"As Long As You're Breathing & Talking, You're Staying In The Fight"

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
It's a Monday night in November at the Albuquerque Police Academy. Sergeant Trish Hoffman is addressing a group of 25 women. She raffles off prizes, like Tasers and pepper spray. An interpreter flanks her for the two deaf students in attendance. Hoffman asks the women what to do if someone has a gun or knife and wants your purse. “Give it up,” they say in unison. “These things are replaceable,” Hoffman reminds them. But what if someone has a gun or knife and wants you? “No,” they shout. “Fight to the death.”

There are three basic things you need to know about Albuquerque. One: Since 2010, the Albuquerque Police have killed 28 people, which Rolling Stone notes is “a per-capita kill rate nearly double that of the Chicago police and eight times that of the NYPD.” In the past 20 years, four APD officers have been killed. And third: Women have become especially endangered there. A 2014 study from the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs reveals that the number of reports of rape between 2010 to 2014 increased 7% over those from 2006 to 2009, and "non-penetration sex crime incidents" have increased 22% — while the arrest rate for suspects of these crimes has decreased by 3%.

Albuquerque's is a crisis in which police-community relations are beyond strained. It’s also a microcosm of what’s happening on a national scale. A 2015 Gallup poll indicates the U.S. public’s confidence in police is at a 22-year low. And in Albuquerque, an April 2014 Department of Justice investigation of its police department confirmed it “engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force.”

Sometimes, when you put a uniform on you do have to personify a certain image, but I feel like I have that — even if I’m girly and feminine — and I don’t think I could be any other way.

Trish Hoffman, Albuquerque Police Sergeant
It’s a seemingly impossible task — the eradication of such a deeply rooted dynamic of distrust. In response to the DOJ’s findings, the Albuquerque Police Department began meeting with members of the public to discuss possible solutions. A 45-page report published in June 2015 details these suggestions, which range in reasonability and efficacy. One person believed the cop cars should abandon their traditional paint jobs for pink, yellow, or green. Another asked to “eliminate [the] ‘Darth Vader’ type of clothing.”

Other recommendations read more like a cry for help. “Kids are afraid of police, needs to be turned around,” reads one comment. “Increase casual interactions like coffee with a cop,” reads another. And, “APD needs to be out in the community more. Answering questions and in the community, outside of arresting people. Show the other side of what they do.”

That’s where Sergeant Trish Hoffman comes in.

Much like her community, Hoffman is a study in contrasts. It’s a cold November morning when we first meet at the Albuquerque Police Department, but the sun is warm and bright — perhaps even brighter as it’s reflected off of Hoffman’s colorfully bedazzled jeans, the shine of her Tiffany’s necklace, and, of course, the gun and badge on her hip. She reaches for a card to grant us access inside, revealing French-manicured nails.

Having a strong woman that carries a gun and is confident is hard for a lot of men. And that’s ok.

Trish Hoffman, Albuquerque Police Sergeant
At her home, on the outskirts of Albuquerque, there’s a shimmer coming off the driveway. Upon closer inspection, it’s blue glitter, which has fallen from a police support ribbon she’s tied to a tree in her front yard. She recently got a tattoo on her back of a blue police stripe. Around it, a reading from Proverbs 28:1. “I will sacrifice so that others may live free. The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

The desk in her home office has a pink chair and a pink Sony laptop, and a nearby shelf dedicated entirely to the Green Bay Packers. Her kitchen is filled with inspirational crafts. “Life is Good,” reads a wooden sign above the stove. “Laugh,” reads another above the pantry. “Pray Often” and “All you need is love...and a dog” float above her actual dog, Callie, whom she found in a dumpster 17 years ago. (Callie passed away since our meeting last fall, and Hoffman has welcomed Lambeau, a new canine friend, into her home.) She has a wine collection, which is just for show; she doesn’t really drink anymore. When I say something she finds surprising or interesting, she often responds, “Shut the front door.”

I ask her what she enjoys, what her life is like. She loves People magazine. She likes to have dinner dates with her “gals” — a word she uses with vigor to describe pretty much any woman. She likes living alone, though admits it took a while to feel that way.

What about dating? Well, she’s not really into Tinder. Then there was that time she was dumped for shushing a guy who wouldn’t stop talking during a Mayweather fight. She says there are certain preconceived notions about women in law enforcement, and that some guys can’t handle it. “When you’re a police officer, male or female, it’s very trying on relationships,” she says. “Having a strong woman that carries a gun and is confident is hard for a lot of men. And that’s okay. Here with my dog is very peaceful to me. I’m happy.”
Hoffman isn’t interested in sacrificing her feminine identity for her profession. “In law enforcement you’re expected to be a certain way,” she says. “I am a woman and I am girly. I don’t fight that. I don’t hide it, because that is truly who I am. I get my nails done, I get my hair done, I wear makeup.” Though, when she’s in uniform she tones it all down, in compliance with departmental policies surrounding presentation and appearance. “There is definitely a stereotype for women in law enforcement: [that] a lot of women in law enforcement are gay, and a lot of women in law enforcement do feel like they have to be tough like a man. There is some truth to that. I’m heterosexual, but I’m very feminine, too; that’s rare in law enforcement. Sometimes when you put a uniform on, you do have to personify a certain image, but I feel like I have that even if I’m girly and feminine and I don’t think I could be any other way.”

I tell her she’s kind of a badass, but she disagrees. “I wouldn’t consider myself a badass, although when people say that about me I’m flattered.” Instead, she sees herself as a role model. “I can take care of myself, and if I was confronted I know wholeheartedly that I would be able to protect myself,” she says. “I still want to be a girl.”

