Women on the force: Female cops proving themselves ‘10 times more’

UNDETERRED: Maj. Kathy Katerman in the fitness room at the North Miami Beach Police Department. Katerman is one of North Miami Beach’s highest ranking officers in the department.
UNDETERRED: Maj. Kathy Katerman in the fitness room at the North Miami Beach Police Department. Katerman is one of North Miami Beach’s highest ranking officers in the department. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In Kathy Katerman’s first round of boxing at the police academy, a male cadet broke Katerman’s nose. It was 7 a.m. Her face was speckled with blood, and her morning had only just begun.

“Back in the day, they made us box three rounds with a man of equal weight,” said Katerman, whose opponent was 18 pounds heavier than she was. “They wanted you to know what it was like to feel a man’s punch and what it could be like out on the street.”

The hit didn’t deter Katerman. She reentered the ring and then the classroom, where she continued basic training with ice pressed over her face for nearly 10 hours in the Broward Police Academy.

She went to the hospital only after class was over.

Katerman completed the academy in 1987 and joined the North Miami Beach Police Department soon after, becoming one of about 27,000 female law enforcement officers across the country that year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

She’s now a police major over the Investigative Division, the third highest-ranked officer in the department.

Women continue to be a minority in law enforcement, although their presence has increased over the past few decades. In 2013 about 58,000 females were employed as local police officers nationwide, according to the bureau. The number of sworn female officers increased from about 5 percent in 1987 to 12 percent in 2013.

“When we are trying to get recruits into an academy class, our goal is to have 25 percent of the makeup of the class women,” said Lt. Caroline Klass, who oversees the selection of sworn and civilian positions within the Miami-Dade Police Department. “It’s our departmental policy.”

Officer. Kelly Denham, a recruiter with the Coral Gables Police Department, said she is always looking for women to bring into the department. About 12 percent of Gables officers are women.

“Most women are helpful by nature, but getting them interested in law enforcement is hard,” said Denham, who encourages recruits to do a ride-along to get a taste of the profession. “It’s a very fulfilling job. There are a lot of opportunities for women.”

While some departments are in line with the 12 percent national average, others exceed it.

The North Miami Beach and Sunny Isles Beach police departments each have about 15 percent female officers, while the Doral Police Department has about 17 percent. At the Miami-Dade County Police Department, which covers eight districts of unincorporated Miami-Dade and has contracts with Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay and Miami Lakes, women make up about 24 percent of the force.

Miami Beach Deputy Police Chief Lauretta Hill, whose department employs 13 percent women, said they “have a lot of work to do” regarding its female-to-male officer ratio. Last August, Hill filled the deputy chief position after retiring as the first black assistant to the police chief in Arlington, Texas.

“The agency I left from had a lot of female and racial diversity in command levels,” Hill said. “That’s just one of the things here we’d like to see more. We have to train more and approach them just like someone saw something in me.”

Hill’s mentors, friends and family encouraged her to move beyond patrol early on. Around her fifth year as an officer, she recognized that she could have more impact if she were in a supervisory rank. Her climb up, however, was anything but easy.

“Every rank I’ve gotten to, I’ve had to prove myself more than my male counterpart had to,” Hill said. “I’ve had to prove myself because they believe I’m a rank over my head or I’m not qualified for whatever reason.”

Doral Capt. Fatima Nuñez knows the feeling well.

“This is a world that is mostly dominated by men, and again as a female you have to prove yourself 10 times more,” Nuñez said, adding she got a sense of this when she stepped into a patrol vehicle for the first time.

Nuñez enrolled in the Miami-Dade County police academy in 2001 and was one of 13 women in her graduating class. In October she became the first woman to hold the rank of captain in the Doral Police Department.

“I was always very into my career and my goals,” Nuñez said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment knowing that other women in the organization are following my lead.”

The Coral Gables Police Department had its own milestone with a female officer last year, when Sgt. Vicky Merino was named officer of the year. That was the second time in the department’s history the accolade had gone to a woman.

“As a female you’re very proud because it shows you can keep up with the guys,” Denham said.

Even in tough divisions like homicide.

Miami-Dade Detective Maria Mederos, on the force since 1994, has worked in narcotics and vice. Today, she is a homicide detective.

“This department gives women opportunities,” Mederos said. “You can be anything you want to be with hard work and common sense.”

Mederos has worked on some high-profile cases in her career, including the murder of 21-year-old Wendy Trapaga.

Trapaga’s husband of four days, Michel Escoto, was convicted last year of strangling and viciously beating her with a tire iron in October 2002 — in a plot to collect a $1 million life insurance policy.

When the case appeared on the Investigation Discovery show Scorned, Mederos was disappointed to learn that she was portrayed as a man in the episode — “especially in that case when everyone involved was a female,” she said. “The prosecutor, the judge, almost all the witnesses were female.”

That’s television. In real life, Aventura K-9 Patrol Officer Helen Morrison, who started in the field in 1980, said her communication skills have become her greatest asset.

“My squad says, ‘Let Helen come and talk to them,’” Morrison said. “I find that a lot of people just want somebody to listen to them.”

Like the time she arrived on a scene to a find a man strung out on drugs — he’d allegedly done crack — and his mother was in tears.

“Her heart was broken,” Morrison said. “It was her only son. I was so mad I went upstairs. I was tactful, but I gave him a piece of my mind. I told him my point of view of being a mother and how I would feel.”

Being a mother and being a police officer can be difficult at times.

“One of the huge challenges is how you balance family and kids with being a police administrator,” said Hill, a mother of two boys, ages 2 and 7. “You juggle it and do the best you can.”

Mederos, who has two adult children, said that thoughts such as “If something happens to me, who is going to take care of my kid?” tend to be in the back of the minds of all officers who have children — men and women.

But there are differences in how people interact with male and female officers. Some may open up more with a woman, the policewomen say.

“I tend to get most of the sexual battery cases because I am a girl,” said Detective Jessica Leticia, with the Sunny Isles Police Department, who also works on the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force. “I would say younger girls are more comfortable talking about it to a female.”

Conversely, some prefer to talk to male officers.

“It’s teamwork,” Nuñez said. “You go to some cases that the male person of the house, they won’t even look at you. But it’s not like they’re trying to diminish you because you’re a female. It’s their culture.”

Despite these challenges, all of the female officers agreed on one thing: They love their careers.

“It’s the greatest job on Earth,” Mederos said. “People spend hours watching police shows and I’m living it.”

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