After stints in the military and as an EMT, Stephanie finally made good on her desire to become a police officer. She attended the Academy at age 40 and now serves and protects the San Mateo County area in California.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I am a Hispanic female, the youngest of three daughters. I grew up in the bay area of California. My mother cleaned houses and worked as a nurse’s aide at the local convalescent home. My father was a welder and built Army tanks. I recall taking rides in those tanks during family day at his place of employment; I loved it.
Even at a young age, I gravitated towards a structured environment. While I never got into trouble, I was quite silly at times and had an active imagination. I would create my own games until my sisters came home from school. Even then, my sisters would be too preoccupied with boys, makeup, and marijuana to pay much attention to me.
One of my fondest memories as a child was pretending I was a detective. I’d place my hands together with both index fingers pointing out to simulate a gun and inch my way against the hallway wall, then come upon the suspect’s door (usually my sister’s bedroom door). I knew the suspect was not home, but I had reasonable suspicion to enter the room to search for evidence—with my pretend warrant! I’d enter the room and observe the usual items: a Jimi Hendrix poster on the wall, a Peter Frampton album on the record player, and a lava lamp.
One time, as I searched my sister’s room, I smelled a vaguely familiar odor coming from the suspect’s dresser. I lowered my pistol, opened the top drawer, and saw this purple glass mini-vase with a round bulbous bottom and a smelly, sticky residue inside. It had painted flowers on the outside, which was kind of cute, however the smell!
As a 10-year-old, I was a little puzzled and walked the flowered vase over to my Sergeant on duty (my mom), who was cooking dinner, and asked, “What is this? It smells!” My Sergeant looked very concerned and was NOT happy with my findings! Long story short, my sister got a talking to—oops! Needless to say, I left the investigations bureau after that incident!
My parents divorced when I entered high school. I was very athletic and excelled in sports. I was an exceptionally good tennis player, and was ranked #1 varsity singles and #4 in the league.
While I struggled in high school, I was very mature and quite articulate; I loved to write and loved history. I did not have any real guidance or direction and felt a bit alone when it came to finding a career path. After graduation, I dabbled in a few college courses but had no desire to really be there. My first job was at the local police department, where I issued out the shotguns and other equipment to the officers. That is where I got my first real taste of law enforcement. I was curious about the career but ignored my desires, I think because I lacked the self-confidence that I could actually do it. To this day, that bothers me—but everything happens for a reason. I did want to nurture the leader inside me; I liked to take charge and knew I’d be a good leader.
I was drawn to the military. That was the one thing I was sure of; it was such a good fit. I served six years in the Army Reserves and loved it. After serving my time in the military, I had more confidence to pursue a career in law enforcement; however, I wanted more life experience. So I became an EMT. While the pay was menial, the experiences would prove invaluable preparation for my future job on the streets.
How did you finally have the courage to pursue your dream?
The thought of being a police officer was always in the back of my mind. At times, I would even fight the feeling, talking myself into other career paths related to public safety, and at which I excelled, like being an EMT, a dispatcher, a records clerk at a police department, and a community service officer. I would talk myself out of chasing my dream by finding reasons to stay where I was.
I once asked a coworker for her thoughts on my dream of becoming a police officer; I will never forget her response. She was in her late 40s, somewhat of a bitter woman who called in sick all the time. She asked, “How old are you?” When I responded 36, she immediately said, “Oh no, girl, you gotta stay put. It’s too late to do that.”
Luckily I had a strong will and wasn’t easily persuaded by others’ views. I felt sorry for this woman because she probably felt she missed her opportunity in life to make changes herself, hence her bitterness and constant tardiness.
I knew I had what it took; I knew I fulfilled all the requirements and had a stellar background that would make for an exemplary police officer. But the honest truth was that it would be hard work to get there. It is physically and mentally challenging. Not only for you but also for your family. By this time, I was hitting 40 years old. I had a partner who was very supportive. We had a house and bills. To leave my current job to pursue a career as a police officer was taking a big risk. It is a very competitive field and there is no guarantee of a job after graduating the academy.
What is your next act?
After attending Police Academy at age 40, I am now a police officer in one of the most active and dangerous areas of the San Francisco Bay Area. There are five women in my department of 38 officers. One is in her 20s while the rest of us are in our 30s and 40s. I work 12-hour shifts and rotate four days on and four days off, then three days on and three days off. As a new officer, I adapted to my environment quite quickly—I think thanks to my age and life experience. I see many younger officers struggle with handling certain situations. Many citizens who are distraught or angry don’t like to accept advice from someone who is 20 years younger than them.
Every city is different but in ours we patrol officers ride solo, so I do not have a partner in my car and will call for backup as needed. A few months ago, I was part of the Gang Task Force that is deployed in the summertime to suppress gang activity, through the cooperation of officers from different agencies within the same county.
