Merced College Police Chief Jeffrey Horn wasn’t trying to make history, but that’s just what happened at the February meeting of the Merced College Board of Trustees, when Horn presided over the swearing-in of the college Police Department’s newest officers.
As it turned out, Angela Henke and Hermila Guevara became the first female officers in school history.
“This was just my first opportunity to hire new officers,” said Horn, who’s been with the department himself for about 18 months. “We were looking for officers who had a strong community approach to policing. … We were looking for the best fit.”
Enter two with experience, and lots of it.
“It’s a very proud thing for me, and I’m extremely grateful,” said Henke, 32, who worked patrol for the Merced PD for 4½ years, including two as a K-9 handler and four as an Explorer advisor and crisis negotiator.
“To be effective in law enforcement, we have to adapt,” she said. “I think we are, and that’s why we’re seeing more women in law enforcement than we ever have.”
Guevara comes to MCPD after five years helping on investigations for the Merced County District Attorney’s office.
“Oh my goodness, this job is even more of a responsibility,” said Guevara, 33. “It’s a motivator for me. I can’t wait to get there and show what I can do.”
“They both did extremely well during the testing process,” Horn said. “Head and shoulders above the crowd.”
It was Henke’s mother, Elizabeth Pitcock, who blazed the original trail for her. Now retired, Pitcock worked years in administrative assistant positions in the Merced County welfare fraud department and the District Attorney’s office.
As an impressionable 17-year-old, Henke soaked in law enforcement work while spending school lunch breaks with her mother and her mother’s colleagues. People like Anna Hazel, who was recently named the first female DA chief investigator, became Henke’s mentors.
“Their passion for it was obvious,” Henke said. “They spoke so highly of the profession.”
While a high school senior, Henke began taking Merced College courses, including her first criminal justice class. She longed to continue at Sacramento State, but life veered elsewhere. She married at age 21 and put her dreams on hold for years.
Henke made it back to Merced College in 2014, graduating there in 2015 and from Stanislaus State in 2017. Henke squeezed in her first internship with the DA’s office in 2016, where again she worked with mentors like her mother and others. She continued to volunteer there after her internship.
Henke’s first full-time job was with the Merced County Probation Office in 2017, where she spent 10 months learning yet another aspect of the justice system. She was then hired by the Merced Police Department, who sponsored her trip to the police academy, which she completed in April 2019.
As a full-time MPD officer, Henke immediately fell in love with the K-9 handler specialty. A K-9 spot opened up two weeks before she finished her probationary period. Holding the top score, she was assigned K-9 Sam and became the first female K-9 handler in the history of that department.
It was while working with Sam that something crystallized for Henke. The duo did a lot of public events. Sam was a pro at interacting with people, and Henke loved the connections she could make working with him.
“Even with my crisis negotiation training, I could see that everything in law enforcement is based on good communication,” Henke said. “I’m 5-foot-2. I will have to use my words more often in situations. I found out how far putting people at ease can go. … If I can use that to help break that [wall] of people not trusting law enforcement, that’s what I want to do.”
HELP OTHERS FEEL SAFE
Guevara grew up in Livingston with parents who nurtured a healthy respect for law enforcement within her. She said she felt safe in her town, in her home, and in bed, knowing the police were on patrol.
She knows serving in law enforcement will allow her to give that same safe feeling to others. Providing security and protection to a community “feels like an honor,” she said.
But Guevara is also 5-foot-2. People also discouraged her from entering law enforcement. Even while earning her Criminal Justice degree at Stanislaus State, her professors would hint that women were too small to “get over the wall”—trainees must scale 6-foot solid and chain-link fences to pass the physical requirements of the police academy.
“Yeah, I let that get to me,” she said. “I thought maybe I shouldn’t go to the academy.”
Still in college, Guevara got married and began an internship with the Merced County DA’s office instead. While working as an investigative assistant, Guevara said she learned “the verbal judo” of law enforcement.
“Learning how not to be afraid during those exchanges was so important,” Guevara said. “I have never had a problem interviewing victims, witnesses, whoever. My mouth can be my No. 1 tool. I can show kindness and respect, even serving a court order to take children away from their parents. That’s devastating, but I’ve always been able to talk it through with them.”
Guevara worked her way into a full-time position at the DA’s office, managing the evidence room and working with the child abduction unit and the warrants division. She grew hungrier for the work.
“That’s when I realized I needed to do more,” Guevara said. “I wanted to go through the academy. I figured, ‘Let’s give it a shot. I don’t want to live with regret.’”
Guevara sought a position with and was hired by Turlock Police Department, which sponsored her police academy training. She graduated from the academy last August.
“The most rewarding thing about going through the training was seeing how I could make a difference in people’s lives,” said Guevara, who speaks both Spanish and Portuguese. “There are resources out there and help out there for anyone.”
AT YOUR SERVICE
Henke, with her boyfriend Joseph Perez, and Guevara, with her husband Jose and 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth, say they owe deep thanks to their entire families for their love and support throughout this transition.
Henke started on campus last month.
“I caught on quickly because of the guidance I’ve had,” she said. “[This] wasn’t an easy decision, but it was easy to accept because I love being out here with the community. I can make a different but significant impact.”
Guevara will arrive on campus after completing her Field Training Officer program—10 to 12 weeks learning the logistical tasks that go into policing—with the Merced PD.
“I want [students] to know they can always come to me,” said Guevara, who wants to become a role model for them. “They can stop by the department to vent or get advice. I’m more than happy to be that person for them.”