Social worker to SWAT officer

WESTMINSTER PD Det. Marcela Lopez, Westminster’s first woman to join the West County SWAT team. (Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge).

By Greg Mellen/Behind the Badge

Westminster Police Department Detective Marcela Lopez approaches policing from a couple of different perspectives: first, as a woman, and second, as a person who came to police work after a 10-year stint in social work.

Her history makes her decision to become a SWAT tactical officer, and the first female from Westminster to join the elite team, all the more interesting.

“I’ve been on the Crisis Negotiation Team for about five years now,” she said of the unit that works with SWAT to diffuse situations before forced entry is required.

As a former social worker with a personality and empathy suited for the work, negotiating and  de-escalation does fit her skill set.

“I have been told I have a lot of patience, sometimes to a fault,” Lopez says.

But Lopez wanted to expand her professional qualifications and said, “The tactical piece interested me to better myself as an officer.”

Although Lopez currently works as a robbery and homicide detective, she knows her career path will inevitably lead back to patrol. Officers on the streets don’t typically receive SWAT training but can use the skills taught and sharpened on the team. Lopez said there may be occasions in SWAT when her Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) training could come in handy.

Negotiators are usually behind the scenes and removed from the action in SWAT situations, and they are not always able to establish contact with a suspect.

“There are situations where the tactical team has to communicate,” Lopez said. “It can be fast- paced and there may be no time for the crisis negotiator.”

In such cases, Lopez’s training could help de-escalate the situation.

“CNT is something that will help her excel in her new position. It’s a strength to have both those facets,” said Westminster Commander Cord Vandergrift, a member of the command staff who chose Westminster’s representatives on the regional team.

Lopez was aware she would be the first woman from Westminster to try out for the West County SWAT team, which covers five cities, including Westminster, Cypress, Los Alamitos, Seal Beach, and Fountain Valley.

“I think that motivated me,” she said.

The 41-year-old officer said while there was always “friendly joking around” between the heavily armed tactical unit and the negotiation squad, she looked at the tactical squad and, “I figured I could do that.”

Although Lopez didn’t try out to break barriers for women, neither is she shrinking from it.

“I would like to think we bring a positive aspect,” she says of being a woman.

Despite the preponderance of men on the tactical team, Lopez said she initially worried that there might be resistance to her trying out.

Although Jennifer Grasso broke the mold becoming a SWAT officer in 2008 with the LAPD with the support of Police Chief William Bratton, a decade later she was still the only female member of that team.

A 2012 survey of 41 of the 50 largest police departments in the U.S. found that of 1,704 sworn SWAT officers, eight were female, or less than one-half of one percent. Lopez only knew of two female SWAT officers in Orange County.

However, Lopez said she found no detractors. Instead she said, “everyone has been very supportive.”

Eventually Lopez said she would like to advance to become part of the entry team, which is where the action, and most of the danger, lie.

To qualify for SWAT, officers have to qualify in shooting, physical fitness and oral interviews. Vandergrift said of the applicants, maybe half pass the testing and qualify to be SWAT officers.

About Lopez, Vandergrift said, “She excelled in all three elements. She was one of our best applicants by far.”

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