Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts will retire in January after a 35-year career in law enforcement. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — Janine Roberts was still a new police officer in Portland when a friend on the force made a congenial offer. Did Roberts want to play on a women’s rugby team?

No way, she said. “I’m a cupcake.”

Remembering the moment today, Roberts laughs. She wasn’t going to get beat up unless she was getting paid for it, she joked.

But the nickname stuck, and Roberts embraced it, even as she had to repeatedly prove her toughness as she rose through the ranks to lead one of Maine largest police departments.

As a female police officer who first worked a beat in 1985 in Portland, she faced years of sexist assumptions and criticisms from her male peers who second-guessed her judgment and ability.

After six years as chief of the Westbrook Police Department, the 56-year-old Roberts announced in late September that she plans to retire in January after 35 years in police work.


She plans to start a business, Chief Cupcake’s Consulting, where she will offer workplace safety training to help businesses and their employees prepare for emergencies, disasters and threats of all kinds. Roberts said she will bring her experience with de-escalation, threat response tactics and improving employees’ situational awareness to help businesses of all types.

The work will allow her to finally travel the country in her motor home, visiting relatives and friends from other police departments, and take more long rides on her Harley-Davidson, license plate, “CHF CPCK.”

When she leaves policing, Maine will have only five female chiefs out of about 160 departments. At the start of October, there were seven departments with women at the helm, but Freeport Chief Susan Nourse, a 36-year veteran officer, announced she would also leave policing in January. Westbrook, with about 19,000 residents and 44 officers, is the largest of the female-led police agencies.

In a wide-ranging interview, Roberts discussed her life in law enforcement, and the sweeping changes she’s witnessed in society and in her profession, including the explosion in activism across the country since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, and how her experience as one of only a few women in the ranks has shaped her leadership philosophy.

Roberts said she sees the work of police as much larger than crime-fighting, and frames her department’s responsibility to the community in a holistic way, where officers are more often connecting people with services than writing summonses or making arrests, she said.

Westbrook City Manager Jerre Bryant, who interviewed Roberts for an interim chief position in 2014 and supported her hire full-time, said it is Roberts’ natural sensitivity to other people, and her ability to empathize with them, that will leave a lasting mark on the city and the department.


“We brought her on in the interim capacity, and from the outset, it was a great fit,” Bryant said. “Westbrook was changing. Law enforcement was changing. There was an increased focus not just on enforcing the law, but trying to drill down and address some of the causes of criminal behavior, of the need for police services, of assisting people facing challenges.”

She started a program to offer on-call assistance to victims of domestic violence, and hired a full-time substance abuse liaison to help people with addiction problems.

Internally, Roberts modeled a peer-support program for Westbrook officers so they can help one another when they feel overwhelmed by the stress and trauma of the job or experience other difficulties that affect their job performance.

“She really showed an understanding and an empathy of those who needed help, needed service, and it brought sort of a different focus, a different sensitivity to the law enforcement agency, which we thought was incredibly valuable and timely,” Bryant said. 


Since she was 10 years old, Janine Roberts has always felt an instinct to protect the vulnerable. It was part of who she has always been, she says, but also a response to some of the earliest trauma of her life, the loss of her parents at an early age, one to an illness and the other to an accident at home.


“My morals and values were instilled in me by my parents before I lost them,” she said. “Based on that foundation, I have been wanting to protect the underdog since I was that young, just seeing people not treated fairly or right, children, kids, other classmates, that type of stuff, and just wanted to try to help and make a difference.”

Roberts’ career was part of a nationwide rise in the number of women entering police work. In 1987, two years after Roberts began patrolling, about 7 percent of officers nationwide were female, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Statewide figures describing the number of women in policing from the 1980s are difficult to come by – nationwide police demographic reporting only began in 1995 – but the gender imbalance was still dramatic. In 1995, there were 2,011 police officers in Maine, and only 90 were women, according to an FBI count.

Today, the number of female cops is up to about 12 percent nationally, and in Maine in 2019, women accounted for 23 percent of the 2,370 sworn officers, or 550 female officers.

Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts sits on her Harley-Davidson with a license plate that reads “CHF CPCK” – for chief cupcake. Her longtime nickname is “cupcake” and the name of her new business will be Chief Cupcake’s Consulting. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When she entered the Portland force at the age of 21, many of the veteran officers were in their 40s and 50s, meaning they were trained in the 1960s and 1970s. Old attitudes ran deep, she said, and the criticism she navigated from male officers was fundamental in developing an early philosophy that guides her today.

“Different means different,” she said. “Wrong means you violated a policy or a law.”


Other officers would tell her she should have “taken action” on a call, when she preferred to talk an issue out.

“I’d tell them, it’s my breath to waste,” Roberts said.

There was also the common presumption that women couldn’t handle the physical demands of police work, which sometimes means dealing with combative people. Earning respect of male colleagues meant going “hands on” with a suspect and not backing down. She said one officer in Portland barely acknowledged her until he saw her grapple with a suspect who did not want to go to jail.

“That veteran officer called me later and said I earned his respect,” Roberts said. “It was one of those things. That (arrest) got him over the hump.”

It was a common test at the time, said Jo-Ann Putnam, chief of the Wells Police Department. Putnam attended the police academy one year after Roberts and remembered the struggle to make inroads among male officers.

“Coming up in the time when Janine and I (did), you learned the male way of doing it, and you either did it or you were kind of out-casted,” Putnam said. “You had to earn the respect of the other officers, and I think that’s tough.”


It wasn’t until after Putnam helped apprehend a person who was fighting with officers that her colleagues stopped checking in on her like they were her baby sitters, she said.

