A Single Mom's Dream: Sheriff's Deputy Jenell Atlas Retires

Dreams still come true. Major Jenell Atlas recently retired from Florida's Martin County Sheriff’s Office after a 26-year career.

Jenell Atlas

Jenell Atlas

She was the first female to ever achieve the rank of Major and Jenell Atlas was the first female captain ever placed over the Indiantown substation.

Jenell Atlas is an award-winning officer; as Public Information Officer, she regularly took interviews from national news organizations (Good Morning America, New York Times, etc..) about the Martin County Sheriff Office for nine years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many of her ideas helped develop good public relations between the Sheriff’s Office and the community.

Under Sheriff Crowder’s administration, Deputy Atlas pointed the agency toward the need for a Public Information Officer, a website, a Sheriff’s calendar for residents, and a child support roundup for dads who were behind in payments. For that campaign, Deputy Atlas used her own story.

Jenell Atlas came to the Treasure Coast looking for a new life in a beautiful place. A single mother, she left Texas after being sexually harassed in the work place. Jenell worked hard. She took a position at Conchy Joe’s and rented a one-bedroom apartment for her daughter and herself. She gave her daughter the bedroom and she slept on the couch. They were poor for a long time. Jenell remembers buying pork chops and corn; she would give the meat and some corn to her daughter, but she herself would just eat corn. Corn was filling.

Jenell received no child support from her daughter’s father, even to this day, she is owed more than $250,000.

Jenell Atlas is not alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single parent families in 2014, 83 percent were headed by single mothers in 2014.

Jenell was determined to get an education. She began at Indian River State College. While enrolled, she was required to take a no-credit class led by Barbara Kenney. Mrs. Kenney, herself a former cop, knew of Jenell’s interest in law enforcement and directed her to the Fort Pierce Police Academy, overseen by another woman. Applying there, Jenell received a grant which paid for her child’s care, gas, books, classes, even her bullets. Conchy Joe’s supported Jenell’s decision and gave her work whenever she came in.

At graduation in 1989, she applied to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and was given a position by Sheriff Jim Holt. Jenell was 26 years old and describes herself as naïve. Only two other Sheriff’s deputies were women at the time.

The first three years she spent on midnight road patrol in Port Salerno. Every night was different. Deputy Atlas wrestled drunks, saw wrecks, broke up fights, and walked in on a rape in progress. One night she found a prostitute beat up and left in the woods. Another night she arrested a man for stealing cigarettes; he later returned and thanked Deputy Atlas. He had hit rock bottom that night and she’d saved his life.

“By 2007, 19,400 sheriffs were women.” (U.S. Department of Justice)

Jenell Atlas built her career as any other officer does: She saw road patrol, a post as the Public Information Officer (PIO), and later as a lieutenant took over departments within the administration.

Her mentor, Colonel Marvin Mickey Mann coached her, “You’re more than this,” he pointed to her PIO appearance, alluding to her mental capabilities. In 2004, Deputy Atlas began with the reorganization of each department she was given, cutting out waste and mismanagement. She started with Dispatch and Internet Technologies (10 servers, 600 computers, satellite phones, beepers, cell phones, etc..) No longer would Dispatchers make unnecessary phone calls, but would strictly do their own work. The monthly cell phone bill was reduced from $116,000 to $70,000. She rid the Office of pagers and old cell phones, tightening up the budget. To do this, she went through every bill. By 2007, her success led to greater responsibility. Deputy Atlas oversaw Records, which handles 5,000 pieces of paper daily; the Desk Sergeant, who greets visitors; Buildings; Gas; Training; Guns—there are 2,000 various types on hand; Evidence—88,000 pieces available; and Cars—the Sheriff’s Office has 333 vehicles.

Deputy Atlas worked seven days a week in order to keep up. On Sundays, she attended church and then spent afternoons looking over paperwork. This work was not done alone, but with the assistance of many managers and civilians who spoke up when necessary. Everyone who participated was given a voice and was part of the team. Jenell Atlas states, “about five years ago, the cost for running the Sheriff’s Office was $201 per household yearly. That’s little given for assurance of safety.”

At age 50, Deputy Jenell Atlas graduated from Union Institute and the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice. In 2012 Jenell Atlas was promoted to Captain under Sheriff Robert Crowder and to Major under current Sheriff William D. Snyder.

Jenell Atlas always received equal pay and she checked on this periodically to be sure. In 2014, she was in the highest paid ranking of the Office. Her numerous awards include the national Women in Communication Award; the Public Relations Society Award; PIO of the Year for the State of Florida. Deputy Atlas later became President of the Public Information Officer Society in the State of Florida.

Retirement has arrived at age 55; her greatest compliment, “she’s one of the guys.” Her advice to other women, especially single mothers:

“You can have it all. It may not look like what you think it will look like though. And, you will give something up.

I had no personal life.

Don’t give away your power.

Don’t talk in a “sing-songy voice or apologize with ‘I’m sorry but….’

I helped many other people along the way; as a role model, I walked with dignity, and I never gave up."

What has made the career of Jenell Atlas so successful?

She states, “God has been with me every step of the way.”

In 1990, Jenell Atlas exited the Salerno Road Baptist Church where she attended. Outside, volunteers were handing out laminated green cards which read, “WWJD?” Deputy Atlas took the card with her in every patrol vehicle she ever drove. She was never seriously hurt in the line of duty. Neither was she ever afraid. “I am a woman of strong faith; I knew God had His hand on me.”

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