Hoffman is a shade of gray in a community set on black-and-white distinction. Yes, she’s on the force, with over 20 years as part of the APD, but she says it’s nothing like when she initially joined.

If I was confronted, I know wholeheartedly that I would be able to protect myself. I still want to be a girl.

Trish Hoffman, Albuquerque Police Sergeant
“When I signed up for law enforcement, even though it was spoken about that you put on the vest, badge, and gun on, and you go where there’s gunfire, versus running away from it, it wasn’t as prevalent as it is now where police officers have been killed and on a more regular basis,” she says. “Law enforcement has really changed over the last decade. It’s more dangerous. The community hasn’t always been supportive.” She tells me about an officer who was recently shot while he was putting gas in his car. “There are some people that really hate what we stand for, so whether it’s here in Albuquerque or in New York or in L.A., anybody that represents that — you have somewhat of a target on you.”

She estimates she’s been to about 20 funerals in her career. “When an officer gets killed in the line of duty, we all come together for comfort and support, not only for one another but for the person’s family,” she says. “[It’s] the sense of a brotherhood or sisterhood.”

But she’s also a pillar of her community. She’s respected, well known, and — thanks to her affinity for glittery belts — easy to spot. Nearly everywhere we go to eat or for coffee in the span of three days, retired cops, active police officers, and women she’s helped come to greet her. “Outside of my regular duties, I really am just a very average person,” she says.

There’s no broad-strokes, textbook solution to Albuquerque’s problems. But Hoffman’s initiative, Women Against Crime, is a more nuanced step forward in a city divided.

Women Against Crime, or WAC, is a free, nine-week program to teach awareness and self-defense to local citizens — mostly women. It’s become not only a source of empowerment and education for the women of Albuquerque, but has helped satisfy a request from the community at large: humanizing the police force. Hoffman is beloved on a police force the citizens of Albuquerque otherwise distrust.

There are some people that really hate what we stand for, so...you have somewhat of a target on you.

Trish Hoffman, Albuquerque Police Sergeant
She thought to start the class in 2001 while she was recovering from a burst appendix. Because of the appendectomy, she was unable to wear her gun belt, and so spent her shifts helping rewrite some lesson plans for the academy. A commander lightly suggested she teach a class specifically for women. After some brainstorming, she landed on Women Against Crime. “It was a really huge turning point in my career and my life,” she says.

Though it seems like an obvious decision to start such a program, it wasn’t easy to get it off the ground. “I did advertising. I went on TV. I went on the radio,” she says of promoting the program. But just four women showed up for the first session. “I’ll be honest, that was very discouraging,” she says. “I kept thinking, Why would women not want to hear this information? Because to me it was vital and important." She recalls how her chief at the time told her not to feel discouraged. “Jesus only started with 12 disciples,” he told her. She took solace in that idea, but decided to regroup, do more advertising, and eventually she got 15 women to show up. Through word of mouth, that group eventually grew to 30 people. Now, there’s almost always a wait list to get into Hoffman’s sessions. She doesn’t need to advertise anymore.

“I was getting people coming to my class that had been victims of domestic violence; they had been sexually assaulted, robbed at gunpoint,” she explains. “The dynamics were so obvious to me that these were women that were scared.”

The WAC classes run twice a year. The latest session, which started just two weeks ago, has 72 women. Though she’s been given the Albuquerque Police Academy as a venue for the class, Hoffman has funded WAC entirely out of her own pocket for the past 15 years. She estimates she spends $2,000 per class on supplies and materials. That means she’s invested $60,000 of her own money since the program began.
As much as WAC is about education and awareness, it’s also about learning combat. At the start of one, we go to the gym, where mats are set up for practice, and three male mixed martial arts fighters prepare for a demonstration.

Gila, 71, is sparring with a 19-year-old MMA fighter named Greg. He pushes her to the ground and straddles her. She tries to swing her leg around him to shift his weight and push him over, but she can’t seem to manage it. A group of 25 women watch, cheering her on. But as soon as it becomes clear that Gila isn’t strong enough to fight off Greg, the mood quickly changes to fear. Yes, in this scenario it’s just Gila. But the point is that it could be any of these women at any time. “I think they needed to see that,” Hoffman tells me.

She knows the women are probably frightened, having seen how quickly they can lose power in an attack. Hoffman reassures them: “As long as you’re breathing and talking, you’re staying in the fight.”

The physical portion of the class is equal parts upsetting and incredible to watch. The women form two lines, each in front of a dummy. They attack it, using the techniques Hoffman’s taught them. They cheer each other on.

The fights with the MMA men are even more intense. Some women are successful in escaping the staged attacks. When they are, the energy in the room is like being in the middle of a rock concert. It’s in this setting that the women are reminded to use everything they can in a fight. One demonstration is stopped after a student points out Greg, one of the MMA guys, is bleeding. He takes off his face mask. “I felt a couple fingernails,” he says. This is the scrappy nature of Hoffman’s gals — and of Hoffman’s mission in general.

As long as you’re breathing and talking, you’re staying in the fight.

Trish Hoffman, Albuquerque Police Sergeant
Today, there’s no tangible, step-by-step plan to reset the balance in Albuquerque. Hoffman says the meetings between the police and community are still ongoing. There haven’t been any new reports on community relations since June 2015. Though, it’s undeniable that WAC has a larger, albeit unspoken effect on the people of Albuquerque.

“It’s a community outreach program,” she says. “It’s good for the community, good for the police department. It’s bringing people together.” Hoffman says police work can be quite thankless, but that she gets real satisfaction out of seeing women empower themselves and seeing her community on the mend. “I know I’m making a huge difference. I know I am.”

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