“A woman can do the same job as a male in this field, and in some instances do a better job,” Putnam said. “I’m not saying guys don’t listen, but sometimes females listen a little bit more. There’s good and bad in everything, and Janine is one of the good ones. She’ll be missed in the Maine law enforcement community. She was very well respected.”

Even after she was promoted to lieutenant and had more than 15 years on the job, Roberts said she still ran into sexist attitudes.

During one command staff meeting in the early 2000s, discussion turned to rotating new officers through different shifts to give them more experience. One male lieutenant complained that having too many women on a particular shift was “unsafe,” and suggested that women couldn’t hold their own if a fight broke out in the Old Port.

Janine Roberts came to embrace the early nickname, “Cupcake,” even as she repeatedly proved her toughness as young officer in the 1980s. It was a common presumption then that women couldn’t handle the physical demands of police work. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I quickly asked, ‘Are we hiring male officers and female officers, or are we hiring police officers?’” Roberts said. “And there was one captain in the room who had the courage to say, ‘We’re hiring police officers.'”

Roberts was disappointed, but not surprised, she said. While she has embraced criticism to improve as a professional, it also meant trying to untangle which critiques were fair and which were driven by bias.


After she was promoted to lieutenant in 2001, Roberts competed six times for promotions under three different chiefs over seven years, but she was never selected to advance. It hurt her morale, and in retrospect, she should have left Portland sooner to look for other opportunities, she said. Even now, as she does with other tough questions, she tries to separate how she feels from what she knows.

“Is any of that gender-based? How can I say it is? I can have my suspicions about it, but what are the facts? The challenge of navigating your own emotions …”

Her voice trailed off.

“I was competitive in every process, in my mind. Was it relationships? Was it that the other candidates had other qualities? Was it the good-old-boy network?”

She retired from Portland in 2014, and soon thereafter, Westbrook came calling. She was selected as interim chief, and a year later, the hire was permanent.



Before Westbrook hired Roberts, the city’s police department was forced to confront its own gender bias problems.

Two female officers sued the city, alleging that male officers made comments and used gender slurs to refer to them, after the female officers refused to give preferential treatment during traffic stops to people who were close to other Westbrook police officers. The officers alleged the department and the city failed to take action and correct the situation after they made complaints, leading to a hostile work environment for women.

In 2015, the city settled, paying each officer $30,000 plus extra for legal fees, and the officers are still employed by the city. One factor that led to the settlement was Roberts. She was changing the work culture.

While Roberts is proud of the accomplishments in Westbrook, she acknowledges that there is more work to do, including around racial justice and the general attitudes of distrust that many non-white people have toward police.

Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts is retiring after a 35 year career in law enforcement. Roberts is photographed on her porch where there is a Thin Blue Line Flag on display. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Since the death of George Floyd in May, communities across the country are demanding that police reckon with the effects their policies and practices have had on Black, brown and indigenous populations. Officers around the country have also faced unprecedented levels of distrust and animosity, including outright attacks and killings of police.

Thankfully, Maine remains one of the safest places in the country, both for police officers and residents. But it is still the whitest, most racially homogenous state. Minorities in Maine face disproportionate arrest rates, mirroring national trends. Although Maine’s largest cities are minuscule compared to the nation’s largest metro areas, with thousands of officers and millions of residents, activists here say they still feel targeted and treated unfairly by police.


Roberts thinks that police must find ways to be more open about how they can improve in response to criticism, and do so publicly. In turn, she said, members of the public should not paint all police as racist or biased simply because they wear the uniform. The understanding has to be nuanced and the communication two-way, she said.

Roberts agrees that in some ways, police are also asked to do too much. Poverty, problematic family dynamics, untreated mental health problems, and addiction are driving forces behind police calls, and reflect how vulnerable people do not have access to the help they need, often because government agencies and social service groups are underfunded and lack resources.

“(It’s) the reality that we don’t have the resources we need to effectively cover all of the expectations that our local and broader communities have of us,” she said.

After Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and crowds packed the streets, police chiefs from around Cumberland County, including Roberts, met on the steps of Portland City Hall to denounce racism and systemic injustice before an audience of reporters. They offered strong words but there was no plan for immediate action.

Roberts spoke at length and from the heart, she said, but her remarks were largely overshadowed when she said the words “every life matters,” offering her own twist on the slogans of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.”

Roberts publicly apologized the same day, and said she had more listening and learning to do.


At the same police event in June, she also told reporters that she was surprised and dismayed to hear that some young Black residents in Maine fear the sight of police and worry they may be hurt or killed by officers, and called on people to reach out to police if they feel distrustful of police, a difficult process that police departments around the country are attempting to navigate.

“One of the challenges is actually connecting with the people who are disenfranchised, or who are unhappy,” Roberts said in a recent interview. “How do we hear from them? How do we listen to them when we’re not in an enforcement or decision-making mode?”

After she apologized for her comments at the June press conference, Roberts said she heard from friends on Facebook, including many in law enforcement, who said she shouldn’t have backed down.

“There were a lot of people reaching out to me telling me there was no reason I had to apologize,” Roberts said. “I did need to apologize, because … people of color do experience our society differently, and all lives cannot matter until their lives matter.”

As for her advice about who may succeed her, Roberts has a few pointers. Surround yourself with people with different strengths, and then listen to them, and to others, when they offer input. Put the right people in the right places, and trust them to make good decisions.

She also passed on a nugget that came from her mentor, which has helped guide her, she said.

“Avoid making any decision based on emotion,” she said. “It was the best piece of advice I’ve gotten as a chief.”

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