- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - Her face is plastered on billboards throughout the city during Huntington Police Department recruitment campaigns, but the inspiration she provides for the community is left untold by the advertisements.

Cpl. Stephanie Coffey, 40, is a 15-year veteran of the Huntington Police Department. While the department’s force number generally hovers above 100 officers, Coffey is just one of a handful of female law enforcement agents.

While working as a woman in law enforcement might seem intimidating, Coffey said she has settled in well over the years.

“I don’t (feel intimidated) now, but I did in the beginning. Maybe that was more so my own fault,” she said. “Maybe it was my own desire to be accepted and feel like I was as good as they were at the job. I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

Coffey’s path to a law enforcement career was not direct, but she said she loves her career.

“My intention was to be a lawyer. That was my goal. Now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “Law in general has always interested me. I graduated from Marshall in criminal justice in 1997. It was just more legal studies. That’s why I wanted to go to law school.”

After taking a break from her legal studies, Coffey returned to the Tri-State area and decided to see if being an officer was a better fit.

Rookies in law enforcement are trained to be prepared for anything, but Coffey learned her lesson more quickly than she expected.

“My training officer, Cpl. J.E. Combs, was shot when I was just out of the academy,” she said. “That was hard for me. I was brand new and still a rookie. He was shot in the chest down in the West End with me standing with him.”

Combs was shot in 2002 at an apartment. Combs and other officers were investigating a robbery at a gas station and attempted to arrest a man, who ran into a nearby house. The officers knocked on the door and were allowed into the residence before the man fired several shots.

Combs was not wearing a bulletproof vest at the time of his shooting, and the shooting brought to light the need for bulletproof vests for every officer.

Coffey said she took time off after that shooting to re-evaluate her position on the force, but Combs encouraged her to continue.

“I went to visit him in the hospital, and he just said ‘You’re going to do fine. You’re going to be great. You need to stick with it and get back to work,’” she said. “I think it was probably that. Just that he believed in me. Up to that point, he had never really said either way.”

Her decision to continue her career was also due in part to her family, Coffey said. Coffey said she grew up in a loving family in Proctorville, where her parents enlisted her and her two siblings in cheerleading, dance and other activities.

Dancing is something Coffey continues to this day.

“They were excited. You would think they would be worried, but no,” she said. ” My mom was all for it. She said, ‘Go do it.’ Whenever I was off for a couple days after the shooting she was like, ‘You just need to get back to work.’ She loves it.”

In October, Coffey was promoted to corporal in a promotion ceremony with family and friends. She chose her 7-year-old daughter as the person to pin her new bars.

“I just want her to be proud of me. I could see it in her face that she was proud. It was a good feeling,” she said. “My daughter says she wants to be a police officer. I don’t know that I will steer her in that direction just for her own safety.”

Coffey said she also has a 2-year-old daughter.

Coffey’s position as a role model goes beyond her family, however. She said after retirement in the coming years, she would like to utilize a master’s degree in education she recently obtained.

“When I did student teaching, they had a lot of respect for me just for (my job),” she said. “Of course, they like to hear all my stories.”

While she might shy away from talking about her face on a billboard, Coffey said she realizes her position is an important one.

“I think it’s important for other women to see women be able to go into a male-dominated career and be successful and be respected,” she said. “It’s important for a lot of different aspects of the job - women victims, children. Women just bring a different aspect to the job itself.”

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