Long before Delma Noel-Pratt made history as the first female police chief of a major city in Miami-Dade, she survived a frightening encounter that would shape the trajectory of her life.
She was just 11, walking with her older sister to the corner store in her childhood home of Detroit. Out of nowhere, a man approached, threatened and robbed them, and then punched her sister in the face. It shocked and scared the young girls but also kindled some kind of fire in Noel-Pratt.
“After that experience,” she said, “I wanted to be an advocate.”
For Noel-Pratt, advocacy eventually took the form of police work. Her family would later move to Miami and within a decade Noel-Pratt was working as a public service aide for the Miami Police Department. What followed was a steady march up the ranks, despite resistance along the way.
She learned how to deftly navigate being the only woman in a room full of male cops cutting demeaning jokes. “You just had to decide whether to entertain those jokes or complain to a supervisor that you felt ostracized. It wasn’t easy.” And with experience, she seized respect. She recalled one meeting where fellow male cops discussed their FBI training. When she remarked that she’d been there, done that too, the room went silent.
Her leadership skills would eventually put her in charge of more than 1,000 officers in the biggest police agency in the southeast U.S., the Miami-Dade Police Department.
“That surpasses the experience of most police chiefs in the county,” said former Miami-Dade Director Juan Perez, her boss at the time.
Then, five years ago, Noel-Pratt became one of the few women in Florida to break the brass ceiling. With police chiefs from across Miami-Dade County and congressional leaders looking on in a packed City Hall chamber, she was sworn in as the first woman to lead the Miami Gardens Police Department in its brief 14-year history.
‘I’m blessed to be here’
Last month, in an interview with the Miami Herald, Noel-Pratt looked back on the moment she sat behind the chief’s desk.
“I took a deep breath and said ‘I’m blessed to be here,’ ” she said. “There were a lot of other women who could have sat in this seat. I’m just here to do the best job possible.”
With 215 officers under her command in the third-largest city in the county, Noel-Pratt was the first woman named to lead a department of that size in the 186 years Miami-Dade County has had law enforcement agencies. In 1994, Bonilyn Wilbanks-Free was the first woman to break the brass ceiling in Miami-Dade, becoming chief of tiny Virginia Gardens. Now, with 33 police departments in the county, only Miami, Miami-Dade, Miami Beach and Hialeah have larger police departments than Miami Gardens.
The recognition is starting to add up. She’s now in line to become the first Black female president of the Greater Miami Chiefs of Police. And last month, she was given a leadership award during the annual convention of the National Association of Women’s Law Enforcement Executives in Miami.
“It’s a passion. It’s a calling,” she said, thanking God, her husband and her three daughters for putting up with her, while accepting the award for “my entire department.”
Progress in her department
Still, in the five years since Noel-Pratt’s 2017 appointment in Miami Gardens, not much has changed for women trying to reach the top of the policing profession. Of Florida’s 320 police departments and sheriff’s offices, only 14 of them are led by women.
“I just think we need more balance,” Noel-Pratt said. “We’re just asking for a fair shot.”
Easier said then done. In her first months as chief, Noel-Pratt recalled a lot of pushback, some officers refusing to take orders from a woman. Most came around, she said, but some left the department
Now, there are no longer questions about who is in charge. Noel-Pratt, with a Herald reporter and photographer in tow, made the rounds in the department’s relatively new digs on Northwest 27th Avenue just below the county line. She was at ease sharing a cafecito with an officer in the real-time crime center and hugging and kidding with staff in communications. But she easily slid into command mode discussing incidents with the head of internal affairs and crime scene investigations.
Noel-Pratt was born in London, England, but grew up and went to high school in Detroit. Though she had some family ties to law enforcement — two brothers-in-law were cops — she said as a child she wanted to be a lawyer.
From peacemaker to police officer
That changed, Noel-Pratt said, after she and her sister were robbed. In her teens, the family moved to Miami in 1988, where Noel-Pratt enrolled at Miami Dade College, then went to Barry University and eventually received her master’s degree from Lynn University. She began police work in 1989 as a public service aide in Miami. Later that year and through 1992 were spent working as a cop for Miami-Dade Police at the Port of Miami. Noel-Pratt said that stint convinced her she had a future in policing.
Part of the reason was that she kept finding herself trying to be the peacemaker in fights — whether in the office or on the streets.
“I kept getting involved. I realized I was a problem solver,” she said.
By 1993. she was patrol officer in Miami-Dade. She rose through the ranks from sergeant to lieutenant to captain and was then appointed major in the Kendall District by Director James Loftus. Her varying assignments over the years covered about everything police do: K9, the bomb squad, Special Response Team, economic crimes, special investigations and narcotics.
In 2013, then-Director J.D. Patterson appointed her to lead operations in the county’s North Division, where she led more than 1,000 officers.
“That alone is the third largest police agency in Miami-Dade,” said Perez, the former Miami-Dade director who now oversees public safety at Ocean Reef in Key Largo. “She’s also extremely bright and calm under stress. She has good community skills and people embrace her.”
In May 2017, with endorsements from Perez and Patterson, Noel-Pratt was chosen to run the police department in Miami Gardens.
At the time, she promised to lead by example, offer more community policing and begin using metrics to help make police decisions. Like just about every police chief, she also promised to reduce crime. But in the first few years under her watch, there was a spurt of major crimes. In June 2018, four people were killed in the city during five shootings over a two-week span. And in June 2020, Noel-Pratt chose to fire two officers after a rough arrest at a gas station went viral.
More recently, the numbers have improved. The city was an outlier during the pandemic as major crime numbers actually dropped. Over the past two years, homicide rates and other major crimes like strong-armed robbery also decreased by more than 13 percent.
Along the way, some other numbers have changed that Noel-Pratt is proud of: As the number of women applying for jobs in the city’s police department rose, so did the number in the chief’s inner circle — 33 percent of the command staff are now women. She gives credit to a city manager, Cameron Benson, who is “very receptive to my suggestions.”
Miami Gardens is “making headway,” she said, and she hopes other departments will follow the lead.
“I see a slight change,” she said. “As females we have to prove ourselves more. I have to go out on the street so they can see I do the job. What catapulted me is, I wanted to be part of the change.”
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat whose district includes Miami Gardens was there for Noel-Pratt’s promotion to chief, which she called a milestone moment, especially women. She remains a cheerleader.
“She’s outstanding,” said Wilson. “It speaks loudly to what can happen when you put a woman in this position. With more women, the whole tenor of the department changes. And Delma is on it. When you speak of respect, these officers respect and obey her. She is in charge.”