Avon’s Female Police Officers Share Experiences In Law Enforcement
Photographer: Amy Payne
When Jennifer Brahaum, an officer with the Avon Police Department (APD) for the past 20 years, was asked if she had always planned to become a cop, she shook her head.
“Actually, I thought I’d be a journalist,” says Brahaum, who minored in criminal justice and began to gain a greater interest in that field.
Ultimately, she earned a degree in criminal justice and psychology with the intent of joining the FBI. After working for five years in a clerk’s office filing cases, however, she changed her mind.
“It was good background experience, but I learned that I can’t sit behind the desk, day-in and day-out,” says Brahaum, a 1989 Avon High School alum. “I wanted to go out, drive fast and chase bad guys.”
After researching the jobs that fit her needs and credentials, police work seemed ideal.
When Brahaum was hired as the first female officer with APD, she expected to get some blowback from her fellow officers.
“It was a rather smooth transition. They were just relieved to have another set of hands as they were short-staffed,” Brahaum says.
She does recall a county officer who commented that women didn’t belong in law enforcement. He maintained that if there was a physical altercation with a perpetrator, a female wouldn’t be able to fight back. It was a fear that was unfounded as all officers who go through the police academy must prove their physical strength and stamina. Those who can’t cut it — regardless of gender — get the boot.
“You have to pass every part of the physical exam,” explains Mercedes Spicer, the only other female officer in the department. “If you can’t do 25 pushups, you’re gone. If you don’t have a 16-inch vertical jump, you’re gone.”
Though both Brahaum and Spicer have witnessed men not make the cut, they still feel the pressure to continually demonstrate that they, as females, belong in uniform.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, and I’ve always felt like I’ve had to prove myself more than the guys,” says Brahaum, who has been in a few situations where she’s had to go hands-on with people. But she always first utilizes her interpersonal skills to diffuse intense situations.
“I may not be the biggest person in the room, but I try to deescalate situations by talking,” Brahaum says.
Which is not to say she hasn’t had to pull out the taser from time to time.
“Tasers are wonderful,” she says. “They take the fight out of people real quick.”
For 16 years, Brahaum worked the evening shift, which is the stretch of time in which most of the action takes place. The night shift can be busy but usually tapers off by midnight. A typical day shift is patrolling neighborhoods and going out on runs, which may consist of lock outs, car accidents, burglaries and responding to business alarms that sound in the early AM. During warm weather months, they also get lots of calls for dogs being locked in hot vehicles.
Both officers agree that the most rewarding aspect of their career is helping people in their times of need and, in some cases, transforming a life.
“It’s always amazing when somebody comes up and says, ‘Do you remember me?’” Brahaum says. “You did this for me, and it turned my life around.”
She shares the story of a 15-year-old girl who had been struggling with drug-addicted parents. Brahaum had been called out to the house on several occasions and one time the girl had downed a fifth of vodka and passed out. Brahaum debated whether or not to file charges because it was clear this troubled youth would benefit from intervention, not jail time. Ultimately, Brahaum did file charges because she knew that was the path towards better health.
“I explained to her why I did it, and she was super ticked — slamming doors, stomping around,” Brahaum says. “I sent letters to the judges explaining what I thought she needed, and that was the last I heard of her case since we often don’t get follow-ups on juvenile hearings.”
Three years later, however, Brahaum was in a McDonald’s parking lot when this girl—now a young, vibrant woman—approached her and confided that Brahaum had completely changed her life. She was doing great and looking forward to getting married.
“That’s a great feeling,” Brahaum says.
One of Spicer’s favorite aspects of her job is going to elementary schools to interact with students and participate in Q&A sessions.
“They’re so happy to see us,” Spicer says. “If you’re ever feeling down, put on a police uniform and walk into a cafeteria at lunch and you’ll feel like a rock star.”
With the highs, however, come the lows. The most challenging part of the job is when civilians refuse to accept help that officers are offering. This is most notable in domestic violence situations. Research has shown that a woman usually tries to leave a domestic abuse situation three times before she finally works up the nerve to leave for good. Unfortunately, that may mean they get severely hurt before enduring that final straw.
“Mental illness — particularly bipolar and paranoid schizophrenia — are difficult to deal with,” Brahaum says. “There have been times when we’ve gone to the same house repeatedly. Things never change because family members enable the person to continue on their dangerous course of behavior.”
In these instances, not much can be done on the part of law enforcement. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for such cases to end in homelessness or suicide.
“That’s one thing I really think we need in this county — better help for mental illness,” Brahaum says.
Spicer agrees, noting that one of her most difficult calls she received was when she responded to a murder-suicide.
Brahaum still vividly recalls her first fatality, which happened just a few months into the start of her career. It was a county car crash that she assisted on at the intersection of Dan Jones and 300 North. A man had run the stop sign and smashed into a vehicle which held three generations — a grandmother, mother and daughter. Only the mother survived.
“I can’t imagine the anguish of losing your mom and your daughter in one fell swoop,” says Brahaum, who tearfully watched as a fireman pulled the 3-year-old girl’s body from the wreckage.
“I can still picture her little face, her brown pigtails, and her feet swinging as the fireman took steps,” Brahaum says. “That image has stuck with me for 20 years.”
A Brownsburg officer who had five children of his own was highly emotional as he worked the scene. He later confided to Brahaum that one of the county officers told him that if he couldn’t hold it together, he was in the wrong line of work.
“I completely disagree,” Brahaum says. “He showed great empathy, which, in my opinion, is an important quality to have as an officer.”