Police Officer Dipa Patel
Defying her traditional Gujarati upbringing, this barrier-breaking woman of grit decided to embrace a career that seemed like a true inner calling—and in the process, became the first Indian woman officer in Georgia.
As a little girl growing up in London, England, Dipa Patel wanted to be a crusader. She was six when her family moved to Georgia, and growing up, she faced hardly any circumstances that would lead her to choose a profession some would consider dangerous. Her parents are devout, traditional, peace-loving, middle-class Gujaratis, regulars at the BAPS Temple, and like most Indians of their kind, would be nervous at the sight of a gun. And yet Dipa, the youngest of their three daughters, who is no less traditional or devout, knew by the time she was in college that her passion was criminal justice, and the only job she could consider doing was that of a police officer. She wanted to be everything that her tradition and upbringing demanded of her, while also following her heart when it came to a choice of profession. What makes her story remarkable is how she has managed to do both with equal success.
Following are excerpts from our interview with Dipa Patel, Georgia’s first female Indian-American police officer.
Tell me about your education and what motivated you to pursue criminal justice.
Ever since I was little, the criminal aspect of law enforcement always fascinated me. Everybody has a niche, something that intrigues their mind, gets their brains going in circles. That was mine. I used to always watch the crime TV shows. At first I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But then I went on to earn my degree in criminal justice.
What was your parents’ reaction?
All these years they’ve been self-employed, running their own businesses. Initially I was thinking of law school and took my LSAT. All four years in college, I worked in law firms just to get that experience with a hope to get into partnership, after law school. In my last semester of college I was supposed to do an internship and the college provided me a list. I saw the police department on it and thought it would be interesting. I did it for three months. It was an instant liking, since the first day. It was like “this is it for me.” Every day I’d come home telling my parents stories about what happened that day. My dad is a smart man. He caught on. He said, “You’re not talking much about law school these days. What’s going on?” I told him, this is what I want to do. He asked me if I desired to be behind a desk and work. I said, “No, Daddy. I want to be on the road. I want to be ‘in’ on the action.” I was really fortunate that my parents never said, “You’re a girl. You can’t do this.” The double standard was never there. Their only concern was my safety. I got very, very lucky as far as them supporting me.
To make them feel better, I wrote a letter to Pramukh Swami (the high priest of the BAPS community) saying, “This is my passion. Can you give me your blessings?” Had he not blessed me, I told my parents that I would leave it alone! If indeed he blesses me, they wouldn’t say no. Usually, I’ve seen that in the responses he gives, he says, “You’re blessed.” But the response I got was beyond this. I still have the letter, and he says very specifically, “You will be a policewoman. You will be able to help the mandir. You will be successful and I shower you with my blessings.” The letter was incredible. After my parents read it there was really not much room for anything else. They left it all in his hands.
What motivated you to write to him?
Partially it was so my parents would be more at ease. But it was also for me as well. Everybody always asks me if I’m not scared for my life. If I am blessed by the big man himself, I have nothing to be scared of. Whatever he has destined, happens. It’s in his hands. I’m absolutely fearless when it comes to police work. So it was not just to comfort my parents alone, but also because I wanted his blessing that I was making the right choice in my life.
Does your college degree in criminal justice help in your job?
Everything I learnt in the academy about criminal codes and sections did help, but police work is something you either have in you or you don’t. There is no school that can teach you to be a police officer. I believe it’s a gift to be a police officer and see the things that you see and deal with the people you deal with. You walk out of your home everyday and say bye to your loved ones knowing that you might not come back. It takes a different kind of person to do police work.
How has it been working in conservative Cobb County? How is it being a dark-skinned female police officer having authority on the streets?
On the streets my race doesn’t matter. To the criminals I’m just the police that they’re trying to get away from. At work, the reactions were different initially, because there are so many people who view you differently. Initially there was some stereotyping. But now every single person on my shift knows exactly what I am, what race I am, what languages I speak, and knows the difference between Hinduism and Islam, and understands that not every Muslim is a terrorist. I take offence when anybody says anything senselessly because my best friend is a Muslim. I can say that I’ve taught everybody I encounter about the differences and what I believe in. They know I don’t eat meat. They know the things I will or will not do. If I have get-togethers at home everybody takes their shoes off. When they visit, they look at the mandir in the house. Now they have a better understanding of certain things when they go to Indian houses on calls.
Your line of work is so physical, and you’re petite. How do you work around that? Does your size take away anything?
It doesn’t take away anything because I just knew I had to work at it, harder. When I first started in the academy, I was with a Caucasian female. She was just a tad bit bigger than me, but her strength in certain physical things would be greater than mine. [So] I worked out more. I built my strength for months and months to get to a point where I wouldn’t have a problem. It’s mind over matter, clearly, for me.
