Female Force
Officer Emily Quinones, a seven-year veteran on the force, prepares for another day of overtime after having worked for the past six days straight. | Frankie Prijatel, They Wear Blue Photographer

Female Force

Syracuse Police Department, West Side lean on Hispanic woman


It was her first day on the job, and she was already fighting people. At least, that’s how she would later describe the incident with a chuckle. But at the moment, she was young, and she was fearful. A 23-year-old rookie cop who had just graduated from the rigorous, six-month police academy, Officer Emily Quinones felt a rush of adrenaline when she arrived at the scene of a domestic disturbance call during her first shift with the force.

As she tried to speak calmly with the man involved in the incident, he became combative, erratic. He ran to the kitchen presumably to look for a knife, as Quinones chased after him, hand on her gun holster. She could feel the emotions, the anxiety, the uncertainty of whether she would soon have to make a life-or-death decision: Will it be him, or will it be me?

Quinones was far from her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico. She had never imagined that she would one day leave her sunny childhood home to become a police officer in the snowiest city in America. She had loved the heat of her native city — the beaches, the nights at dance clubs with her friends, the summers spent working at the local Mr. Pretzels as a teenager with the simple question: “What was the best thing and the worst thing that could happen to me today?”

But she also loved cop shows, with thrilling narratives of officers being positive forces of change in their communities and “badass” female characters proving that women can do just as much, if not more, than men to fight crime and seek justice. It was these fictional female role models, the Detective Bensons of the “Law & Order” TV world, that initially sparked Quinones’ interest in law enforcement.

 

 

“When she was little, she couldn’t stop watching movies of police and detectives,” her older brother, Jesus Romon, said with a laugh. “So it came as no surprise. We weren’t surprised at all that she eventually joined the force.”

Still, Quinones had never anticipated that her dream would one day lead her here, to this moment where a split-second decision could cost her, or someone else, their life. As she stood in the kitchen, palms sweating, the hair on the back of her neck pricked upright, she flashed back on the challenges and decisions in her life that had led her to this point.

‘A drastic change’
The youngest child in a three-sibling Puerto Rican family, Quinones relocated to Syracuse in 2005 after her older brother started attending school at Syracuse University.

“It was a drastic change coming here,” said Quinones, now a seven-year veteran of the SPD. “I didn’t know anybody.”

She didn’t know very much English, either. She refers to her first few months in America adapting to the climate, customs and language as “the whole English thing.” Though she had taken basic English courses during her formal education in Puerto Rico, Quinones now faced the challenge of finding a job, making friends and starting a new life while trying to expand her basic English vocabulary.

She ultimately found a job at the local Pep Boys auto shop two months after arriving in the city. In her starting position as a cashier, she would frequently walk through aisles filled with tires, brakes and batteries, carefully studying the packaging that listed names and instructions in English and Spanish and committing product names to memory. Once she began feeling confident in her language abilities, she started moving up the chain — from cashier, to sales associate, to assistant manager — and eventually started working toward a degree in physical therapy at Onondaga Community College. She had always been active, participating in basketball, volleyball, and track and field as a teen, and hoped that her degree would allow her to focus on helping athletes.

She quickly realized that this wasn’t the path for her.

“Biology, anatomy, bones,” Quinones said, describing her community college coursework. “It was a lot of things going on at the same time.”

A rarity on a white, male force
She had never forgotten her dream of becoming a cop, and after working at Pep Boys for three years, Quinones sought employment with the Syracuse Police Department, though not initially as a member of the force. She got a job as a front-desk receptionist in the records department at the police department on South State Street, filing paperwork and submitting requests in the back room of a small office. After four months on the job, she was approved to start her training with the Police Academy.

“It was tough,” Quinones said. “We would work out every day, no breaks.”

Syracuse Police Officer Emily Quinones, who mainly patrols Syracuse’s West Side neighborhood, grew up in Puerto Rico speaking only Spanish.” | Frankie Prijatel, They Wear Blue Photographer

In addition to the already strenuous physical demands of the program, Quinones faced an additional challenge. She hurt her knee on the very first run, then had to endure the remainder of the Academy on pain medication, a knee-brace wrapped tightly around her leg. Still, she persisted. As a rare female recruit seeking to join a police staff that is 86 percent male, Quinones quickly learned how to be tough — how to establish a commanding presence that would allow her to prove that she could handle anything, just like any of the guys could.

“She did a good job of adapting,” said Officer Evan Hepburn, who graduated from the Police Academy with her. “Coming from a different place, she had the same challenges as everybody else, but with the additional challenges of being in a police department where you have a majority white male officers.”

Quinones reflects on these memories with fondness. She maintains that she has no regrets about her time in the Academy, not even about the injury during that tortuous first run. She was in the best shape of her life, she held her own when boxing with male recruits and when she finally put on her police uniform … well, it was hard to explain what she felt. But it could best be described as “different.”

“I can be kind of shy,” Quinones said. “But when I put on my uniform, it’s a different situation, a different game. I can put on my uniform and talk to anyone because that’s my job. That’s what I do.”

