When veteran Kansas City police Maj. Jan Zimmerman applied to be police chief of Raymore, Mo., there was one person she had to seek out for advice.
When Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning needs a trusted colleague and friend to bounce ideas off of, he knows whom to call.
And when Chuck Wexler, executive director of a prestigious, Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement think tank is seeking input from a police official known for innovative ideas and exceptional insight, there is one local woman on his short list.
“She is impressive in every way I can think of,” said Wexler, who heads the Police Executive Research Forum. “I look at Ellen Hanson as one of the real bedrock people of our profession.”
Hanson has earned this respect and regard over a 37-year law enforcement career that in October will come to an end after two decades as the Lenexa Police Department’s chief.
If a career can be measured by awards and accolades, then Hanson has succeeded far beyond what she could have imagined in 1975 when she first pinned on the badge and took the oath to protect and serve.
But perhaps the greatest tribute to Hanson’s character can be summed up in one word: constancy.
“She hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve known her,” said Wexler. “What you see publicly is the same person you see privately.”
In a room full of swaggering machismo, 27-year-old Ellen Hanson sat clutching her little straw purse and wondering what she was doing.
Female police officers were a rarity in 1975, but there she was, one woman among dozens of men competing for three job openings with the Lenexa Police Department. Hanson knew little about police work and even less about Lenexa.
“I didn’t even know where Lenexa was,” Hanson said.
She was a girl from “the dot,” raised in Kansas City, Kan., and she had answered the employment ad more out of curiosity than anything else.
But she was bright and articulate and fortunate that a man like John Foster was in charge.
Foster, a legend in Johnson County law enforcement circles, built the Lenexa Police Department from a small-town force with a handful of officers to a highly respected, professionally run organization in a city growing explosively along with the county around it.
“I had a wonderful male mentor who for some reason saw something in me,” she said of her former boss.
Whatever it was that Foster saw, hiring the woman who would eventually succeed him as chief may have been the best decision he ever made.
Hanson wasn’t so sure, though, that the decision she made was the right one.
Not on her first day as an officer on the street, when she spent 12 hours in blizzard conditions, pushing cars out of ditches.
Facing the unexpected challenges of police work was tough for anyone. For a woman in those days, there was the added challenge of having to prove yourself to skeptical male colleagues.
“Women weren’t always welcome and respected,” said Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass, who started his career about the same time.
Zimmerman, another contemporary, joined the Kansas City department in 1979.
“You had to prove yourself everywhere you went,” she said.
Hanson said Foster shielded her from any overt hostility. Only years later did a male colleague confide in Hanson, “The day you walked through the door, we thought our world was ending.”
He told other officers who expressed doubts about her hiring to give her a chance to prove whether she could handle the job.
Hanson never asked for any special consideration because of her gender and began forging her way through the ranks because of her ability and competence.
“That’s one of the things that always drew me to her,” Zimmerman said. “She didn’t play on being a woman.”
Though she never set out to be a pioneer, Hanson continually broke new ground with each promotion — detective, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and deputy chief.
And with each step, she opened new doors for women, not just in Lenexa, but in the wider law enforcement community.
“We now have more than 40 women officers,” Douglass said of Overland Park. “We would have never gotten to that point without Ellen demonstrating against all odds and adversity her capability.”
On June 18, 1989, Hanson, head of the Lenexa department’s investigations unit, was confronted with one of the most trying and complicated cases of her career.
It started in Overland Park with the disappearance of 24-year-old Joan Marie Butler.
A week later, two more young women were reported missing. And this time they were from Lenexa.
One of the biggest manhunts and criminal investigations in Johnson County history was under way, and Hanson was right in the middle of it.
A task force of officers from numerous agencies, led by one of Hanson’s detectives and another from Overland Park, dug up enough circumstantial evidence to conclusively link an ex-con named Richard Grissom Jr. with the three missing women.
Although the manhunt would end a few weeks later with the arrest of Grissom at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the mystery of what happened to Butler and 22-year-old Lenexa roommates Christine Rusch and Theresa Brown persists to this day.
Grissom, a strikingly handsome ex-con, was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of the three young women, even though their bodies were never found.
Like all of the officers involved in the case, Hanson regrets that police were never able to learn what happened to the young women.
“For the families,” she said.
But being a police investigator means that sometimes you never know all the answers.
“It’s one of the frustrations you have to learn to live with,” Hanson said. “You can’t let those things eat away at you.”
The Grissom case was one of those “once in a career” events for a police officer, except that, in the case of Hanson and Lenexa, it wasn’t.
