Crime

New female officers prove they know law enforcement

It's not about the chromosomes -- X or Y.

The Merced Police Department's three female officers say they've had to prove themselves, but now are considered equals on the force. The bond among officers, they feel, is closer than that between many brothers and sisters.

Noemi Arellano, Raquel Rios and Krista Stokes are the only fully qualified female officers on the force, but they will be joined shortly by five others now in training. Their boss, Merced Police Chief Russ Thomas, says the hiring of Arellano, Rios and Stokes had nothing to do with gender or race but how well they fit into the organization.

Rios and Stokes both are 34 years old and have compiled about seven years experience as cops. Arellano, 25, has been a police officer for a year and concedes that new female officers have to dispel a number of false perceptions. "It's not a matter if you're a girl or a guy, you have to prove yourself," she explained. "You aren't treated any differently. Any new officer has to prove himself or herself; once you do that there will never be another question, and you are not treated any differently."

There was little doubt about the career path Stokes would follow. A police officer in Macon, Ga., for five years before joining the Merced department nearly two years ago, Stokes comes from a law enforcement family. Her father, an Alameda police officer, was killed March 3, 1983, in the line of duty. Her mother was a Los Banos police officer, her sister works as a probation officer and her brother is a correctional officer at a federal prison. Her stepfather, Sgt. Gary Southerland, retired from the Merced Police Department after 35 years.

"This is my life," she said. "Since a child I've known what I wanted to do. I'd rather try and fail and not try and wonder. This is the greatest job I have ever had. It's never the same day twice."

Rios has been a Merced cop since January and earlier served seven years with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. She knew she had to prove she was up to the job.

"I'm not a female, I'm an officer," she insisted. "It's not about the gender; it's mainly about work ethic. We put on the uniform with pride and have our game face on."

Nothing is scarier than thinking your partner is in trouble and you can't get there faster, Stokes revealed. She's learned that an officer must always think about the next move; wondering what happened after the dust has settled is for later.

Rios said one of her goals is to make the Special Weapons and Tactics team and would like to become a detective as her career unfolds. "I'm here to stay, the only movement is up," she said. "This is my community, where I live. I have a vested interest in this; this is what I do and who I am."

Rios added that female officers have to compensate for a lack of muscle and use their verbal skills to establish a command presence -- maybe become a little more assertive. The key is to treat people with respect.

Stokes admits she's no physical match for a 300-pound drunken man in a fight. But on her first night here as a patrol officer, Stokes and her field training officer together had to disarm a combative man with a 6-inch knife. She has never wondered whether other officers would come to her aid if she were in trouble.

Stokes recently was named a field training officer herself, meaning she will accompany rookie officers as they learn the routine and what is expected of them. "It's my other family," she pointed out. "I like this department a lot." She has been on the department's recruiting team for about six months.

Rios eagerly anticipates visits to schools, observing that little girls are excited when they see a female officer. They realize they can do it, too. "You're their 'Wonder Woman.' You can be a role model," she said.

Stokes said the high point of her career -- so far -- was after she had helped a rape victim who sought her out several months later to thank her personally.

Knowing that the woman was going to be OK, go on to school and bounce back from adversity was extremely rewarding for the officer.

Arellano agreed that officers bond with their coworkers and that being a police officer is the most fun she could possibly have. She wants to be on the bomb squad someday and would love to be a full-fledged animal cop if such a position were ever created.

"It's a fun, fun job. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't be here," she noted. "I wanted a job that would make my father proud. He raised me and four siblings all by himself."

A recent two-mile pursuit along Highway 140 was a definite adrenaline rush, Arellano recalled. She said officers help people in the best of times and worst of times.

A police officer's job is different every day, one reason she has been interested in police work since high school.

Rios remembers an incident from a dozen years ago when a dispatcher's reassuring words made her feel safe. She said it was a life-changing experience and led her to her present career.

Arellano said she tries to "deescalate" people and use a softer, gentler approach to convince them to follow her directions.

"You build a reputation, a rapport with people -- 'I'll treat you with respect if you do.' We treat everybody with respect; you never know when you'll need that person," Stokes said. "They will remember me as the girl with the ponytail."

Rios and Stokes shook their heads as they recalled a domestic violence incident when a man with a loaded gun threatened his wife.

Stokes said they were able to detain the man before he had a chance to return to the bedroom and make good on his threat to kill his spouse.

Before Arellano, Rios and Stokes, Lisa Howard was a local police officer until moving to the Atwater Police Department. Officers Darlene Penn, Pat Larmer and Kathy Yasko have retired, Cmdr. Tom Martin said.

Thomas, the police chief, said he's proud of his officers, whether female or male. They were the best people available, he reasoned, and have shown they make good decisions. "I view them as police officers," he said. "Every person in the agency would throw himself in harm's way to protect their partner. What I see is a pretty good representation of what the community is made up of, both in gender and ethnicity."

Rios said officers are closer than brothers and sisters and all depend on one another. Even with 25 pounds of police gear on, officers can still be individuals. "We're still girls at heart," she said.

But also women with guns and badges -- and brothers in uniform.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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