Tenn. Sgt. inspires, educates fellow officers with survivor story
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Metro Police Sergeant Brenda Steinbrecher is the epitome of a survivor. In her 24-year career as a police officer in Nashville, Steinbrecher has overcome three potentially life-threatening situations and returned to work after each horrific episode.
Steinbrecher recently became the Metro Nashville Police Department’s first woman to receive the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Association Police Award, an honor given to officers who have rendered outstanding and praiseworthy service to the department and community despite serious handicap, illness, or injury.
Steinbrecher is originally from a small town in Ohio, where “police are respected,” she says. After moving to Nashville, Steinbrecher found that attitudes were very different towards police, especially female officers.
“I didn’t realize that people actually hated the police, [that] they wanted to hurt us,” Steinbrecher says in an exclusive interview with PoliceOne. “There were not many females in the department and female officers on the street were not accepted by local citizens.”
She faced her first professional crisis in 1987 while arresting a shoplifting suspect who was nine months pregnant. The suspect began crying and told Steinbrecher that she was stealing because she didn’t have enough money to afford a birthday gift for her three-year-old son.
“I believed every bit of it, and didn’t handcuff her,” Steinbrecher says. “She was a pregnant female. Never, at any point, did I see any trouble. I never questioned whether I could take the subject or not.”
While transporting the suspect on the interstate, the woman began to hyperventilate.
“It was a hot day, and I opened my screen to give her air until I could pull off the freeway,” Steinbrecher explains.
The suspect, however, had other plans. She had taken off her sandals and eyed the Maglite® flashlight that Steinbrecher had attached to the glove box. Once Steinbrecher opened the partition, the suspect climbed over, grabbed the flashlight, and began beating her over the head with it.
“It completely caught me off guard,” Steinbrecher says. “I was still driving and had one hand on the wheel and grabbed her throat with my other hand.”
But the suspect had both hands free and was continually beating Steinbrecher, grabbing at her gun. Steinbrecher finally stopped the car on the middle of the interstate and pushed the suspect’s head into the glove box to grab the flashlight back, but the suspect took off and fled the vehicle. By then, backup had been called and the suspect was later apprehended nearby.
What Steinbrecher didn’t know was that the suspect had been sentenced to 50 years (but had only served a few months) for a robbery she had committed in which the victims were nearly killed.
“We didn’t have computers back then, and she had no ID on her,” Steinbrecher explains.
The suspect was sentenced to her original 50 years, plus time added on for the incident with Steinbrecher. Steinbrecher’s nose was broken and she underwent surgery three times. To this day, she still has a titanium steel plate and six screws in her head from the incident. Steinbrecher was not discouraged, however, and returned to work after recovering.
“I’m really glad that it happened, it taught me [that] I need to follow policy,” Steinbrecher says. "I learned not to be so trusting. My judgment is a whole lot better now.”
After the incident, Steinbrecher says she questioned whether or not law enforcement was something should be doing.
“You definitely doubt yourself,” she says. When asked what advice she’d give other officers, she emphasized following policy.
“I have never broken that rule [handcuffing suspects] since. I’ve seen officers, especially men, that want to take females in without cuffing them, and I tell them that you have to treat everyone as if they’re dangerous. Even people who have committed minor violations still need to be handcuffed, as long as they are treated with respect.”
While in recovery, the officers with whom she worked became her second family.
“They came to the hospital with a huge package, wrapped up really pretty. In the package was a flashlight … it was very funny.” With humor and compassion, by exchanging stories and reassuring her that “it could happen to anyone,” Steinbrecher’s police family helped her through emotional turmoil.
At the time, she was also raising two small children, Ashli and Scott, with her husband Kerry.
“I’m blessed and lucky that my experience didn’t affect my family life,” Steinbrecher says, acknowledging that it can be difficult to raise a family while experiencing stress at work.
Her incident with the un-cuffed suspect was not the last life-threatening situation Steinbrecher would face. On October 19, 1999 Steinbrecher was on duty, stopped in traffic, when her vehicle was violently struck from behind by a tractor-trailer rig. She had damage to eight teeth, suffered hearing loss, and sustained multiple injuries to her head, shoulder, knee, and hip. After months of recuperation, she returned to work in July 2000.
Steinbrecher suffered a dislocated hip the winter following her car accident. In a horrible twist of fate, a full body scan revealed an abnormality in her brain, and subsequent tests confirmed that she had a tumor. She had surgery in February 2001 and was still able to be back on patrol in early March. In August 2001, therapy for the hip injury sidelined her briefly, but like a true survivor, she was back on the job a month later.
Steinbrecher faced another health trial when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2007. She underwent surgery on April 6 and resumed work at the police department on May 29.
She explains that mental strength helped her get through her health problems and she never once thought about not returning to work. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Steinbrecher says that her fellow officers at work wouldn’t talk about it.
“I told my husband, ‘They think that I’m contagious,’ and he said, ‘They just don’t know what to say, they’re afraid you’re going to die,’” Steinbrecher says. “I thought, ‘Afraid I’m going to die? That never even entered my mind!’ I never thought about dying.”
It was this constant positive attitude that helped her stay strong through every obstacle she faced.
“I’ve put those experiences behind me, I don’t dwell on those incidents. I’ve worked for 24 years [as an officer] and there are still things I’m learning daily.”
Steinbrecher is a perfect example of an officer with a winning mindset. Michael J. Asken, PhD and author of Further aspects of the survival mindset says that survivors have to maintain the mental capacity to “stay in the here and now.” They have to “accept and work with given conditions rather than whining or wishing that things would be different.”
Steinbrecher currently serves as a day watch patrol supervisor in the North Precinct. North Commander Louise Kelton says Steinbrecher continues to inspire those who work with and for her.
“Sergeant Steinbrecher faced each life-threatening illness with the same tenacity and tremendous courage that she brings to the Metro police department every day,” Kelton said in a recent press release. “She truly believes in making a difference in the lives of others through hard work and accountability.”
Chief Ronal Serpas says that it’s the perseverance of officers like Brenda Steinbrecher who make policing the noblest profession on earth.
“Sergeant Steinbrecher’s dedication and devotion to Nashville’s citizens and this police department, in the face of very difficult and serious medical issues, serve as a motivation to all of us to be the best we can be. I am tremendously proud of Brenda and her love of police work,” Chief Ronal Serpas said.
Speaking of her chosen profession, Steinbrecher said in a prepared statement, “I can’t imagine doing anything else but police work, and I love being the first responder. I can’t imagine not being around my fellow officers, involved with them, helping them. This is my life!”
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