How LAPD’s first female SWAT officer broke the glass ceiling
Sgt. Jennifer Grasso has overcome many obstacles in her trailblazing career
Sergeant Jennifer Grasso doesn’t like the term “scary.” Years spent serving in elite units turns the fear most people would experience when their life is on the line into something else. The chemical attributes are still there – the adrenaline spike, pulse thumping so hard you can feel it in your neck – but there isn’t an emotional component. What’s in its place is more mathematical: an acute understanding of the probabilities.
[Editor’s Note: To help bring Sgt. Grasso’s remarkable career to life for our readers, we originally produced this feature in print format. You can access that version with extensive photography by clicking here.]
On July 21, 2018, Grasso wasn’t afraid, but she knew how high the stakes were. As she looked through the storeroom doors of the Trader Joe’s where multiple people had been taken hostage, in the back of her mind she knew there was a good chance she or someone on her team was going to get seriously hurt. Or worse.
The scene was surreal – a juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrific. There were unmanned shopping carts full of groceries, and women’s handbags abandoned in the child seats. On the floor between the aisles of produce and canned foods were trails of blood. It was all over the store.
The perpetrator had already shot multiple civilians and exchanged gunfire with police in the chaos leading up to the standoff. He’d surrounded himself with hostages. If officers heard screaming, or more shots, or if the negotiations broke down, Grasso and the rest of her team were going to be the ones to make entry. There was no reason to believe the suspect wouldn’t shoot at them. Grasso knew the probabilities. But she wasn’t afraid.
It was one of the last callouts in Grasso’s 10 years serving as the first and only female in the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT unit, and although the standoff garnered national attention, for Grasso, it was just one high-risk call in a career full of them. Despite the steady drop in violent crime since L.A.’s apex of violence in the late 80s and early 90s, the city that was instrumental in the development of SWAT remains a tough place to police, and Grasso, who joined the LAPD in 1995, cut her teeth during the height of the gang war.
Baptism by Fire
Grasso, 47, credits her mother for giving her the drive to overcome the obstacles she’s faced throughout her trailblazing, 23-year career in law enforcement, where she’s served in a variety of positions and special units in addition to her history-making turn in SWAT. Raised in a single-parent home in San Diego, Grasso spent much of her childhood watching her mom navigate the difficulty of raising her and her older brother alone while working several jobs and attending college.
“There were times when money was a little tight,” Grasso said. “I remember periods in my life where my mom would make our clothes. I think my sense of ‘stick-to-it-ness’ definitely came from her. No matter how bad things were, she always told my brother and I, ‘It’s all going to be OK. You’ve just got to persevere and stick with it.’”
That upbringing has served Grasso well throughout her years in the LAPD, both in overcoming the monumental challenges that come with serving in elite units tasked with policing L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods, and in navigating a profession that hasn’t always been accepting of women, particularly in specialized roles. To say law enforcement is male dominated is an understatement: only 12 percent of officers in the United States are women. When Grasso entered the force in the mid-90s, that number was even lower: 9.8 percent.
After graduating from the police academy, Grasso spent her probationary period working Wilshire Division in the agency’s relatively new bike patrol. It was there that she honed her observational skills and developed a penchant for narcotics work, which would serve her throughout her career. Once her probationary year was up, she was sent to Southwest Division. A far cry from the neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and Hollywood that made up Wilshire, Southwest was deep in gang territory. Drive-by shootings and other violence were the norm.
“I didn’t really get that much exposure in my first year,” Grasso said. “I can remember going to one homicide scene as a probationary officer. And then when I got to Southwest, it seemed like at least once a week I was at a murder scene. It wasn’t uncommon to be on patrol and hear gunfire blocks away.”
Her time in Southwest would lay the groundwork for the rest of her career in law enforcement. It was where Grasso put her observational skills she’d developed to the test and excelled at catching dope dealers. She quickly worked her way up to the gang unit at a time when gang violence had the city at its knees – joining just a week after the ambush killing of LAPD Officer Filbert Cuesta by a gang member.
From there, she became an FTO and taught officers in two different divisions, picked up a Patrol Officer of the Year award, then joined the agency’s Special Problems Unit, where she handled a variety of special assignments, including bait car operations and fugitive arrests.
By 2005, she had joined the agency’s elite Metropolitan Division, working in one of the line platoons. She was tasked with violent crime suppression assignments, as well as special assignments reserved for Metro, such as working with the Secret Service for presidential and other dignitary visits.
