Each year an elite group of law enforcement officers are selected to train in a rigorous 10-week program at the national FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
To graduate, officers are required to complete a grueling obstacle course built by U.S. Marines that runs through the campus. The fitness class is culminated with what is known as the “Yellow Brick Road” — a six-mile course requiring participants to climb walls, run through water, crawl under barbed wire and maneuver across a cargo net. When developing the course, the Marines placed yellow bricks to guide runners along the grueling trail through woods, and difficult terrain.
Chester Township Police Captain Laura Dixon Hartshorn, made history in June by becoming the first female law enforcement officer from Delaware County to graduate from the Academy. She was among the 228 graduates of this year’s 268th class which consisted of men and women from 47 states and 24 international countries.
Her own “Yellow Brick Road” started long before attending the FBI Academy, and like the arduous course, it did not consist of skipping in ponytails while singing show tunes.
Born in Chester City as the youngest of six children, she lived on the east side until moving to Media at age 10. Her father worked for the Park Police of Delaware County and brother, Donald Bruce Dixon, who she calls her hero, was in the Air Force. She remembers her neighbors and her childhood clearly.
“Everyone knew each other. It was family oriented. Nowadays people have gotten away from that but I still see a glimmer of that kind of neighborhood feeling in Chester City. It’s unfortunate that the negative aspects of Chester overshadow that aspect,” said Hartshorn.
She didn’t go right to college after high school and wasn’t able to follow the path to law enforcement right away. She considered going into the military but said life circumstances prevented it.
“That ‘life circumstance’ is 29 years-old right now,” said Hartshorn of her daughter. She follows it with a wide smile and laugh.
After the birth of her daughter, she took a job as a legal secretary. However, Hartshorn eventually got tired sitting behind a desk. When her daughter got a bit older, she applied to Delaware County Community College’s Municipal Police Academy and began her law enforcement career as a patrol officer Chester Township police in 1996.
Over the years she was promoted to corporal and then to her current position as captain in Jan. 2014.
She admits it’s a challenge being in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She relies on her wits and verbal abilities to be two steps ahead. She talks about her “Jedi mind” trick to get a potential suspect to think of Hartshorn as their mother, aunt or a female they respect.
“The job can be physical,” she explained. “If I come across a 6’3 man, I have to be able to think my way out of it and if I can’t, I have to go to my tactical training. Nobody wants to do that. I have been able to talk my way out of things.”
Hartshorne’s follows the Golden Rule and sticks with the facts. She tells new officers to start out conversations respectfully.
“Even if I don’t know you, I am going to try to relate to you. It’s an asset coming from Chester. If they don’t know me, they know my siblings or a relative,” said Hartshorn.
Hartshorn is aware of how the climate between civilians and law enforcement has turned negative in some areas. She admits it requires extra caution and patience.
“No police officer comes to work wanting to kill someone. The aftermath of it mentally is not something someone wants to live through. Because of everything that is going on, some officers are hesitant to do certain things they would normally do because they don’t want to offend someone. We tell our guys to follow the same sequence.”
She advises people to comply so that both, officers and civilians can be on their way in a couple of minutes. She knows everyone has a cell phone at the ready, but she still has to do her job and make a decision, even if it may not be the popular one.
For Hartshorn and all officers, there is no such thing as a “normal call.”
After getting her masters degree in 2009 from St. Joseph’s University, Hartshorn vowed she was never setting foot into a classroom again. When she became captain, her chief encouraged her to apply to the FBI Academy despite the historically long wait list. She was accepted a year and a half later.
During the Academy, which Hartshorn describes as similar to a semester away at college complete with papers and presentations, officers take courses on law, behavioral science, law enforcement communication, forensic science, intelligence theory, terrorism, management science and health and fitness
Only lieutenants or above can apply and opportunities for small police departments are rare.
“It was the pinnacle of my professional career. You meet so many people. You get such great experiences,” she said recalling what she saw in the forensic lab including Richard “the Shoe Bomber” Reid’s shoe.
The yellow brick sits on a shelved plaque behind her desk. Hartshorn explained upon arrival, you have to take a test to determine if you can handle the physical activity. If you fail the test, you can’t participate in the weekly physical challenge
“It is hell-lllll,” she stressed. “One of the hills looked like a wall, it was so steep. Everybody was going to make it through and we were going to make sure (they did); if we had to carry you on our backs. Nobody wants to come without the certificate and no one wants to leave without the brick. More people wanted the brick more than wanted the certificate.”
A bit of the adrenaline from the Yellow Brick Road returns when Hartshorn recalls the experience. She moves around in her chair and gestures wildly with her arms.
“I was determined to make it through, no matter what the obstacles were,” Hartshorn said. “It’s been a ride”
She was referring to both the Academy and her career; a winding road to her professional Land of Oz.