After the Sex Scandal, Julia Pierson Takes the Secret Service in Hand


Video: Associated Press

In 1980 there weren’t many women working as police officers in Orlando, Florida. When the woman who’s now the Orlando Police Department’s deputy chief was hired a few years later, her male colleagues “didn’t want to ride with her.” But Julia Pierson, then about to graduate from the University of Central Florida, didn’t let that slow her down. Her police chief back then, Mike McCoy, soon knew that Pierson was going to be a star: “She was certainly on the cutting edge of women in law enforcement,” he told the Orlando Sentinel last week. “She got people to do what she wanted to do without violence.” Soon, Pierson was no longer working for McCoy: by 1983 she’d been whisked away by one of the top law-enforcement agencies in the world, the United States Secret Service.

Thirty years later, after a career that started with operations in Miami (famously under siege by drug lords) and included the security detail of President George Herbert Walker Bush and the fearful period after September 11, 2001, Pierson has been tapped by President Obama as the service’s new chief. Pierson is the first woman to head the agency, which was created by Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to combat post-Civil War counterfeiting and is now most famous for guarding U.S. presidents. “Over her 30 years of experience with the Secret Service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day,” Obama said in announcing the hire.

Pierson’s rise is “especially remarkable considering the macho culture that she was operating in and had to navigate,” writes Eleanor Clift at the Daily Beast. The Service, famous for stealth, has been subject to revelations that agents operating in Colombia had hired dozens of prostitutes and lap dancers (and underpaid them). Pierson’s predecessor, Michael Sullivan, tangled with legislators after the scandal; former agents described the misconduct as “widely tolerated,” and a report from the agency’s inspector-general alleged “similar misconduct by agents on trips to Romania and China.” Those agents were no doubt familiar with Pierson, who most recently was Sulllivan’s No. 2. “The Secret Service has just 3,500 agents, and most of them know Pierson and have worked with her,”  writes Clift. 

It’s easy to decide that Pierson was chosen partly to ensure that with a woman as the agency’s face it will be harder to allege systemic misogyny. But the testimony from her  colleagues describes expertise that goes beyond public relations. We can also hope that with Pierson in the high ranks of President Obama’s national-security team, Pierson’s voicecan reinforce efforts on issues from domestic violence to human trafficking, now that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is no longer in office to push for reforms.. We’re fascinated by this development and fully confident that if anyone can knock back the agency’s bad boys it’s the woman who was once a 20-year-old police officer who was unafraid of Florida’s drug lords. We’d love to be able to listen in on the first agency-wide conference call with Pierson at the helm.






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