Denise McGrath always planned on becoming a police officer, even though there were few female examples in the profession at that time. It didn’t deter her, but pushed her to find her place in the field of law enforcement.
McGrath recently was promoted to chief of the Homewood Police Department after serving for over 25 years on the department. Her new role began Feb. 26 after the retirement of Chief William Alcott.
McGrath’s path into police work came after several years of working as a dispatcher.
“I always wanted to be a police officer. However, there really weren’t very many female officers in the Chicago suburbs,” she explained. “I began taking criminal justice classes, which led to an internship at South Holland Police Department.”
That internship led to a dispatching job at South Holland Police Department. With a desire to work for the police department in her hometown, she later accepted a dispatch job in Homewood before being hired as a South Holland police officer in 1992.
Following more than three years as a police officer in South Holland, she returned to Homewood in 1995, this time as a police officer. During her career, she has served in many different roles, including patrol officer, field training officer, detective, patrol sergeant, field training coordinator, detective sergeant and deputy chief of police, in addition to being an investigator with the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force. She developed and implemented the Suburban Major Accident Reconstruction Team (SMART) and currently serves as president of the SMART Board.
McGrath attended James Hart School, Churchill School and Homewood-Flossmoor High School. She later earned a bachelor’s degree from Calumet College of St. Joseph and a master’s degree from Governors State University.
She may not have been the first female on the department, but she was the first female to hold several of her titles, breaking that barrier to become the first female detective, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant, deputy chief and now, chief.
Times have changed, and as McGrath’s career progressed she found there was less focus on her gender, but she said she did face challenges early on with “perception and acceptance.”
“As a new officer, there were always people in and outside of law enforcement who would enumerate the reasons I shouldn’t be doing this job, but there were also plenty of people who supported my career,” she said. “I have always chosen to focus on the positive people who accepted and encouraged me over the years.”
Each step along the way confirmed that she made the right career choice.
“I am proud of my career as a whole and hope that my career path encourages other people to pursue a career in law enforcement,” said McGrath.
Although there are a number of challenges that the job presents, McGrath said there are also immense rewards, like when she runs into someone later down the road who remembers her from a call.
“It’s when someone you helped or encountered many years ago remembers you and thanks you for having a positive impact on their life,” she explained. “We often encounter people on one of the worst days of their lives — as a victim, offender, witness, etc. It’s important to remember that people are more than that incident.”
Among her goals moving forward are to build upon the foundation of previous administrations by collaborating with community stakeholders to cultivate new relationships and expand on existing relationships; working toward maximizing officer wellness and training; and determining how to get maximum benefit from current technology and determining the impact and value of technology that is on the horizon.
She hopes to increase opportunities for officers to interact with the public outside of calls for service, such as at school events, community events or block parties.
“During the pandemic, we have limited our in-person contact to keep our officers and community safe,” said McGrath. “As those restrictions ease, we look forward to re-engaging with our residents, business owners and visitors.”
McGrath has often gone above and beyond what the job description requires by being active in arranging charitable efforts and fundraising for important causes.
“I have always believed that it is important to give back to the community and organizations that assist residents of the community,” she said. “The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics has several fundraising events during the year to support the organization — Cop On a Roof at Dunkin’ Donuts, Butter Burgers and Badges at Culver’s and the Torch Run itself in June.”
She’s also participated by being a torch runner every year since 1992. For more information about the Torch Run, visit soill.org/illinoistorchrun.
Semper Fi Fund & America’s Fund are other charities she actively supports.
“I run marathons and half marathons to benefit this organization which is one of the highest rated charities in the country,” she said. “They provide immediate assistance when urgently needed — resources to support combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.”
As an active member in the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA), McGrath has also been a marathon training pace group leader.