Charmaine McGuffey Creates a Lasting Legacy

Elected Hamilton County Sheriff in 2020, Charmaine McGuffey is one of only three women to hold the title in the state and the first openly gay sheriff in Ohio.

Photograph by Angie Lipscomb

How are you changing the space of law enforcement?

First, I’m helping people recognize that women in law enforcement are making great contributions. Second, having diversity, including women, makes law enforcement more relatable to the public at large and better able to serve all the different communities that we have in the tri-state area. Finally, I’m changing how we approach criminal justice reform by bringing things to the table, like training and policy changes, that will help to sustain a change in culture.

What has it meant for your career that law enforcement has been so resistant to change?

I remember when women weren’t allowed to be in a car, patrolling a neighborhood. That law had to change, and when it did, I was one of the first to step into the arena. When I came in with that wave of women, one of our greatest fears was that we would be in a dangerous situation and call for backup, and our peers wouldn’t come or would come slowly. When a space is resistant to change, it’s a very difficult situation to navigate. And when you are the change, you risk putting yourself in peril. It’s one of the pitfalls. But it’s better today for sure.

Who has helped you along the way?

First and foremost, I have a very strong faith in the Holy Spirit. But in terms of people, I was fortunate to have found Sgt. Robert Menkhaus as a mentor. He was the real deal—and as a woman, you don’t always find men like that.

Also Cpt. Pat Gibson, who was my supervisor from day one. As a young officer, I learned from her to have the strength to stand up and make changes when needed and to call out things that are wrong. She had to fight for her position, too, and we would often band together to make sure she got treated fairly.

And then Mary Carol Melton, who served as my campaign manager. When I was fired and times were dark, she called me and said, “There is a lot of work to be done and you’ve got to pick yourself up, get out there, and keep going.”

And finally my wife of eight years, Christine Sandusky, could not be more supportive. She has worked tirelessly for my success.

Who has stood in your way, and how have you overcome it?

There were some men—and some administrators—who made my life miserable in any way they could, including sexual harassment. For example, as a lieutenant, I was the only woman who worked on my floor, and I also wasn’t out yet. I came into work one day and someone had circled the “women” icon on the bathroom door, and had drawn a line through it and written “dyke.” I took a photo and showed it to the men in charge. They laughed and made jokes. I knew that I was on my own and I could expect no help from that administration.

So I just worked around those men. I made a vow not to quit and pursued my work, creating training programs and academies, and being the lead negotiator for our emergency response team. I accomplished a lot in my career, and in the end I prevailed.

Why are you the right person for this job, right now?

I’m the right person for the job because I understand that the criminal justice system is dimensional. It includes both law enforcement and the courts—as well as the jails. Incarceration has been the bulk of my career. I understand what it should be, and how it relates to the rest of the system. If we are going to make lasting change, we need someone who understands that incarceration has been historically overlooked and ignored.

“Sheriff” is the oldest law enforcement position in the U.S. What does it mean to be carrying this position into the 2020s?

It means that I have a huge responsibility to create a lasting legacy that is forward looking and embedded in the current century. I feel an incredible responsibility to be a model for the state of Ohio.

Who are some of your favorite female change makers, locally or nationally?

First, community activist Iris Roley, who has been on the forefront of change in this community for a long time, dating back to the riots we had in 2001. She has worked tirelessly to be at the table and be part of that change, which is not an easy role. She doesn’t pretend or sugar coat. She just gets down to business.

Second, Alicia Reece. She is an idea woman, but she makes the ideas happen. I have watched her bring people together. She attracts a crowd, but when the crowd gets there, she takes care of them and makes sure they understand how important they are.

And third, Michele Mueller from the Ohio chapter of Moms Demand Action, who is fearless and an advocate for sensible gun control. She stepped into an arena that is typically dominated by men, controlled by companies that make guns and influence legislation about guns.

Finally, on the national stage, right now, I admire Liz Cheney. She is standing up for integrity and democracy. She has put herself in peril to do this. Women who have decided “I am going to take a stand because this is wrong”—those are the women I have followed my entire life.

What do you fundamentally believe about change?

It is my firm belief that law and order and criminal justice reform can exist together. One of the things that I do in the Sheriff’s Office is bring people to the table. Everyone is invited. I’ve made that clear from the time I took office. Bringing change to a person is possible. But for lasting and meaningful change, a person needs to bring the change themselves and own it.