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Handcuffs, walkie talkies and a badge are items traditionally present in police cars, but those barely scratch the surface of Officer Nisha Henderson’s police cargo.
Stepping into her vehicle, it’s difficult not to notice lip gloss in the cup holder or the back seat packed tight with body armor, a helmet and a ballistic shield. This car belongs to the first woman to join the Utah County Metro Special Weapons and Tactics — or SWAT — team.
Senior Officer Henderson, a 38-year-old Provo native, knew she wanted to pursue police work most of her life. “I wanted to be an officer since I was little,” she said. “We had big floods in the ’80s, and there were officers setting up sandbags, and … I was just like, ‘These guys are such heroes, this is so amazing.’”
She has been a public servant for 17 years and has since reached the next goal: Henderson was selected as one of few officers and the only female from the Provo, Orem, BYU and UVU police departments to become a member of the Utah County SWAT team in June 2014.
Henderson’s first job was with the Strawberry Work Camp when she was 19. She worked with juveniles who had to carry out court-ordered community service. She then transitioned to a job with Slate Canyon Youth Center, a detention facility in Provo. Henderson loves working with young people because it is an opportunity to reroute the lives of troubled kids. “When you’re young you do dumb stuff; it’s just what you do. But then you have to learn your lesson and move on. That’s what I tell my own kids,” she said.
Henderson moved to Texas after her time at Slate Canyon, where she transitioned into police work. “I love working with the youth,” she said. “It actually was a hard decision to change to do law enforcement, but again law enforcement was something I always wanted to do.”
She attended a job fair in Texas when an officer approached her and encouraged her to apply for an opening on the force. She was hesitant but became one of nine officers hired from a pool of 211 applicants after a series of tests and interviews.
Henderson was surprised to hear she got the job. “I didn’t really expect it to happen, but I guess it was meant to be,” she said. She accepted the offer and thought to herself, “Let’s do this.” After several years on the force in Texas she returned to Provo, so her two sons could grow up in a better environment and be closer to family. “It’s such a great community to raise my kids in,” she said. “On the safety side it’s not even comparable to what was going on out in Texas.”
Henderson was hired by the Provo Police Department and immediately began learning about the requirements for her to join the SWAT team.
Captain Todd Grossgebauer, the team commander, said Henderson contacted him promptly about the team. “For almost a year and a half or longer she had been invited to train and would come in on her days off so that she could prepare herself physically to put herself in a place to be considered.”
The physical training was demanding. Henderson worked out three times a day to qualify. She ran in the mornings before going on duty, attended CrossFit after work and then practiced her bench press. Each SWAT team member is required to bench press at least their body weight before they can be considered for the team.
This dedicated attitude served Henderson well, and in June of 2014 she was offered a position on the team. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do, so I went to every training I could,” Henderson said of her 3,000 hours of additional police training. “Every opportunity I had to learn different tactics, to learn different skills, to learn different everything, all of the training I’ve had helps me now.”
Henderson’s previous experience helped with the transition, but a significant learning curve comes with any new job. “She’s had prior law enforcement experience, and so she kind of moved right into this,” said Officer Kyle Shelley, the Provo team leader and officer in charge of organizing trainings.
Grossgebauer compared Henderson’s move to athletics. “It’s no different than the football team that plays at BYU. The new incoming freshmen have to be able to show that they are capable,” he said. “They have to be able to show that they are willing to put in extra work and time, and over the course of time they will gel and blend with the team.”
Grossgebauer then emphasized the importance of police working together as a team. “It’s not an individual accomplishment. You care about the person to the left of you and to the right of you, and if you fail you could potentially get others hurt and injured. We look for competency in every area.”
Preparing for as many scenarios as possible is one of Henderson’s favorite parts of the job. “Police training is the best, and everything is super cool to learn for me,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get, and that’s kind of cool.”
Henderson enjoys acquiring new skills. Part of her commitment to learning includes pursuing a master’s degree — hopefully here at BYU. She hopes her education will help her reach her ultimate goal: becoming a police chief.
She will continue to work toward her professional goals with the support of her family, but at the end of the day Henderson is more than whatever department she is working for. “I go home, and I’m a mom, and I’m a woman, and I take police off. I have a home and a family like everybody else.”