“For the most part, it was really about going out there every night, getting guns and gang members off the street, and doing a lot of observational police work,” Grasso said.
‘It never crossed my mind’
Grasso’s first brush with SWAT came during the police academy, where she and other cadets participated in a training day taught by the unit. Like most officers, she admired SWAT, but the idea of joining the team never occurred to her.
“Young officers are always enamored with SWAT,” Grasso said. “These are the crème de la crème of the department. But joining was never something that crossed my mind. There was never a female that had worked SWAT before, so subconsciously it didn’t seem like something I was capable of.”
That changed after Grasso joined Metro, which also houses the agency’s SWAT team. Once she had the opportunity to work alongside members of the unit and see the kind of work they did, she started to believe in the possibility of joining the ranks.
“SWAT wants aggressive self-starters who don’t need to be told what to do,” Grasso said. “I was doing that on a nightly basis. My partner and I, every other night we were bringing somebody in with a pistol, getting guns off the street, and we were kind of on a roll. So I felt like I had that going. I was in really good physical shape. I trained really hard, and I was putting in a lot of effort on my own time, training on my days off to become even better.”
Words of encouragement from a SWAT officer was the final push she needed to take her shot.
“This is a guy who is kind of old school. He has nearly 30 years on the job, had a couple of deployments overseas and has been in some hellacious firefights where he lost soldiers in his unit. He is from the Midwest so he’s not really the guy you would think would be the one to reach out to a woman and say, ‘I think you should consider this,’” Grasso said.
“But at the time there were 60 people in SWAT, and he was the only one that reached out to me. That little encouragement was the nudge I needed to say, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I try?’”
Applying for any SWAT team means undergoing tryouts that are arguably the toughest in law enforcement, and of all those SWAT teams, it doesn’t get any tougher than LAPD SWAT.
The first time Grasso tried out in 2007, she nearly made it through, but an injury during one of the final events ended her run. She wasn’t alone. What was at the time dubbed the “SWAT Olympics,” many of the 14 prequalifying events during the five-day tryouts were held at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. The amount of injuries resulting from the tryouts over the years, particularly on the base’s obstacle course, resulted in the agency making updates to the training program, eliminating some tasks the LAPD said “had little to do with actual police work” and were “redundant and needlessly hazardous.”
“Guys were dropping like flies,” Grasso said. “I think we started that day with about 40 people and by the end of the day were down to around 20 guys. But I was feeling really good. Then we headed over to the obstacle course – it’s pretty brutal and it’s quite frankly designed for 18-year-old men.”
One of the biggest challenges for Grasso, who is 5'3", was the height of some of the obstacles. She had been training to improve how high she could jump, and had successfully run the entire course with some of her colleagues the week prior to the tryouts. She wasn’t worried about passing, but the day of the test, she landed wrong while jumping off an obstacle around 12-feet high and tore her ACL. The injury required reconstructive surgery in her knee and seven months of rehab.
Despite her injury, Grasso tried again and in 2008 transferred into SWAT. Of 80 applicants that cycle, 14 were selected to attend the 12-week SWAT school and only seven graduated. Through all of this, Grasso had her moments of doubt. Getting into SWAT, she says, was by far the biggest obstacle of her career.
“It was a formidable task for any officer,” Grasso said. “As a female it felt improbable and impossible. It is difficult to ‘be it if you can’t see it.’”
The intensity of the training wasn’t the only challenge. Grasso experienced some pushback as a female entering SWAT school, made worse by getting caught up in the middle of the controversy over the adjustments to the prequalification tests. While she wasn’t privy to all of what was happening at the time behind the scenes, over the years, she’s gotten a clearer picture. A few officers who were opposed to Grasso joining the ranks were so vocal about it that they ended up on desk duty. Some SWAT members’ wives got involved – accusing Grasso of putting their husbands’ lives at risk by joining the team.
“There was this vibe that I was feeling that I wasn’t welcome,” Grasso said. “I knew that sentiment was out there. Despite my qualification score, my reputation on the street as being a hardworking cop, my peers and my supervisors supporting that I’m someone who could be relied on, I think despite all that, there were some people that – had it been up to them – they still would have denied me the opportunity to be selected for SWAT school.”
But Grasso was not going to let that stop her.
