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Richmond Police Department captain Bisa French listens to Chief Chris Magnus during a conference with department and community leadership at the station in Richmond, Calif. on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. French is the department's first female African-American captain. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- Bisa French became a cop when she was a 22-year-old single mother. She had two goals: To provide for her young son and make a mark in law enforcement.

Fifteen years later, the son is a student at New York University.

The mother just became the first African-American woman captain in the Richmond Police Department, and the youngest captain of any gender or ethnicity. French, 37, is one of four captains in the department, the third highest-ranked position behind the chief and his two deputy chiefs. She assumed command of the city's central district on June 2.

"I am really happy with this promotion, and I want to do my job well," French said. "But I also take seriously that this is a milestone. I want to inspire young women who come from poorer backgrounds or who are African-American or Hispanic or have challenges, to show them there is nothing they can't overcome."

French, who is married to an Oakland police sergeant and a mother of three, has enjoyed a remarkable ascent since giving birth to her first child as an 18-year-old student at Napa Valley Community College.

"It was a scary time," French said. "I didn't know what I was going to do. How was I going to take care of another person." French is adamant that her teenage pregnancy was a challenge but not a mistake.

"It was a turning point for me," French said. "I buckled down because I didn't want to stop following my dreams."

Born in San Francisco to an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, French and her older brother moved with their parents to San Pablo when she was 5 years old. Dad worked as a carpenter, and a few years later mom started her own business selling flowers.

"My parents worked hard and made ends meet for the most part, but we didn't have much money," French said. "What I respect looking back was the work ethic. My dad never took a sick day to stay home in his life."

French graduated from Pinole Valley High School in 1993. She went to Napa Valley Community College and started well in her criminal justice courses. But the pregnancy changed things.

"I had my son a week before finals and returned and completed my finals," French said. "But that was it; after that, I transferred to Contra Costa College and moved back in with my parents for the support system."

French completed a two-year degree in criminal justice and landed a job as a clerk at the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office. But she needed a career to provide for her son, and she wanted to work in a fast-paced, challenging environment. She yearned to be a cop.

The Richmond Police Department hired her in January 1998. There were only two women in leadership positions.

French had to learn fast.

"We are a really progressive agency now, but back then it was your typical older, policing-as-usual environment," French said. "It was a male-dominated field, and I had to put a brave face on and prove myself."

Being a young single woman in the agency came with its perils, she said.

"I had to learn some things the hard way," French said. "There were a lot of offers, and I did date (fellow officers), but I soon realized that that wasn't a good idea. Luckily, nothing ever really bad happened that became a problem."

French also saw problems in the relationship between police and the community.

"It was more of a one-way communication model back then," French said. "And that included me, because my biggest mistakes as a young officer were not listening enough, not engaging enough. Now, collaboration and relationship-building is a top priority in this department."

French, who serves as the de facto face of the department as its principal media liaison, has thrived under Chief Chris Magnus' leadership. Like Magnus, French and her family live in Richmond.

"(French) is a smart, creative and caring person who is committed to continuously improving the department and serving the community," Magnus said.

French's promotion makes her the highest-ranking woman in the department today and second-highest ever, behind former deputy chief Lori Ritter. French is one of only two African-American women to reach lieutenant.

"We make a concerted effort here to recruit female candidates and dispel persistent myths that you have to be a man to lead in this field," said Capt. Mark Gagan, whom French identifies as a key mentor.

French has been groomed for leadership for years. She serves as the graveyard watch commander, the highest-ranking officer on duty from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

In addition to commanding the central district, which includes the crime-plagued Iron Triangle, French will continue to be Magnus' right-hand-woman on the Family justice Center, a treatment and resource facility for domestic violence victims.

"I'm not really comfortable talking about myself, but I know I have a responsibility to emphasize my story because of who I am," French said. "I have to always remind girls in our community that their circumstances or what mistakes they have made don't have to determine what their future is going to be."

Could French reach more milestones before her career is over? She declines to answer that question.

Gagan, her mentor and longtime superior, is less abashed.

"I look forward to working with her as a captain," Gagan said. "And maybe someday for her."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers

Bisa french
Age: 37
Hometown: Richmond
Claim to fame: French recently became the first African-American woman to achieve the rank of captain in the Richmond Police Department. Her journey began when, as a 22-year-old single mother, she was hired by the department in 1998.
Quote: "I faced challenges, but nothing was going to stop me. That is what I hope the young females of this community can take from my story."