In the summer of 2000, a decade after Grissom was shuttled off to spend the rest of his existence in a Kansas prison cell, Lenexa and Overland Park police once again found themselves working side by side in an investigation that would prove to be even more complex and bizarre than the bodyless triple-murder prosecution of Grissom.
There were bodies this time.
And they were found in barrels.
Ultimately, John Edward Robinson was convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to death.
Hanson downplays her own role in the Grissom and Robinson cases, instead, she says they are examples of the high-quality people she has working for her as well as the working relationships forged by Johnson County police agencies.
“It was excellent, excellent police work,” she said.
In 1991, when Foster stepped down as Lenexa’s police chief, nearly 100 people applied to replace him.
Hanson got the job.
Foster, who died in 2003, had proved prescient in his assessment of Hanson when he took a chance on hiring her.
“She appeared to be the type of person who could overcome any type of obstacle,” he said in a 1991 newspaper interview.
It was a smooth transition for the Kansas City area’s first female police chief. If Lenexa was the department that Foster built, it became the department that Hanson nurtured and shepherded into the 21st century.
She followed the example of her mentor in striving to make each employee a valued partner in pursuing the mission of serving the community.
The chief’s job, in Hanson’s view, is to provide the men and women who “do the real work” with all of the tools and training they need.
She also seeks to provide each employee with the opportunity to achieve whatever personal goals they aspire to.
It may sound trite, but Hanson truly believes it.
“A happy employee is a good employee,” she said.
She takes the time to get to know each employee. She knows their spouses and children and makes sure special occasions like birthdays don’t go unnoticed.
Though she expects people to work hard, she also appreciates the importance of making time for family and life away from the office.
Hanson knows that supervisors can’t sit in an office all day and think they have some kind of monopoly on good ideas. She encourages input from all employees.
“The best ideas come from collective thinking,” she said. “I have worked very hard to stay in touch with the people doing the real work.”
She is especially cognizant of the emotional toll that can come with police work and ensures that counseling and help is available for employees dealing with traumatic or troubling events.
Having good employees in the department benefits the entire city.
“The people here genuinely care about each other and the community,” Hanson said.
Hanson said the job her officers do is reflected in the feedback she hears from the community.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we get more compliments than complaints,” she said.
Though Hanson has never dwelled on the fact of her gender, because of the rarity of her position as a female police chief, she has been sought out to participate in numerous professional organizations across the country.
Those who work with her soon discover that she brings more to the table than the female perspective.
“She is someone who has the respect of a lot of men in a men’s world,” said Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.
Those who know Hanson cite things like her insight, honesty, common sense, empathy and intelligence as among her most admirable traits.
And she can get tough if she needs to.
“She doesn’t take crap off of anybody,” Zimmerman said.
Hanson said she has always embraced the idea that a woman doesn’t have to sacrifice her femininity to be an effective police officer.
But while she was fortunate to have a mentor like Foster who never treated her differently than her male counterparts, Hanson knows that many other females in law enforcement have not been as lucky.
To that end she helped found the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives.
The organization is designed to provide support and mentoring for women in leadership positions.
And despite the fact that women police officers are much more accepted and prevalent than they were in 1975 when Hanson became just the second woman officer in Johnson County, as a police chief, she is still a member of a very exclusive club.
Chief Mendy Hulvey of the Pittsburg (Kan.) Police Department said she feels fortunate to know that all she has to do is pick up the phone and call Hanson if she needs help with a problem.
“Personally and professionally, she’s one of a kind,” said Hulvey. “I would consider my career a success if I could accomplish half of what she’s accomplished.”
When Hanson steps down in October, Zimmerman of Raymore will be the only woman police chief in the Kansas City area.
“She told me that I would be carrying the torch,” Zimmerman said. “I would be proud if she considered me as following in her footsteps.”
Walking away from a job she loves will not be easy for Hanson, although as she says, “some days are easier to love than others.”
And it’s not that she has to do it.
She just believes it’s time.
“Twenty-one years is good,” she said.
As for her future?
“I never had a career plan,” she said. “I don’t have a retirement plan.”
She figures on taking four to six months to “clear my decks,” although she has already been asked by a friend — president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police — to serve as a parliamentarian with the organization.
Hanson said she would seek out volunteer opportunities, but expects to be “very particular about what I put on my plate.”
Of course, if history tells her anything, it’s that you never know where life is going to take you.
After all, in 1975, with no expectations for the future, Hanson tentatively tried out a new job.
“I never, never really thought I would stay,” she said. “But I just camped out and never left.”
To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.