SPECIAL SECTION: Confidence is key for female K-9 officer

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By Deborah Swearingen

Editor's note: This story is part of a special section published in the Courier on March 1. The section highlights ten women working in traditionally male-dominated fields across Jefferson and Clear Creek counties.

Krista Hanstrom loves helping people, and she also loves dogs.

As the newest K-9 officer with the Littleton Police Department, the 28-year-old Littleton resident and three-year employee of the department is able to combine both of her passions.

In the fall of 2017, she spent five weeks at Gold Coast K-9 in California training with her 2-year-old German Shepherd, Zan, and one other officer and dog pair.

“It was five grueling weeks,” Hanstrom said. “If I wasn’t sending (Zan) to bite the other guy, I was getting bit.”

Despite returning to Colorado with bruises, she said the experience provided an important perspective.

“You learn a lot being on the other side of it, too,” she said. “ … It’s so that you have that mental preparation and that picture of what it is that you’re putting somebody through or what you can expect somebody to be able to fight through.”

Many aspects of the K-9 job are similar to that of a patrol officer, and Hanstrom is still assigned a geographical area to cover. However, Hanstrom and Zan also must be available to officers across the department when a narcotics sniff is needed, and the pair has more extensive monthly training requirements than a typical patrol officer. It also takes time to learn the laws that dictate when an officer is justified in using a dog on top of normal force.

The job is a physical one for Zan, and his working life span will undoubtedly be shorter than his actual life.

Though all law enforcement jobs require commitment, incorporating a dog adds in an extra layer.

“They are given that dog, and they have to take care of it,” said Commander Trent Cooper with Littleton PD. “ … That definitely impacts their home life as well.”

“K-9 officers definitely have dedication to the job and to the dog as well,” he added.

Hanstrom has pet German shepherds at home but said the bond between she and Zan is completely different.

“They’re like my little fluffy monsters, and I love them,” she said. “ … He could be saving my life one day. It’s just a completely different dynamic.”

Both Cooper and Hanstrom agree: Female law enforcement officers can provide a different perspective, and varied perspectives are advantageous in all lines of work.

“Women oftentimes have better communication skills than men do. Women bring different attitudes to the job and can often be more empathetic,” Cooper said, acknowledging the generalizing nature of his statements.

“Any time you increase the diversity in your workplace, it pays benefits,” he added. “Everybody brings something different to the table.”

While plenty of male officers are expressive and have excellent conversational skills, Hanstrom does feel that females can have an advantage in this department.

“I’m never going to be able to overpower a 200-pound guy. That’s just not logical,” she said. “So if I can get him to comply and go in handcuffs willingly by just talking to him, respectfully and as a person, reasoning with him, that is definitely the way to go.

“Generally just females, that’s our natural instinct is to talk to people and try to calm a situation down.”

But at the end of the day, trust is vital. Considering officers work as a team, it’s crucial that they lean on each other and have faith in one another.

It’s equally as important to have faith in yourself.

“It’s having that confidence and building yourself up to have that,” Hanstrom said. “ … A lot of the time as women we second guess ourselves or diminish our capabilities.

“And, honestly, we’re strong. We do a lot. We can accomplish a lot more than what we … allow ourselves to think that we can.”