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Woman Deputy Earns Spot as Tactical-Team Player

Law enforcement: Sue Burakowski is the first female on the elite search-and-rescue unit. Training is rigorous.

April 01, 2002|CLAIRE LUNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sue Burakowski breaks new ground every time she goes to work.

Whether it's diving through choppy water, scaling mountains or jumping from helicopters, Burakowski is setting a new standard as the first woman on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Emergency Services Detail--essentially a SWAT team with medical supplies that also handles demanding search-and-rescue missions.

The 35-year-old deputy is one of only three women in the sheriff's Special Enforcement Bureau, which in addition to the Emergency Services Detail includes the SWAT team and mounted and canine units.

Although the number may not sound impressive, the Sheriff's Department is considered progressive when it comes to hiring women for rigorous tactical units, said a spokeswoman for a national organization that monitors women in law enforcement.

Women account for nearly 14% of all sworn officers in law enforcement nationwide, but few are members of special enforcement units. There are only a handful on the West Coast and none on the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team, the only other full-time unit in the county.

Women in special enforcement units say family commitments and the job's physical rigor and strain are bigger obstacles than gender bias.

''Not everyone is fit mentally and physically enough for these jobs,'' said Cmdr. Cathy Taylor, who was the first woman in the Special Enforcement Bureau and is now head of the custody operations division of the Sheriff's Department. ''Even fewer want to do them and can fit them into their lifestyles.''

Burakowski, who lives in Long Beach with her foster son, Corey, was the first woman to follow in Taylor's footsteps. She said the excitement of working in a tactical unit outweighs the danger and the strain.

''This job is the epitome of not knowing what you're going to do each day,'' Burakowski said. ''Once people get this job, they stay until they retire.''

Burakowski traveled an arduous road on her way to becoming a full-fledged member of the 14-person Emergency Services Detail in February. Born in Michigan, she grew up in a Detroit suburb, majored in criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and planned to join the Detroit Police Department until she discovered that the agency's training tapes were provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

''That was the kind of agency I wanted to work for, the cutting-edge place that makes the training tapes rather than just using them,'' she said.

Aspiring to join a tactical unit was a natural progression for Burakowski, who was the first girl from her high school to win an athletic scholarship to college, where she lettered three times on the basketball and softball teams.

Despite her athleticism--which Taylor said is the quickest way to earn respect in the department--Burakowski had some struggles during the yearlong training process to join the new unit.

Flying in helicopters forced her to overcome a fear of heights that she had since childhood, and on her first try she couldn't find the strength to pull a 100-pound weight from the bottom of a swimming pool while supervisors intermittently cut off her air supply.

''She told me she went in the bathroom and just cried her eyes out, and she could just feel how disappointed the guys were,'' said her mother, Gloria Burakowski, from her home in Sterling Heights, Mich. ''But she just found this inner strength and went out and did it. That's how she deals with obstacles--she doesn't try to get around them, she beats them and moves on.''

Taylor had recruited Burakowski for the sheriff's Special Enforcement Bureau as part of an agencywide push to bring women into tactical units, which have traditionally been all-male.

Following a successful lawsuit filed in 1980 by a female deputy who was passed over for promotion, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Sheriff's Department to increase the number of women in such ''coveted positions'' as command and tactical posts.

''[Burakowski] is so perfect for that environment,'' said Taylor, a former SWAT commander. ''It's that reserved, observant side of her that exudes strength.''

Katherine Spillar, a spokeswoman for the Center for Women and Policing, a division of the Feminist Majority think tank, said despite Burakowski's promotion, law enforcement has not made enough progress in increasing the number of women in those units.

''It's shocking that it's just now that these barriers are being broken,'' Spillar said from the center's Los Angeles office. ''[Burakowski] should get a medal just for getting this far.''

When Taylor joined the bureau in 1997 there was no women's restroom in the building. But Taylor said she encountered little animosity because of her gender.

''The few men who said they were never going to accept me were outnumbered by the hundreds by those who just cared about the quality of the work I did,'' Taylor said. ''I made it clear I was there to do the job and not just be a showpiece for gender equality.''

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