Monica Alexander stood out from most of the Washington State Patrol’s recruits when she joined in 1996.

She was older (35 when she enrolled in the training academy) and had already gone down several career paths. She was a mother. And she was a black woman joining an agency her friends warned might not be accepting of her.

But in Alexander’s mind, the reasons she stood out made her a better trooper. She was less impulsive and more levelheaded. She brought much-needed diversity to a field dominated by white men. And her experience as a flight attendant came in handy when she needed to talk down drunk or angry drivers.

Alexander rose quickly through the ranks, and last week she retired from the State Patrol after a nearly 23-year career.

“I’m so proud to have worn the uniform,” Alexander, 57, said. “But more than that, speaking up for people who were forgotten or who hadn’t been thought about, that was amazing.”

As captain of government and media relations, Alexander worked closely with legislators such as Reps. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, Klickitat County, to address the state’s backlog of sexual-assault evidence kits and the challenges facing families of missing Native American women.

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“It’s one thing to have great relationships with people, but she really paired that with the ability to move systems and make changes,” Orwall said of Alexander. “She’s knowledgeable and always trying to learn new things so she knows the best practices. But at the end of the day, she really just cared about people.”

At Alexander’s retirement party, State Patrol Chief John Batiste said Alexander inspired “countless” women, including his own daughter, to pursue careers in law enforcement.

Alexander was the first black woman to be promoted in the agency’s history when she became a sergeant in 2003. At the time of her departure, she was still the only black woman out of more than 1,000 troopers to have risen through the ranks.

And that’s a fact that troubles her.

“I truly had to prove my ability to be a leader”

Alexander made the jump to law enforcement after having her son, Spencer. Being a flight attendant meant too many hours away from him and, going through a divorce at the time, she wanted to find a job that would allow her to support him and finish her bachelor’s degree.

During a ride-along with the State Patrol, Alexander said, she immediately knew she found her new job. She became a cadet in 1996 and a commissioned trooper two years later.

Alexander worked in South Seattle, then became the agency’s public-information officer in King County. She also did traffic reports on KOMO-TV for six years, along with the man she would eventually marry, current State Patrol Assistant Chief Johnny Alexander.

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As she neared five years as a trooper, Alexander prepared for the sergeant’s exam. She studied before her son got up and after he went to bed, and even brought her books when she took him to the skating rink on weekends.

She placed first on the exam.

At the time, she told The Seattle Times she didn’t think she had been treated any differently because of her identity, according to a 2003 article.

But now, looking back, she remembers the snide comments and doubts from her peers, the allegations that she must have cheated and that she wasn’t ready for high-pressure situations.

“Internally, people didn’t have a lot of faith in my ability to lead and to be a sergeant. And that made me a little sad, because I was so happy,” Alexander said. “I truly had to prove my ability to be a leader in this organization.”

“The pipeline is empty”

Alexander continued to rise, becoming a lieutenant in 2013 (the same year she graduated from Evergreen State College) and a captain two years later.

It helped that Alexander had a magnetic personality, said Capt. Shannon Bendiksen, a 19-year veteran of the Patrol. “She made you feel like you were the only person who mattered in the world in the moment you were speaking to her,” Bendiksen said.

Alexander cultivated female mentors outside the agency, including Seattle’s current police Chief Carmen Best, and guided many women within it, including Bendiksen, who is now the  Patrol’s only female captain.

“At times it feels as though there is a double standard where you have to do better and work harder to be seen as good as a man,” Bendiksen said.

Alexander said she loves the competitive spirit in the agency. But when asked if her rise helped pave the way for other women of color, she had two words: “Not yet.”

Out of 1,046 commissioned troopers in the State Patrol now, just five are black women, according to the agency. And none has been promoted, although the chief’s daughter, Trooper Johnna Batiste, is expected to become a sergeant this year. It could be almost a decade before she rises to captain, Alexander said.

“That’s a really long time not to have a voice at the upper level that brings some diversity about what goes on in the agency,” Alexander said. “That to me is a disappointment. The pipeline is empty.”

Chief Batiste said the agency is working hard to diversify but, like other agencies, is having difficulty recruiting. The State Patrol has been looking at what’s worked for other agencies, he said.

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“We have to give people peace of mind”

Soon after Alexander became captain, she started to work closely with Orwall and Mosbrucker to establish a statewide sexual-assault kit tracking system. She’d continue to work alongside them toward clearing the backlog of untested kits.

“As I learned more about it, it became huge. I thought, ‘We have got to do something. We have to give people peace of mind,'” she said. “That same moment happened with missing and murdered indigenous women,” she said, referring to the epidemic of violence faced by indigenous women and girls and the lack of resources assigned to such cases.

Mosbrucker texted Alexander late one night, asking if State Patrol would be willing to conduct a study on missing Native American women in the state.

With the passage of Mosbrucker’s bill in 2018, Alexander met with people across the state who shared their stories of missing loved ones and their frustrations with law enforcement, and she wrote the 2019 Missing and Murdered Native American Women report.

“My job was to go in and explain and take the blowback. And it came,” she said. “(In law enforcement), we put our uniforms on and we think, ‘I’m here to save the world.’ But sometimes you just aren’t doing it right. And I wanted to be guided by the community.”

There were many emotional days, Alexander said. And there were some big moments, like putting photos of Alyssa McLemore, who disappeared from Kent a decade ago, on the side of semitruck trailers and securing funding for two Native American liaisons within the  Patrol.

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A brief retirement

After 22 years and 9 months on the job, Alexander didn’t think there was a path forward for her in the State Patrol in the near future.

“I felt like I plateaued,” she said. “And there are other things out there I want to do.”

Her retirement won’t last long. Alexander was recruited by the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, where she’ll be an advanced instructor teaching future law-enforcement officers starting in late September.

“I want to teach them how to work with communities that have huge walls,” Alexander said. “You can be honest and open to take those walls down. But there’s a lot of history there, and you have to know the history to move beyond it.”