By Cassandra Kostal
Kate Schwenke never thought that she wanted to be a cop.
But now the Lincoln police officer’s passion is unmistakable as she talks about her line of work.
“I never know what I’m going to get with the next call,” she said. “All through field training, I was like, ‘This is it.’ And now it has been four years and I’ve never looked back, and I will never leave this job.”
Working out of the Lincoln Police Department’s Center Team, she has spent most of her career on the third shift, taking to the streets from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
The action of the night is what drew Schwenke in. It’s where a lot of the volatile situations have happened, she said, as officers deal with people who have been drinking.
“Anytime we’re dealing with anybody who’s under the influence, it always gets freaking weird,” she said. “I’ve seen more naked men than I want to in my life. I kind of just wish people could keep their clothes on, but apparently that’s asking too much of anybody who’s drunk or high.”
Growing up in Norfolk, Schwenke had plenty of police influence. She watched “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” and loved listening to stories from her dad, a retired police officer. Still, her heart wasn’t always set on law enforcement.
Before starting as an undergrad at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she was torn between pursuing chemistry or journalism. She chose chemistry and graduated with degrees in biochemistry and forensic science and dreamed of working in a DNA lab.
She worked for an animal DNA testing company for a few months, but hated it. Wanting to pursue forensic science, Schwenke knew she needed experience in law enforcement, so she applied to LPD and joined the fall 2015 academy class.
But she almost quit. While in the academy, Schwenke felt she didn’t have the “win at all costs” warrior mindset she needed, but she stuck it out and was commissioned in December 2015. Four years later, she’s hooked.
“I absolutely love patrol,” she said. “This is probably something I’ll do for, God willing, the rest of my life that I can be on the streets, be healthy and work.”
Barely a year after completing field training Schwenke was forced to come to terms with her own mortality during a call that she said changed the course of her career.
On Father’s Day in 2017, she was called to respond to a weapons violation in progress. A man was drunk and holding his family hostage at gunpoint at a motel off Cornhusker Highway. She arrived first and began searching for the gunman alone.
There were no numbers visible on the outside of the rooms, leaving Schwenke and three other officers who joined her moments later to frantically scour the motel. Eventually, they stopped in front of a room to regroup. Then, the door opened.
“There’s a guy with a gun standing there. It turns out, we had stopped right in front of this guy’s room,” she said. “He saw us, he ends up slamming the door shut and we hear a gunshot. And there’s no cover anywhere around. We’re completely exposed.”
Moments later, the man’s family ran out of the room. They told officers his plan had been to get into a shootout with the police. Instead, Schwenke and the other officers surprised him, causing him to panic and take his own life.
“As a brand new officer, realizing that I very easily could have been killed that night really messed with me mentally,” she said. “Yeah, we know the dangers of this job going in. But you don’t want to face your own mortality at 24 years old.”
The incident rattled Schwenke for a long time. She couldn’t sleep and was afraid to go to work. Luckily, her fellow officers picked up on her struggles.
“What scares you?” her sergeant asked.
“Dying in this job,” she replied.
The sergeant got Schwenke to work on tactics to stay physically and mentally fit. It changed the course of her career and helped her find the warrior mindset that she had been missing in the academy.
Making a complete switch from a victim mentality to a determination to win every battle she goes into every day has put Schwenke in a new state of mind that fits with the culture of a career in law enforcement.
“This job isn’t for everybody because you have to be a little bit more rough and tumble than you might need to be in other jobs, she said, noting that she was trying hard not to curse while being interviewed. “I curse like a sailor because that’s the environment I’m around. I have to give a warning speech whenever I have a ride along like, I am a cop. I talk like a cop. I curse like a cop.”
Having the warrior mindset also helps Schwenke handle tough cases out on the streets, especially when she’s judged for being a female police officer in a male-dominated field. She said she still faces sexism from members of the public who underestimate her abilities.
“We have people who, if they have an out of control family member or somebody who’s under the influence, they’ll tell me ‘You better get a guy here because he’s going to fight,’” she said. “Like, OK, you haven’t seen me fight, you don’t know my training.”
Third shift can be tough for any officer to handle. Sam Gillen knows this just as well.
Gillen joins Schwenke at Center Team as the only other female officer working the nights. They met when Gillen, in the academy at the time, joined her for a ride along.
Except for the four months that Gillen was on rotating shifts while in field training, the two have been working together for the past three years.
“I think she’s a fantastic officer,” Gillen said. “She knows how to handle calls, she knows the best way to communicate with people out on the street and she’s always willing to help with whatever needs to be taken care of. She’s giving 100% on every case that she’s involved in.”
For both officers, mental health calls for service have had a significant impact on the work they have done over the years. As first responders, they see people on their worst days and hope they can help them find the right solutions.
“Usually when we deal with people, we deal with them for that night, or we deal with them on kind of a regular basis, but we don’t ever get to see the end result, like ‘Where does this person end up?’” Schwenke said.
Early in her career, Schwenke responded to a mental health call that ended long after the call was cleared.
The call was to help a suicidal veteran. He had been diagnosed with PTSD, was drunk and had guns in the house. He was also paranoid, not wanting to trust any of the officers who arrived to intervene.
Able to gain his trust a little, Schwenke transported him to Bryan West. At the hospital, she said, his behavior was extremely erratic to the point the nurses were scared to treat him. They walked him back to mental health triage where his paranoid behavior continued.
He had to clear every room that he went into like he had been trained in the military, Schwenke said. He didn’t let anybody sneak up to him and he didn’t trust anyone, thinking they were all out to get him, and that there was a threat around every corner.
Watching the scene unfold, she shed a few tears of her own. The man’s situation hit close to home for her. and she talked to the veteran about a similar incident that had taken place while she was in field training.
“There was a guy that needed help. We tried to help him and he left the hospital and ended up shooting himself in the chest, and I told this veteran, ‘I’m not going to let you do that. I’m not going to fail you like I feel like we failed him,’” Schwenke said.
She placed the man into emergency protective custody and cleared the call. She never expected to hear from him again.
Two years later, Schwenke was conducting a traffic stop when a truck pulled up. The driver sat in his truck, watching her as she worked.
“To me, that’s a huge red flag,” she said. “Don’t sneak up on me, don’t sit there. I thought I was going to get ambushed.”
Once she cleared the call, she walked over to the truck to confront the driver. The door opened and the same veteran jumped out. Schwenke didn’t even recognize him at first. He was sober and taking his kids to daycare; a completely changed man.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he told Schwenke as he shook her hand.
“That is why I do this job,” she said. “We want to help people. We don’t always get to see that come full circle and that time I did. When I have my hardest days, I remember that guy and why I’m doing this job.”