to 1998.
“I had a lot of leadership training very early in my life,” she explained. “I was able to put into practice the leadership principles that I learned. Practice in feeling confident in a decision, making decisions often, having consequences for the decision and making another decision after that, was instrumental in me feeling confident to moving up into leadership.”
“It is a very rich opportunity to have people at their most difficult time. When you look at it that way, we are guardians.”
Young first stepped into the sheriff’s department in 1989 when she started working as a corrections officer and was immediately taken with the opportunity to put into practice everything she gleaned from her father all those years before. She brought empathy to her work while maintaining the systems that are necessary for inmates to thrive.
“It was a different world from what I expected,” Young recalled. “It was way different from what I grew up around, but I had a vision that these are people that have a need that I can answer. I enjoyed the contact with the inmates quite a bit.”
In 1992, Young’s career shifted in an exciting direction: She was asked to be part of a group to help the expanding corrections facility transition to a direct supervision style and introduce technology into the department, which included automated livescan fingerprints and mugshots. And so, at 25 years old, she began her foray to the front lines of marrying technology and law enforcement to create culture-changing efficiencies in what may very well be the most impactful developments in criminal justice to date.
“It was so fun and challenging,” Young recalled with a smile. “I learned to type reports on a manual typewriter at the sheriff’s department; there was no technology back then.”
At the time, the department managed inmate records on a mainframe computer and was plagued by issues with coordinating inmate mugshots and fingerprint storage (fingerprints must be kept forever). Young describes the thrilling challenge of developing technologies during a time when there was little to benchmark against.
“I have always taken a very operational approach to technology, meaning if the need doesn’t come out of the operations, you shouldn’t be investigating the technology,” Young said. “We had a problem first, identified objectives we wanted, then worked with vendors to develop the technology.”
As a result of the efforts made by Young and her team, the department became the first agency in Michigan to implement livescan fingerprinting, which is now a mandate that builds criminal history at the state and federal level.
“I had to figure out how to do the technology in order to implement it,” she expressed. “It was incredibly rewarding. I look back on what a blessing it was to be at the right place at that time where I got to work on those projects and have an impact on some of the things we take for granted now.”
She was asked to bring her experience to support services and to communications to develop technologies before being transferred to road patrol.
Her patrol included the south area of the county: Caledonia, Byron Center and Gaines Township. She found the skill set for the job to be similar to that of her previous work in corrections, with a few discrepancies.
“You just don’t know what is going to come next,” she explained. “You really have to deal with what is in front of you. I learned a lot in that role about the vast variety of resources we can pull in to help an officer assist with different things.”
After a stint as the south sector commander, Young was asked to head up support services as the division commander. She implemented projects that included consolidating multiple dispatch centers into one, upgrading out-of-date technology, in-car ticketing and accident reporting and online reporting, which had a resounding effect on policing.
“It helped us keep officers out, as opposed to them having to come back to the office several times a day to get their reports done,” Young said. “Obviously no project was alone — there were several people that really helped and brought those things together, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of the force multiplier effect that these projects had.”
In 2011, Young was appointed to the position of chief deputy, a role that saw her writing policy and procedure, balancing the budget and heading human resource decisions.
Now, as Undersheriff, her duties include overseeing operations for the entire department.
“No two days are ever alike,” Young laughed.
With a typically packed schedule, Young looks at her agenda every night before going to bed in order to prepare for the day to come.
“When I see a blank agenda, there is a lot of opportunity to get involved with things, and those are the days that are the most diverse,” she described.
On those days, her staff as well as citizens are welcome to present ideas and concerns to her. Young recognizes that much of what she encounters on a day-to-day basis cannot be put to rest at 5 p.m. When she leaves her office, she takes lingering thoughts with her onto her paddleboard or kayak and turns them over in her mind while she paddles serenely around the lake she lives on.
Young spends considerable time bringing her bounty of expertise to a number of local and statewide committees and boards, including three different FBI committees to advise on policy for technology and a county-wide executive committee for diversity, which gives her the opportunity to speak to county staff on the subject of women in leadership.
She emphasizes that in spite of the disparities between the number of men and women working in law enforcement, the field is one that is excellent for women leaders.
“We [women] provide a more communication approach to things,” Young said. “That tends to be our focus in law enforcement. The guardian style is more emphasized, and that particularly becomes more apparent with the staff at the upper level.”
Young hopes that her dynamic career serves as a guiding influence for young women aspiring to step into law enforcement and rise up the ranks.
“I am always glad if I can be of inspiration to someone who is considering a leadership role— I love that,” she expressed. “That voice in the leadership fabric in our community needs to be there—it needs to be a diverse voice and have a variety of perspectives.”
When Young speaks of the fundamental role of policing, how it has evolved and what her hopes for the future are, she radiates the passion and excitement of a luminary carrying the lessons of her father, which she has maintained throughout her entire dynamic career.
“It is a very rich opportunity to help people at their most difficult time. When you look at it that way, we are guardians, and that is what we are here to do. That is what we should do.”