AZTEC – The woman in the dark parking lot stepped back as the man approached and asked to use her cellphone. She loudly and clearly told him to step away. When it became apparent he was not listening, she pulled up the small can of Mace and sent a stream at him.
“Nice, no hesitation and straight to the face,” said the would-be assailant, Detective Mike Reitz, as he wiped the fake mace from his black helmet. Cheers and laughter erupted from the group of women standing along the sidelines.
Another woman stepped up, and the exercise repeated until the class of about 30 participants in the Girls with Grit – Guts, Resilience, Intuition, Tenacity – program practiced deploying pepper spray in mid-October.
The free program for women, offered twice a year since 2011 by the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, covers topics including sexual assault, domestic violence, self-defense, communicating in high-pressure situations, basic firearm safety and active-shooter scenarios. This session will graduate Nov. 12.
“Men, I assume, automatically have this confidence that they can protect themselves. Women don’t usually have that,” said Chelsea Clowe, a 2017 graduate of the program.
Clowe, who also works with the Sheriff’s Office, described herself as quiet and said she hesitated to join the class without knowing anyone. But with three hours once a week for 10 weeks, a sense of community with other students develops, she said. Clowe, 25, has been in law enforcement since she was 19, but she said the class helped her become more confident, aware of her surroundings and comfortable handling a firearm. She now volunteers with the program.
“Some of the women in the class, they’re quiet, but once we start doing some of the hands-on work, you can see them gaining confidence and coming out of their bubble,” Clowe said.
Gwen Alston, whose daughter is a cadet with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, said: “I hope it’s going to help me relate to her when she’s on the streets and understand what she sees.” Already, Alston said she is more aware of her surroundings.
While a few people have connections to law enforcement like Clowe and Alston, the majority of participants were recruited from Facebook and word-of-mouth from past participants, said Jayme Harcrow, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office and an organizer of the curriculum.
Although the first few classes are information-heavy, the second half of the program allows students to practice hands-on skills such as self-defense, pepper spray deployment, firearms handling, use-of-force scenarios and an active-shooter drill. The program is modeled on police officer training, Harcrow said.
“It waters things down to the civilian standpoint, but we don’t sugarcoat things. We give real facts,” Clowe said.
The program also has become an ambassador program for the Sheriff’s Office to engage community members, said Deputy Donnie Kee, who has been with the office for three years and previously served 16 years with the Farmington Police Department.
“They get to see some of the inside stuff that we talk about, that we deal with and gain some pretty good skills and knowledge,” said Kee, who has helped teach firearm safety with the program for the past two years.
While the program allows participants to “really sit in the boots of law enforcement officers,” Kee said it translates the kind of training he and his fellow officers received in a way that is applicable to the women’s lives.
For Kee, the class about use of force is one of the most impactful. Using a virtual simulator, participants run through scenarios where they must decide whether to use various forms of force. “With use of force, so much of it is publicized in the media – whether it’s good or bad – and scrutinizing officers in their own use of force,” he said. “It helps them in the long run to look at things more objectively.”
For Natalie Henderson, a mental health therapist at Desert View Family Counseling, the program has provided her with resources she can bring back to her clients. She said she has learned “how the community works together as a whole” and feels a sense of community and connection with her fellow participants.
“It becomes like a sisterhood,” Henderson said.