And that’s exactly what she was trying to do on her first night on patrol when that routine domestic disturbance call had the potential to turn deadly: Her job. Talk to someone, try to calm him down. But there she was, in an unfamiliar kitchen as that “scary feeling” sunk in and the hairs on the back of her neck told her that something was not quite right. She placed her hand on the holster of her gun — and ultimately, as she approached the man cautiously, beads of perspiration forming on her forehead, she saw that he was not reaching for a weapon. She put her gun back in the holster.

Strathmore: A part of her life
Now, seven years later, she views that experience as a reminder of the challenges she and other officers must face every day in the line of duty, and the split-second choices they must make under pressure.

“There’s always going to be those times,” Quinones said. “You don’t have much time to think. You just go with your training and … go. Most everyday people will never be in that situation.”

Yet for Quinones, this situation is just part of the job. She works the morning shift on the West Side of Syracuse, mostly spending time in the Strathmore neighborhood where there is a sizeable Hispanic community. It’s an area that has what Quinones describes as “a little bit of everything” — kids throwing rocks at cars and carrying BB guns, teens running away from home and break-ins and domestic violence reports.

For Quinones, the people in the Strathmore area have become a part of her life, and she a part of theirs. As one of the few full-Hispanic females on the force (the SPD is only 2.5 percent Hispanic, according to the department’s 2016 annual report), and the only Spanish-speaker on the morning shift, Quinones has established close bonds with community members in the area. As she patrols the Strathmore area on any given morning, she is often approached by community members who affectionately call her “Pocahontas” (though she’s not entirely sure why they’ve chosen this nickname for her).

“They know who I am here. I’ve worked this area for over six years consistently, and if I’m parked, someone will flag me down and let me know about incidents,” Quinones said. “They know me.”

Her demeanor on the force can best be described as that of a negotiator: a calming presence that hopes to reason with suspects and others to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. One February morning, after Quinones and a colleague confronted a man who had left his car running outside of a convenience store, the man became irate, shouting “F— the police” and saying that the cops were harassing him while he was on his way to get medicine for his 5-year-old son (who was with him at the time) simply because he was black.

“Let me ask you something,” Quinones said. “You think I’m white?”

This got the man’s attention, and Quinones began to reason with him.

“You say you need medicine for your son. If your car had been stolen because you left it running outside, what would happen to him? How would he get medicine?”

It was a question that “turned everything around,” as Quinones would later describe it. The man apologized, and resolved not to repeat his mistake.

‘People you can count on’
Quinones’ colleagues have described her as being an important asset to the team, not just for her frequent assistance in translating for cops around the city when dealing with Hispanic community members, but for her willingness to help in just about any situation she happens to be pulled into.

“She’s one of those people that, if you ask her to do something, she’ll do it for you,” Hepburn said.

This willingness to help often leads her to unexpected places, from across the streets of the near West Side to the deli section of the nearest Wegmans Food Market store. It’s not uncommon for Quinones to assist a colleague with a missing person’s report, knocking on doors and tiptoeing through alleyways in Strathmore to search for a runaway 15-year-old, before heading straight to the grocery store to pick up a cake, two large pizzas, and a box of chicken wings to cram into the backseat of her patrol car to bring to the baby shower of a colleague at noon.

Outside of her daily work, she volunteers as much time as possible to interacting with community members to bridge the gap between the police and civilians. Twice a semester, she volunteers with the after-school program of the Spanish Action League, a non-profit organization that hosts a variety of programs for non-native English speakers.

“She tries to tell the kids that any kind of person can be a police officer,” said her brother Romon, who is the organization’s assistant director. “She wants to show them that the police are people you can count on. She wants to be accessible to community members. It makes them feel more connected.”

All of these everyday tasks and responsibilities have reminded Quinones, now a veteran on the force, that being a police officer is much different than what is portrayed in television shows. For starters, there’s much more paperwork, she jokes. But there’s also a much greater opportunity to create change on an interpersonal level, to interact with community members in a meaningful way and help both youth and adults grow from every interaction with law enforcement.

“It’s like you’re a little bit of everything,” Quinones said. “You’re a therapist, you’re a cop, you’re a social worker. You do it all, because in a lot of things people are dealing with, you have to be the voice of reason.”

Goofy, shy, confident
Quinones has come a long way from her hometown in Puerto Rico, from her weekday strolls through auto part aisles reciting Spanish-to-English translations under her breath and from that decisive moment her first day on the job that brought her face-to-face with the indescribable challenges of being a cop.

But these challenges have made her the officer she is today. She’s still shy, hesitant to open up to others when not in uniform. Many friends who have never seen her on duty jokingly say that they could never picture her as a cop. She’s “goofy,” according to her brother, always joking around and giving him a hard time — especially about making the family move to Syracuse when she still dreams of the heat of her native city.

But in uniform, she’s confident and serious – the kind of person who has an ability to balance a presence that is both commanding and understanding. The kind of person who has built relationships with the Hispanic community members in her area. The kind of person who has a capacity to hold her own as one of the few female officers in a male-dominated profession.

But still, she knows, there’s always going to be those times.

 

 

— Article by Samantha Mendoza, They Wear Blue reporter