“I had decided long ago that the word ‘quit’ or the idea of giving up on something I had set out to accomplish were not options for me,” Grasso said. “I had some very difficult days. Days when I wondered how I would get out of bed the next morning and do it again … but I did. One day at a time. If I was not going to make it that would have to be someone else’s decision, not mine. I decided I was just going to keep my head down and not let them break me.”
When she officially joined the team, the resistance she experienced during tryouts and SWAT school continued.
“Initially it was difficult; I had guys that wouldn’t even speak to me when I came over,” Grasso said. “Whereas most guys when they come over it’s a big deal – the tradition was to put a SWAT patch on your shoulder and punch you in the arm. I didn’t have anybody do that to me. There were a lot of awkward moments like that when I first came over.”
There were the times her colleagues would stop talking when she approached. Or the times when training would halt when she made a mistake, but continue when others slipped up. There was a sense people were waiting for her to fail, and that she had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. Grasso recalls a conversation she had after a particularly harrowing exercise her and some of her other team members participated in with a military unit.
“We completed the training and I still shake my head to this day at how crazy it was,” Grasso said. “I went back to the platoon and some of the guys were asking how the training was. I said, ‘It was great, but there was this one thing they asked us to do that was absolutely terrifying.’ One of the guys said, ‘Why did you do that? I wouldn’t have done it.’ But if I hadn’t done it, the whole world would have known I didn’t do it. There were a lot of moments like that where because I was the one and only I always felt all eyes were on me.”
But with time, the naysayers came around.
“I’ve had a lot of those guys since then say, ‘We’re lucky to have you. I’m so glad you stuck it out.’ So hopefully I left a little bit of an impact,” Grasso said.
Over her 10 years in SWAT, Grasso saw it all – handling around 150 callouts and 100 warrants in her first year alone. She was a SWAT diver, climber and EMT. She had a particular knack for crisis negotiations with barricaded suspects. She’s been in intense gun battles and had some very close calls – she once saw a colleague go down right in front of her, taking a shot to the helmet that he ultimately survived.
“We are very lucky that none of us were seriously injured or killed that night,” Grasso said. “In my 23 years with the LAPD I have worked four different divisions, all of which have had an officer killed in action while I was assigned to that division. It is frightening to see an officer in roll call or at the station and never see him or her again. It serves as a stark reminder of the dangers law enforcement officers face every time they put on a uniform.”
One of her favorite aspects of the job was having the opportunity to train in unique environments, like climbing in Yosemite with the park’s search and rescue team and crosstraining with members of the military. But as much as she enjoyed that perk, taking violent criminals off the street was what she found most fulfilling about SWAT.
“When you take somebody into custody on a callout and you’re walking back to your car, the residents are thanking you, they’re clapping, they’re so grateful that they can now return to their homes and they feel safe again,” Grasso said. “That to me was the most gratifying – knowing that justice is going to be served.”
Paving the way
Late last year, Grasso was promoted to sergeant and made the difficult decision to leave SWAT. Age was a small factor – Grasso considers herself lucky that aside from tearing her ACL during her first tryout, she’s never missed a day in SWAT because of injury. The bigger reason was she wanted to give back. She felt the lessons she’s learned in the over two decades she’s worked in the LAPD, particularly during her time in SWAT, shouldn’t go to waste.
“In SWAT you have tremendous training opportunities,” Grasso said. “You’re exposed to so much, that why wouldn’t you want to then leave SWAT and go back out on patrol and share what you’ve learned with the rest of the department?”
She also hopes she can serve as an inspiration to other women in law enforcement, or those who are looking to pursue a career in policing. Although she’s seen change in the landscape over her career, particularly at progressive agencies like the LAPD, she says there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Even with 23 years in law enforcement and 10 years in SWAT, my male counterparts are often asked by outside law enforcement, ‘How is she?’ I have never been asked that same question about my fellow SWAT officers,” Grasso said. “I’ve had young women from all over Southern California reach out to me and say they’re interested in trying out for their department’s SWAT team. And a lot of them are still facing the same kind of opposition and I guess invisible barriers – if you will – that I have faced. They are real.
“But as more time passes, the culture in law enforcement is changing. The job has evolved into one where brains and the ability to communicate effectively have become more important than sheer brawn. I think LAPD is super progressive as far as women on the force go; you have women in every assignment now in LAPD. It’s still a really small percentage, so I think we’ve kind of chipped at the glass ceiling but we need to keep working to have women better represented in those units. Give us an opportunity and I think we’ll prove that we’re capable and we’re as worthy as our male counterparts.”