I am not a detective but was sent to two weeks of Investigations school to sharpen my skills and prepare me for when an opening occurs. I love the investigation aspect of my job, being part of a case from beginning to end. I also love connecting with the community, the victims as well as the suspects. I must admit I’m a pretty good at building a rapport with the suspects. I have gotten many to tell the truth after 10 minutes of talking with them about just life in general. Sometimes they just want to be heard and I genuinely listen.
I don’t let what I see every day on the streets affect me in a negative way. I cannot let emotion get in the way when I see a battered wife or shooting victim. I am there to protect and serve and my emotions could compromise that safety, for all of us: me, my partner, the citizens, and the victims.
Days off are precious to us and your first day off is usually a day trying to decompress from your crazy work week or domestic violence, shots fired, fights or vehicle pursuits. I find that many are intrigued by my career and ask me many questions, especially due to the current rise in police misconduct. And while my family is very supportive, I don’t mention the violent calls I go to; some things are better left unspoken.
How hard was it to go through Police Academy?
The Academy (I was a the South Bay Regional Training Consortium) was strenuous—mentally and physically draining. If it was hard for a 20 year old, it was that much more difficult for a 40 year old. But one advantage I had at 40 was mental strength; I was confident, I knew what I wanted, and I knew I could do anything I wanted. I was done with excuses and I wasn’t about to make them simply because the work to obtain my goals was hard.
The Academy meant six months of grueling physical and mental tests. Some of these were like the military—structured tests where you were pushed to your limits and had to follow the chain of command. We learn the California laws, amendment rights, the appropriate use of force, tactical driving, shooting accuracy, and more. There are about 50 learning domains (all different subjects of the law) we are tested on.
In the Academy, if you fail one portion of a test, you lose everything and have to start all over again from day one. I spent hours trying to get over the 6-foot wall (which is pretty tough for most women). I spent hours in the rain getting over that wall in record time, coming home with bruised and sometimes bloody forearms from holding on to that fence.
And the support I felt from family and friends, I was very much alone during the process. You have to motivate yourself to work out, eat right, study, run faster than the other guy, study, be proficient in all that you do, know the penal code practically verbatim. There’s only so much your family and friends can support you with.
As I stood in formation, I looked around at all the young, mostly white, males, eager, not knowing what to expect. My military experience definitely helped me mentally prepare for anything. The mind games our Training Officers tried to play on me didn’t work much because I secretly relished in the yelling and pushing they exposed us to. It sounds warped, I know, but I had the belief that “pain is temporary…success is forever!” Although it was still physically hard for me, my military experience served me well. I also loved the camaraderie, the brotherhood and sisterhood of it all.
At the end of one day, as I was walking to my vehicle, I saw one of my academy mates looking beaten down; he’d gotten yelled at for having poorly shined boots. I grabbed a pair of panty hose and my shoeshine kit. There were only about three of us with military experience in the academy; this guy was clearly not one of them. I approached him and said, “pantyhose.” He said, “huh”? I explained, “Pantyhose will give those boots an extra shine.” We sat at the edge of his bumper and I showed him how to spit shine his boots the old fashioned way. At the end, I gave him a rolled up ball of pantyhose and told him to buff his shoes out prior to inspection. He and I are still friends to this day.
I saw many “individuals” in the Academy. They are the ones who know certain things but are hesitant to share in order to make themselves look better. I wasn’t about to be one of those people. Lack of team work will get you killed out in the streets.
There were times in the Academy where you would be up for ten hours and would have to choose between a shower and a nap; there just wasn’t time to do both. They do this to you for a reason—to get you mentally prepared to deal with the streets, the demands of your job, and the times where you will be lucky to even shove a protein bar down your throat.
The thought of giving up was a fleeting thought, but I kept pushing on, because there were other applicants who DID give up and I wasn’t about to be one of them. My Academy class consisted of 63 students and 43 made it to graduation. Many recruits either failed a portion of the testing or dropped out due to the stress of the Academy. There were five to seven of us over the age of 40, including a few guys from the tech industry and one former professional baseball player. We had six females in our class and all graduated but one.
How hard was it to get a job after graduating from the Academy?
It is an arduous process; the competition was fierce. You are applying for a job with about 1,000 others behind you. If you don’t stand out to the department you’re applying for, your application gets tossed aside; they have so many other candidates.
There will always be someone with more experience than you, so it is in your best interest to have a clean record, a spotless background, great references, and a strong work ethic. You would be surprised as to how many applicants do not pass background checks simply because they choose NOT to disclose something small from their past. Once it’s found out, it shows dishonesty and a police department cannot take chances with that. They need someone who will represent their department well and not be a liability. For that reason, sometimes a clean record trumps experience.
Of course you need to not only look good on paper, but also be confident in person and be able to articulate why you’re the right applicant for the job. You need to sell yourself within the first 5 to 10 minutes of the interview. And you’d be lucky to get hired within two years of graduating the Academy.
What are the realities and challenges of your day-to day-job?
The academy is strenuous, however only prepares you for the basic knowledge of becoming an officer. Once you get hired, the specific department will instruct you and train you how they want things done.
