Testing the SWAT barrier

Officer jumps hurdle in seeking to be county's 1st woman on select police team

January 31, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Police Officer Sarah Kayser knew the county's three-week SWAT school wasn't for the weak. The 27-year-old former mortgage lender hesitated before applying, worried she wasn't in good enough shape to endure daily three- to six-mile runs and treks with telephone poles on her and her classmates' shoulders.

In the end, Kayser, 27, was the only Howard County officer to graduate from the most recent training program after the other four suffered injuries.

In doing so, she became the first woman from her department to attempt or accomplish the feat, an important step toward joining the prestigious unit, which handles the county's most explosive situations and has no female members.

"Everyone kept on asking me whether I was going to put in for it," Kayser said. "They'd say, `You know you're going to be the first one.' I kind of thought, `Well, then if I fail, it won't be so bad.' "

While Kayser repeatedly downplayed the accomplishment, the school's director described the tenacity that was required of her.

To qualify for the school, Sgt. Matt Robine said, Kayser had to meet the same standards as everyone else: four pull-ups, 40 push-ups, 40 sit-ups, four dips and a less than 8-minute mile.

"From there, we basically wear them out with physical training," he said. "There's a purpose for that. We need to see if they're going to hang in there, if they have the heart to do whatever it takes and not quit."

The Howard County Police Department runs the school, but active and hopeful SWAT team members from across the Washington-Baltimore region participate.

Of the 25 participants in the October class, 17 people, including Kayser and a woman from Carroll County, finished. Together, they broke a barrier, becoming the first women to attempt or complete the program. Kayser has been a police officer for two years.

"Sarah was very quiet and humble," Robine said. "She pulled her weight. She never had to be told to get in there and do her share."

SWAT teams - the acronym stands for Special Weapons and Tactics - are male-dominated worlds. One woman serves on Anne Arundel's team, and one woman supervises Baltimore's team, according to spokesmen for those agencies. Baltimore County does not have a female member.

Many members of Howard County's unit are masses of muscle. Kayser, at a slim 5 feet 7 inches, is a runner, not a weightlifter. She eats a lot of protein bars. A self-described "tomboy," she set a department record for the number of men who solicited her during an undercover prostitution sting in Jessup last year.

Kayser, who grew up in Columbia and owns a home in Anne Arundel County, said she wants to be a tactical officer because its more or less the exact opposite of mortgage lending, which "bored me to death."

"I want something more hands-on than working in a cubicle," she said. "I want to confront things that make you problem-solve and adapt, not something where I'm just repeating things over and over again."

Her ascension to the next level is far from guaranteed. A spot must open on the county's part-time or full-time tactical units, and competition is fierce.

"I don't have any doubts about her ability to do it physically or mentally," said Sgt. Jim Marshall, Kayser's supervisor, who recommended her for the school and has nominated her twice for Police Officer of the Month. "It's not my decision to make, but if she qualified, and I suspect she would, I wouldn't hesitate to take her."

John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said that he can draw only from personal experience to explain why women tend not to seek spots on SWAT teams. In his 26 years with the Champaign, Ill., team, he worked with only two women.

"One went on to be an FBI agent and serve on the local response team," he said. "The other dropped off. She went through a divorce and was fighting for custody of her children, and her lawyer said it wouldn't look good during the custody hearing. SWAT teams are called out at all times of the day or night."

Tactical officers also must have the ability to scale buildings, shoot like a sniper, break down doors and remain calm amid chaos. The county's school familiarizes students with all of these roles.

Kayser drove the department's tactical truck, which looks like a delivery vehicle.

With her gas mask on, she had smoke grenades thrown at her as she completed a rigorous trek through the woods. She participated in simulated hostage rescues and barricades involving would-be suicidal subjects.

She described a face-first rappel down a one-story structure as "fun" and an "ego-booster."

Kayser said she struggled most with the stress course, which involved running and shooting an automatic weapon while instructors screamed and yelled.

"You're pretty much getting paid to work out - like a boot-camp workout," said Kayser as she drove around Columbia on her regular night-shift patrol last week. "You can't beat that."


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