Portraits from the Big Bend: Jennifer Olivas

Jennifer Olivas (photos by Maisie Crow)

MARFA — Jennifer Olivas, a patrol cop with the Marfa Police Department, doesn’t remember if instructors talked about pregnancy when she was training to be an officer at El Paso Community College. It wasn’t a major topic of discussion, at the very least.

This year, though, Olivas has gotten a crash course in pregnant policing. She’s the first pregnant beat cop to serve in the Marfa Police Department since it reformed in 2017. Her baby — a boy she plans to name Angel Floyd — is almost due.

Across the country, other police departments have struggled to treat pregnant cops fairly. Policing while pregnant can mean feeling ostracized and excluded from work, as lawsuits over the years show.

Sarah Alicea, a Connecticut police officer, wrote in an American Civil Liberties Union blogpost that her experiences as a pregnant cop made her feel “worried and anxious during what should be the happiest time of my life.” (In 2017, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. The police force settled the lawsuit and agreed to adopt a pregnancy policy.)

Olivas, 28, is aware of the struggles other pregnant cops face. “Females have actually been neglected at work due to being pregnant,” she says. “They’ve been treated differently.”

But Olivas says that hasn’t been her experience at Marfa Police Department, where she says her boss, Chief Steve Marquez, has helped her navigate pregnant policing without making her feel excluded from work duties.

Olivas wanted to keep working patrol — her choice. And when she returned a few weeks ago to light duty (which mostly includes desk work), that was also her choice.

“Getting bigger, I couldn’t move as much as I wanted to — or as fast as I could,” she said.

For Marquez, the rules were simple: The department couldn’t discriminate against Olivas just because she was pregnant.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, he summarized his conversations with Olivas. “We want you to take it easy,” he said. “We can’t tell you to take it easy — but we want you to take it easy.”

Before becoming a police officer, Olivas participated in the Border Patrol Explorer program and worked as a security guard at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

Working school security, she says, helped her prepare for the community relations that are such an important part of being a small-town police officer. Some of her favorite tasks involve getting calls to Marfa High School, where she helps talk girls through both scary situations and typical teenage drama, like fights with parents.

On her last night of patrol duty, Officer Olivas helps two young girls find their family during the Marfa Lights Festival earlier this month.

Olivas’ boyfriend is a state trooper. She’d be thrilled if their son follows in their footsteps, though she said she’d support “any choice that he makes” — within reason. But she does have some fears about raising a kid in a cop family.

“What if he’s a complete knucklehead?” she said. “One of those kids who feels like, because his parents are cops, they can get away with anything?”

Patrolling as an officer while pregnant, though, does still come with challenges. MPD doesn’t offer paid maternity leave — though Chief Marquez said he “definitely” wished he could offer it. It was a city decision and not up to him, he said.

Still, Marquez says he’s assured Olivas that she will be missed while she’s away.

“I made it very clear to her: ‘You’ve got a job with us. You’re a good officer,’” he said.

Olivas’ last night on patrol was during the Marfa Lights Festival. She strolled the courthouse lawn and helped a couple of lost kids find their grandmother. She also received calls about a dying jackrabbit. There wasn’t much she could do, since it was a wild animal.

Not long ago, Olivas recalls, she was talking to a man whose friend had just been stopped for speeding. But the man seemed more concerned about her — and in particular, her belly — than his friend who had been stopped.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Are you okay, doing your job?’” Olivas said. “It was shocking to me because, in my uniform, you can’t usually tell. He spotted it right away.”

They ended up talking, Olivas estimates, for about 26 minutes. The man’s wife was also pregnant. Olivas recommended she exercise — but nothing “too intensive.”

“There’s never a dull moment,” Olivas said at one point, chuckling as she reflected on this and other odd calls she’s received over the years. “It’s never just the same thing.”