By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE — When she was 15 years old, Jessica Botero had terrible grades and was on the verge of flunking out of Lawrence High School. Her best friend had died of leukemia and she struggled daily with the loss.
"I was actually a troubled kid,'' Botero said. "I didn't have much discipline.''
That was until she listened to a state trooper whose words helped turn her life around.
At the suggestion of her guidance counselor, Botero went to a Lawrence High presentation that featured a female trooper talking about her profession.
Botero saw how focused and centered the trooper was — and she caught a glimpse of her own future.
Today, at age 27, Botero is a Lawrence police officer. She recently made history, becoming the first female member of the department's Emergency Response Team, a highly trained group that handles the department's most dangerous and high stress situations.
Regularly assigned to the department's patrol division, Botero said her job "is like a puzzle where you are trying to solve things in the safest ways."
"You can definitely help your community," said Botero, who is bilingual and of Columbian descent.
After attending the trooper's presentation when she was in high school, Botero enrolled in a month-long student trooper academy. She credits that experience with helping her develop the confidence and discipline she previously lacked.
After graduating from Lawrence High School in 2011, Botero attended UMass Lowell. In April 2019, she was hired by the Lawrence Police Department and is now one of 18 women on the force, the majority of them minorities.
Police Chief Roy Vasque said he believes the department must be representative of the community it serves. As the female trooper did before her, Botero now serves as an excellent role model "for women working in law enforcement," particularly in areas such as the Emergency Response Team "which have been predominantly male oriented for years," Vasque said.
The team's 16 members respond to a variety of situations including drug investigations, hostage situations, suspect searches, and assisting the department's gang and detective units, Vasque said.
The team encounters situations that are almost always high stress, demanding mental sharpness and physical fitness from the group.
"It takes a special person to do it,'' Vasque said. "You have to want it."
A recent incident Botero responded to along with the team involved a man barricading himself inside a Mount Vernon Street home after he stabbed a woman, police said. The bloodied and critically injured woman was found in the street. A hostage negotiator spoke with the man until he agreed to come out of the house. The response team was there as a precaution.
Botero, who is 5 feet-2 inches tall, said she starts each day with a three-mile run. Several times a week she lifts weights at a gym, and she also trains in a mixed martial art known as Krav Maga. It is a form of self-defense first developed by the Israeli army in the 1940s and popular with members of law enforcement agencies.
To qualify for the response team, Botero had to excel in four areas: physical fitness, pistol and rifle qualification, an obstacle course where participants wear tactical gear, and a professional interview. She said she felt "completely honored'' when she was selected for the team and remains determined "to do whatever it takes to make it work.''
Emergency Response Team members train together on a monthly basis, as well as on their own.
"It's very challenging," Botero said.
These days Botero is learning from a newer role model: Sgt. Robert Michaud, her squad leader on the Emergency Response Team. She described Michaud as "a very good guy" who is very safe, well-rounded and has superior shooting skills.
In addition to studying for promotional exams and hopefully rising through the ranks, Botero said she hopes to become a squad leader on the response team, following in Michaud's footsteps.
"Overall, it's such an exciting job," she said.
Botero said she enjoys spending her free time reading crime books and fiction, writing poetry and going to comedy shows. She also describes herself as a "family-oriented person" who is backed by both relatives and fellow officers.
"It's like being supported by two families now," she said.