A mariner sailing in uncharted waters runs the risk of hitting a reef, running aground, or becoming lost and suffering an immense hardship. The mariner takes these risks because the reward of discovery and achievement far surpass the hardship required to be the trailblazer. Being a trailblazer and navigating uncharted waters is what officer Nisha Henderson lives for. Henderson is the very first female member of the Utah County, Utah, Metro SWAT Team and is blazing a trail not only for herself, but for other female officers.
Reared in the shadow of the Beehive State’s Wasatch Mountains, Henderson grew up shooting, hunting and spending time in the outdoors with her parents and siblings. Henderson loved girlie things, but always had an affinity for guns and shooting. She was given her first gun, a Browning .243 bolt-action rifle, by her father when she was just 10 years old. From that day forward Henderson has loved shooting, hunting, hiking, camping and fishing in the canyons of Provo, Utah.
In the 1980s, Provo experienced devastating floods. These disastrous times had a lasting impact on Henderson, who as a young girl saw the police in action helping citizens deal with the overflowing banks of the Provo River. These acts of service inspired her to pursue a career in law enforcement. After high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree of science in sociology from the University of Utah, and upon graduation, worked with juvenile offenders before moving to Killeen, Texas, with her-then husband, a soldier in the US Army. While in Texas, Henderson met a recruiting sergeant from the Killeen PD at a career fair who strongly encouraged Henderson to apply and test for a patrol position. She did and was hired.
Working her patrol beat provided experiences that would drastically alter the way Henderson saw the world. She was assigned one of the more dangerous beats in the city and learned firsthand what drugs, alcohol and bad choices can do to people’s lives. She spent much of her time dealing with prostitutes, drug dealers, drug users and the homeless. This required her to be a quick study when it came to enforcing the law.
Her time in Killeen allowed her to meet people who needed her help. She told me of an old couple who would go for a walk in the wee hours of the morning. Nothing she said would keep them from this tradition, so she made sure they would inform her if their schedule ever changed. While patrolling, she always made sure to check on them.
Her patrol time was not without sad moments. Henderson was dispatched to an address where she recognized the complainant as the girlfriend of one of her fellow officers. The woman was too distraught to speak; she simply pointed at the garage. Inside, Henderson found the body of a coworker who had committed suicide days earlier. Scenes like these leave an indelible memory.
Not all her experiences were so personally traumatic. She told me about an active-duty soldier who picked up a prostitute right in front of Henderson. She performed a traffic stop and informed the soldier that the female prostitute was really a male prostitute, and that it was best if the soldier never came back.
After going through a divorce, Henderson was looking for a way to return to Utah with her growing boys. With nothing in Killeen holding her back she began searching for a job in Utah County. An opening with the Provo PD provided her with the perfect opportunity. She worked her final shift in Killeen on a Thursday and reported for duty in Provo the following Monday.
The Provo PD has proven to be a great fit for Henderson, and she is excelling as a senior patrol officer, but when she started, she was only the third female officer in a department of 107.
I spent a Friday night riding with Henderson and she is not like any other police officer I have ever met. When she exited her patrol car to greet me, I was struck by her presence. Henderson exuded confidence, but not cockiness. I immediately felt at ease with her and never thought that she was pretending to be someone that she wasn’t.
Once in Provo, Henderson set her sights on becoming a member of their SWAT team which is comprised of officers from Provo PD, Orem PD, Brigham Young University PD and Utah Valley University PD. The two universities have a combined enrollment of close to 80,000 students. Wanting to be a member of the team and actually becoming one are two very different things, especially since the team had never had a female before. In order for this to happen Henderson would have to be as good as the male officers, and maybe even a little bit better. “I began preparing for the team as soon as I was hired on. I intended to try out in the spring of 2013, but was injured in January of that year, so I couldn’t do it,” she said. “My recovery took five months, but as soon as my doctor gave me the OK, I began training rigorously. Ten months before tryouts, I started exercising at least twice a day and sometimes three. I would run in the morning, do Crossfit in the afternoon and would dedicate three days a week to weight training,” she continued. “I spent many hours not only on the range, but also working on speed reloading and dry firing at home during pizza and movie nights with
If you don’t know what Crossfit is, I can only explain it as some medieval form of torture that has been resurrected and used to get people into extremely good physical condition. I can also tell you that Henderson, who stands an athletic 6 feet tall, is in as good if not better shape than officers 10 years her junior. She runs a 9:08-minute mile and a half, can do 50 push-ups in a minute, deadlift 295 pounds and bench press her bodyweight. No, I didn’t ask her how much that was; I didn’t want to get my butt kicked. How many 12-year-old boys can tell their friends that their mom practices speed reloads and dry fires her Glock while watching movies? I’m sorry, but that is just straight-up cool and bad to the bone.
When it came time for SWAT tryouts, Henderson was prepared. She had prepared physically and attended SWAT monthly training sessions to get familiar with what she would be doing. More importantly, she prepared mentally. While the training is physically demanding, the majority of candidates wash out because they aren’t mentally tough enough to endure the physical pain, criticism and sleep deprivation. Mental toughness is taking that next step when your body says, “I can’t do it.”
SWAT training was brutal. On the second day the team was performing spider-man drops. This consists of a team member on top of a shipping container and another below to help the team member coming down. The member on top lays flat and then hangs off of the box with one leg dangling and the other still on top. When the member is ready, he or she swings the last leg off and drops. The team member below is supposed to catch the other officer. The teammate on the ground got blood in his eye as Henderson dropped. She fell to the ground, landing on her M4, and suffered multiple micro fractures to her right arm. The doctor told her that her training and tryout was over. She said no and made him print up a waiver. She finished the course shooting left-handed, her weak hand – and made the team.
