A Former Journalist’s Second Career: Police Officer

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Officer Stephanie Schendel. Photo by Amy Radil

Stephanie Schendel loved her job as a print journalist because, she says, ‘You got crazy stories out of it.”

Now, she occupies what she calls the “front-row seat” to those stories—as a cop.

Schendel decided to switch careers last year because she wanted to do something “pro-active.” After graduating from Washington State’s police academy, she began working patrol as a rookie police officer in Bellevue, Wa., five months ago.

[KUOW, Seattle’s public radio station, has been following her since she entered the academy.]

We caught up with her again recently. On a recent night, one of her first stops is a burglary scene. The resident tells her his rifle and pistol have been stolen.

“If you could do your best to track down serial numbers — if we have them it’ll make it easier if they try to resell them or if they pop up later in a crime,” she tells him.

Schendel said she sees a lot of burglaries where the focus is guns, jewelry and the medicine cabinet.

“It’s a theft in progress,” she said. “The person’s getting away, but it’s a misdemeanor, so am I going to drive lights and sirens there? No. Because the risk of [breaking the] driving code somewhere is really, really high.

“I’m more likely to get into an accident driving code with a normal person. Everything is about risk assessment.”

‘Guardians of Society’

At the police academy, Schendel’s instructors emphasized the role of police as “guardians” of society—who show respect for others, communicate clearly, and de-escalate conflicts when possible.  Schendel said her training with the Bellevue Police Department was more focused on cultivating a sense of authority.

“Part of field training is rounding it out. Yes, there are times in your job when you’re a guardian. But once you get on the road, you have to recognize when you need to turn that off, and when you need to be the person to have confidence level to take someone’s freedom away,” she said.

Schendel said high-profile cases of police misconduct make every officer’s job harder – and she tries to counter people’s fears of police. But she’s also haunted by the story of a police officer in Virginia who was shot and killed on her first day of field training in February.

“There are points in our job that are extremely dangerous, and we’re dealing with people who are very unpredictable,” she said.

Her field training focused on “recognizing those threats and how to appropriately deal with those.”

Schendel said she wanted to work for Bellevue because the department is progressive and already has lots of women officers. She said they built on her training at the academy, rather than telling her to disregard it.

During our interview, Schendel said she was the only officer at her agency who hadn’t been in a physical confrontation on the job. That changed a couple weeks later when she and a high school football player tackled a shoplifting suspect in an Old Navy store.

Besides the risks of the job, she said the hardest part so far has been dealing with very troubled kids.

“Handcuffing a 12-year old to take him into protective custody is not fun,” she said. “But if I didn’t do that and the kid decides, ‘I’m gonna make a run for it,’ and the kid gets away from me and the kid gets hurt, whose fault is that? It’s mine.”

Schendel said these kids’ situations can feel hopeless; it’s helped her to talk with colleagues and her family about what she sees.

The Patrol Car ‘Bubble’

This night was pretty calm. She joked that in her police car, she only sees perfect drivers.

“When you’re in a patrol car, it’s like a bubble, no one does anything wrong.”

Suddenly an oncoming car did an illegal U-turn right in front of her.

“Yeah, we’re gonna pull them over,” she said.

The driver turns out to be a recent arrival in the U.S. Schendel gave him a warning. She said her favorite part of the job is its unpredictability—and being a guardian when called for.

“When you roll up on a car accident, everyone is freaking out. You get to be the person that says, ‘Hey I know everything seems really bad right now. But in the end you’re OK, you didn’t get hurt.’

“Being the one who’s able to put that in perspective for people is good,” she continued.“ And there are calls where you actually get to help people who need it.”

Schendel said one of the more surprising repercussions to her career change has been in her dating life—the men she met seemed intimidated by her job.

“They tried to out-man me almost,” with their athletic feats or firearms know-how, she said,. “It was just so silly to me, because I was like, ‘Oh wow, congratulations, I’m so impressed.’”

Another unsuccessful icebreaker—making off-putting jokes about her handcuffs. (“Ew,” she said.)

But she recognized that becoming a police officer affected her priorities, too.

“What also changed was the type of guy I found myself attracted to,” she said. “I realized I don’t really have much in common anymore with someone who’s an accountant.”

Schendel said she doesn’t see barriers to being a woman within the Bellevue Police Department. But being young and female does affect how she’s treated by the public.

“I probably get hit on by male suspects more than my male coworkers do,” she said. “That’s certainly happened before.”

Her recent shoplifting suspect at Old Navy was a perfect example, she said.

“After we caught the suspect, he tried to talk his way out of getting the second charge of ‘resisting arrest,’” she said. “He claimed he didn’t know I was a police officer, and therefore shouldn’t get charged, because he knew he was being chased ‘by a woman,’ and he heard a ‘female voice’ yelling commands at him. If he heard a man’s voice, he would have known it was the police, he said.

“Then, after all of that, on the way to jail, he sort of tried to flirt with me by asking me my age. I wish I were kidding.”

Schendel is dating someone now. She said the next obstacle is actually spending time together, given the crazy shifts new officers are assigned to work.

Amy Radil, a reporter from KUOW in Seattle, was a 2016 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. This slightly edited & abridged report was part of a series published this month as part of her reporting project for the fellowship. To read or listen to earlier and related stories, please click  HERE. Amy welcomes comments from readers.

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