When you are on the beat and you come across perpetrators, what is their reaction to seeing you as the police officer?
I’m the first female in my precinct to be permanently assigned to a particular area. The area I’ve been assigned to is the worst area in Cobb County, with the highest crime. It borders the not-so-great parts of Fulton County as well. [I got assigned] because of the work that I did, which my supervisor saw. It’s a lot of work. Each month I’m averaging 120 to 140 calls for service that I get dispatched to. It’s nonstop. In between that you stop cars, monitor suspicious activities and all that which doesn’t count towards the incidents I attend to. The main area I work in is at the Six Flags. It’s funny because I’m the smallest officer on my shift and the biggest, most dangerous criminals are absolutely terrified of me. They could probably punch me one or two times and I’d be out. But it’s how you project yourself, how you talk to them, and your attitude towards them. It’s crazy, how powerful words can be. They respect me. I don’t have any bad feedback.
Most Indians are not used to close association with weapons. How do others in your family feel about having a loaded gun in the house?
I had never shot a gun prior to being in the police academy. The others were all from Caucasian families who had grown up on farms and used shotguns. I had no idea, no experience. That was the toughest thing for me. Just learning about a gun, the parts of it, how to hold it, how to shoot it, how to aim, how to shoot it under stress, when you’re in a gun battle… all of this was a big struggle for me. But today my family actually feels good about my safety knowing I have a weapon and I know how to use it.
Has there been a call when you had to fire shots?
Thank God, not to this day. The area where I work, I can surely say that in every shift, I break holster a minimum of one to two times. What I mean by that is I have to take the weapon out and point it at somebody because of the situation. But I have not yet had to use it and I hope that I never have to. If the situation arises I’ll do what I have to do.
When you got married, were you already a police officer?
No, I was not. Initially my husband had the same reaction as my parents. But he knew my personality and knew I could handle it. He was also very supportive from day one.
What inspiration do you draw from the mandir?
It’s had a tremendous influence on me. Without my family’s support and the influence Pramukh Swami had on me while growing up, I honestly don’t think I would have made it. I went through a lot of tough times and a lot of second-guessing, but the mandir gave me a lot of positive influence. Two weeks ago there was a double shooting and I was the first one on the scene. You see so many deaths all the time. We may not have PTSD, but we have trauma. Every now and then I have dreams, the worst dreams you can ever imagine, where the bad people are shooting at you and you can’t shoot back. So after that night, for three nights straight, I had nightmares. That week I went to the mandir, and as soon as I was there, it put me at peace. I prayed. I told God, I tried to do what I could and I left it in Your hands. Just give me more strength to deal with it. Any time I go to the mandir, I’m so at peace; everything goes away. It’s like I start off with a clean slate and I’m okay again. I’m back on with the thick skin.
When you go to the temple, do you go in uniform?
I have gone in uniform. When I first graduated from the academy, my parents sponsored a sabha (gathering). I went in uniform, and they put the haar (garland) around me. Two Diwalis ago I did seva (served) there. I was in uniform and managed the security work for the women. Now on Sundays I sometimes go in uniform just before going to work.
Do you frequently get questions from young girls
about your work?
I do. It’s so heartwarming. One time, this girl who was no older than four, told me she wants to be just like me when she grows up. It was the sweetest thing ever. All the moms bring their kids to me and they want to ask questions.
Do you think your example will inspire other women
from our community to take up police work?
Absolutely. You know how it becomes easier for the younger children because of the older child? I hope I have broken the cultural barrier. The sky’s the limit. Anything that you can put your mind to is possible, and nobody can tell you otherwise.
Officer Dipa Patel has bridged the cultural gap amongst her peers a the Cobb County Police Department. She is seen above with her proud parents.
From your perspective as an officer, has crime gotten more rampant in metro Atlanta because of the current economic crisis?
Absolutely. Crime is just climbing up and with the way people are struggling, it’s almost impossible to stop it. The parents do it and they get locked up, and the kids watch them do it, and then they do it. It’s all they know. In the area I work in, you can’t blame them because they don’t know any better. With all the poverty they’re growing up in, that’s all they’ve seen. They don’t go to school, they don’t get an education. Most of the time it’s just a single parent, and they don’t have the family love. The parents themselves are drug addicts or criminals. So they don’t care if the children go to school or not. The children think this is the way life’s supposed to be. So everybody hates the police because the police put their mom or dad away. It’s a vicious cycle.
What’s your message to the community?
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That quote says everything. I feel like I was a change. Anybody can be a change. Regardless of what you’ve been told, there’s nothing that you cannot be. You can culturally be an Indian female, you can follow all the rules and still do anything you want to do, be in the air force, or go serve congress, run for office—it’s endless. There’s nothing you cannot accomplish or achieve. I feel like I’m living proof of that.
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