Henderson is the first person to tell you that her team rallied around her; otherwise, she would not have made it. They had to help draw her handgun and reholster it, but in the real world this is exactly what would happen if a team member was injured during an operation. You do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission.
Henderson made it and is now assigned to the entry team. As part of her kit she uses a Glock 17 Gen 4 as her sidearm and an M4 with a 10-inch barrel as her primary weapon.
It would appear that all of Henderson’s time is taken up between SWAT and being a patrol officer, but she has found time to become certified as an instructor in a women’s self-defense program called Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) that helps empower women to fight against would-be attackers as well. She is also a mother of twin sons, whom she helps with their newfound love of the Boy Scouts. The night that I rode along with her, our shift ended at 7 a.m., the same time that a “merit badge pow wow” started for her sons. She left the station, changed out her uniform, and spent the day teaching the law merit badge course.
Provo PD’s new chief, John King, told me, “In addition to being a member of our SWAT team, Officer Henderson has distinguished herself by her work as a patrol officer. She takes pride in knowing the people on her beat and treats everyone with respect. She has solved several cases because of her ability to appeal to either the suspect or victim on a personal level. She is obviously one of the most physically fit individuals on the department and makes excellent use of combining her physical strengthen, her femininity and her professional skills to proudly represent our department. As she advances in her career, she’ll undoubtedly set more firsts for women here, and those selections will be based on the merits of her work.”
Henderson is a trailblazer, and not just because she is a female, although that is part of it. She represents what we want all of our police officers to be. She is concerned about the people who she refers to as “her” citizens. She is able to be sympathetic without being emotional, empathetic while remaining professional and human while still enforcing the law and making unpopular decisions when required. ASJ
I recently sat in a meeting with John King, Chief of the City of Provo, Utah, police department, and a recorded 911 call was played for us. The caller was sobbing uncontrollably and it was impossible to understand what they were saying. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took me 30 to 45 seconds before I really even knew what was happening. It was stressful; I knew the caller needed help, but I didn’t know what kind and I was stunned that the 911 operator could figure it out. The dispatcher was calm and deliberate with her questions and her statements.
“Hon, you need to take a deep breath and tell me what is happening?” I heard the dispatcher say. “Sweetie, I can’t understand you. Can you tell me if the person is still there?” She went on, “It’s going to be OK. The officers are almost there, don’t hang up no matter what, even if you have to stop talking, don’t hang up.” The call lasted a short eight minutes; it felt like it went on for hours.
I can’t dwell on a past emergency, that would interfere with the next call.
After hearing this I decided that I needed to meet the people who choose a job where they constantly speak to people in crisis. No one calls 911 to give good news. The dispatchers answer the phone having no idea what they are about to hear. I’ve lived a long time and seen some bad things, but what I have experienced in 47 years is what a 911 dispatcher hears in a month.
I sat down with the training supervisor for Provo City PD’s dispatch center, Gen Pratt and Lieutenant Brandon Post, the lieutenant in charge of dispatch, to find out what makes these support personnel tick, and how they handle such a stressful job.The dispatch center has a staff of 21 people, with a budget for 24. According to Pratt and Post, the dispatch center is rarely staffed to the allotted 24 people. They have a very difficult time hiring people, and when they do, chances are that they will not make it through training. The turnover rate is higher than that of the people that they support – police, fire and paramedics.
Provo City has had its own dispatch center for 20 years now, and in that time only one dispatcher officially retired. Lt. Post said that less than one percent of hires will retire from the dispatch center – the turnover rate is astronomical. The emotional distress that comes from working with the city’s crisises cannot be quantified, but plays a significant part in the turnover rate.
These quiet and dedicated support warriors pay a high price for their desire to make a difference.
The center in Provo fields 150,000 calls per year. With a staff of 21 people that means that each person takes approximately 7,143 calls per year. That is close to 27 calls per day, per person. That is an amazing number, especially when one considers that these aren’t your Sunday afternoon calls to grandma.
After the interview, I listened to the dispatchers, whom were all women, take calls. At one point everyone was on a call or dispatching. They worked in sync as if they were one person. I had no idea what was happening; everyone was speaking, radio traffic was crackling and the clacking of keyboards was coming from what seemed to be every direction. No one, besides me, got flustered or stressed. These five women just kept talking and somehow communicating with each other. When it finally slowed down, the ladies went back to talking to each other about their plans for the weekend or what their kids were doing. I was in shock; my head was still swimming, trying to figure out what had just happened.
I asked Pratt if calls ever disturbed her. She said, “Not really.” She had learned to treat each call as an in-the-moment experience, and when the call ends, she moves on. I asked her about closure, or wanting to know the disposition of calls that she receives. Pratt said that she can’t dwell on calls and wonder about what has or hasn’t happened. That would interfere with the next call. She did say that there have been calls which have created lasting memories; her first fatality call and her first baby-not-breathing call after returning to work from maternity leave. Both of these calls have stuck with her during for her 11 years at dispatch. This tenure makes her one of the veterans.
When all is said and done, these quiet and dedicated support warriors pay a high price for their desire to make a difference. Burnout is common; retirement is not. Stress is customary and emotional punishment the norm. Recognition is almost unheard of; not because they haven’t earned it, but because so many of us simply don’t think about them – until we need them! ASJ