When there are shots fired, police officers run toward them while everyone else gets to run away from them. We have to make split second decisions on the streets, whether to shoot or not, whether to arrest or not. We have to use our judgment and discretion.
Meanwhile, the defense attorneys can spend a year, if not longer, dissecting and scrutinizing everything you’ve done. And, unfortunately, due to the current negative press around the actions of a few bad officers, we police officers are often presumed guilty. I absolutely love when someone turns on their cell phone and records me while I do my job because I ACTUALLY DO MY JOB AND DO IT LAWFULLY.
Yes, there ARE some bad officers out there whom I cannot speak for nor condone their actions. However, I’m a little tired of the qualifier that only “certain lives matter”. Some communities try to use that as leverage on the street and its making it even more dangerous for the officers who DO TAKE PRIDE IN THEIR WORK AND DO THE RIGHT THING.
EVERYONE’S life matters, including officers’ lives. If someone who likes to judge what we do from the comfort of their couch, they should come ride with me for a few hours. I guarantee they will have an entirely different view after those few hours. I treat people with respect regardless of what crimes I have just arrested them for, yet people use the negative issues that occur in other states as leverage at times. And it can be frustrating.
Even after having a man at gunpoint, and arresting him for kidnapping and beating up his girlfriend, I still treated him with respect regardless. He spoke to me freely about the incident as if we were talking over coffee. (You catch more bees with honey, I always say.)
In this career, you have to wear many masks. You have to be the assertive officer who can also diffuse situations in a more holistic way when needed. Then, after working 12 hours (if you’re lucky), you go home and try to shut off your day.
You will learn that your body and mind can take more than you realize. If you push yourself, you can accomplish anything. Remember, the pain is temporary. The reason why people seem to want to stay stagnant where they are in life is because change sometimes is painful. If it were easy, EVERYONE would be doing it. What kept me going was my drive, my persistence and promise to my partner that we will come out of this on top.
If you have a family and kids, don’t expect to spend the holidays or birthday parties with them. But you will adjust. You will build solid friendships with your coworkers because you spend the majority of your time with them. Don’t let those things deter you from the career. You learn to adjust and ride the wave. There are plenty of positive aspects to the job. There are people who appreciate you, and it is an honor to serve and protect people in their time of need.
This career is infamous for ending relationships; it’s such a stressful job. It’s important to recognize issues early and to seek help as they come up. If your partner is supportive and patient enough to get through the tough times, you CAN have a healthy relationship. That said, my partner at the time, Vicki, and I have split, but we remain great friends and will meet up for lunch periodically to check in. It’s nice when you can have a healthy friendship with an ex. Yes, my job played a small roll in our divorce, but I just think our communication could have used some fine-tuning from the start and our career just led us in two different directions.
What advice do you have for women looking to make a career change in midlife?
I speak to many women who think that changing careers, even at age 30, is too late. I find that interesting. Money has consumed us in our decisions. I completely understand; I was there. I had bills, I had obligations, but if you want something, you make it happen.
Rally your troops, those family members and friends who are supportive. I love the saying, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right!” If you think you’re not going to make it, well then you probably won’t. If you think you will persevere regardless of what comes your way, you will make it.
What about advice to those interested in becoming police officers?
If you are interested in this career but have doubts due to your age, I would tell you that it’s absolutely attainable. I was hired at age 41. Many departments value life and job experience, which will come in handy when you are dealing with a variety of different people day to day and building rapport. There have been so many times when I have sat with a suspect and we’ve talked about things that we both can relate to, and start to speak freely to me.
If you really want this career, think long and hard, and remember that it WILL affect your family and significant other. Make them aware of the stress you will experience in the Academy and in your new career. No academy can really prepare you for what its like on the streets, so it will be a challenge for your loved ones to show patience like they have never done before.
I suggest reading I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know by Ellen Kirschman. It’s a good book for families to read too, to prepare them for what is ahead in their loved one’s career as a police officer.
If you live in California, you can go on www.post.ca.gov, which will give plenty of information on how to go about becoming a police officer, the training that’s involved, and the availability of positions. The cost of attending the Academy varies from state to state. There are also part-time academies that take a little longer to graduate from. To enter the Academy, I was required to pass a written exam, a physical exam, and a background check. The physical test included running a mile in under 11 minutes, jumping a 6-foot wall, sprinting, dragging a 180-lb. dummy, and completing an obstacle course. The specifics will vary from state to state and county to county.
Just remember the pain, both physical and mental, is temporary… Success is forever.
What’s next for you?
I am now single, doing well in my career, preparing for advancing in the ranks, and participating in other specialty positions throughout the next year.
While I will stay in law enforcement, I will most likely also get involved in dog rescue of some sort. My passion and love for dogs is so strong. I feel we are their only voice and I would love to educate people on the proper care and treatment of animals.
This life has definitely been a ride. I think if anything, starting my career late in life has taught me that there really is no such thing as a missed opportunity, unless you allow it to be.
Contact Officer Stephanie Aguilar at Pitts72@aol.com