While Philadelphia now has its first female police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, a sprawling South Jersey town near Atlantic City has had a woman running its police force for five years.
Galloway Township Police Chief Donna Higbee made history when she became the first female top law enforcement officer in her Atlantic County community in July 2015. She’s still the only woman to lead a police department in the county, and among only a handful in New Jersey’s 565 municipalities.
She wants to change that.
“I love this job," said Higbee, 43, a third-generation law enforcement officer. “It just goes to show that it’s not just a man’s world. I want to inspire other women to see that they can have it all.”
Higbee oversees about 50 sworn officers and 14 part-timers. Only four women are among the ranks. The town’s rate of violent crime is below the state average, but it still had 399 aggravated assaults and 295 burglaries in 2018, the most recent statistics available.
The chief attributed the spikes to a transient population in the 115-square-mile town, the largest geographically in the state. The department has implemented community programs with businesses to combat crime, she said.
Higbee began her law enforcement career in Wildwood as a Class 2, or part-time, officer in 1999. She graduated that year from the Cape May County Police Academy and joined the Hamilton Township Police Department for three years.
Galloway hired her in 2002 as a patrol officer and she worked her way up, serving in every rank and division. She has been a field training officer, a crisis/hostage negotiator, a bicycle patrol instructor, and head of the department’s honor guard unit.
County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner called Higbee “as fine a chief [as] any enforcement agency could want to lead them.” She is also president of the Atlantic County Chiefs Association.
Higbee credited her parents for encouraging her to obtain an education — a bachelor’s degree from Stockton University and a master’s from Seton Hall — and the rank and file officers who “make me look good.”
Penny Harrington, founding director of the National Center for Women and Policing, said she was encouraged by Outlaw’s selection and by Higbee’s tenure.
“It’s still really tough,” said Harrington, former chief of the Portland, Ore., Police Bureau, who became the first woman chief of a major U.S. city in January 1985. “There’s a very long way to go.” Outlaw came to Philadelphia from Portland.
Higbee followed in the footsteps of her father, John, who retired as a patrolman with the Galloway department in 1999 after 27 years. His great-uncle Arthur Higbee was Atlantic City’s police chief in the 1940s.
She was raised in a section of the township known as Higbeetown and resides in Galloway with her husband and two children. She sees her service on the force as a way to give back to the community of 37,349 residents.
“I’m just so proud of her, I don’t know what to say,” said John Higbee, 81. “She’s just one of those special kids. She’d do anything for anybody."
In the community, Higbee is known for her personal touch, visiting senior citizens and businesses, and participating in veterans’ activities and a Thanksgiving food drive.
Higbee’s husband, Steve Garrison, also serves on the force. They met on the job about 10 years ago. He was a patrolman and she was a detective, one of her favorite positions in her tenure.
“I get jokes about her being the boss at home and the boss at work. We just have fun with it,” said Garrison, 42. “I always knew she was going to reach the top of the profession.”
One of her biggest challenges, she said, has been a 1971 cold case of a young girl whose body was found in a wooded area in the township. Higbee worked to get her DNA recovered and sent to the FBI lab.
“I would love to see it solved,” she said.
Higbee plans to retire in two years and possibly teach full-time at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, where she has been an adjunct professor since 2019.
“I’m very proud of my career,” she said.