Shooting Didn't Change Officer's Outlook On Life



Fourteen years ago, Bernadette Koren had just graduated from police academy. She was two days into her new job as a police officer with the Arizona Department of Public Safety in Winslow. She was out by herself, making the ninth traffic stop of her career.

At that time, Koren had no idea that the man she had just pulled over had been in five different state prisons and had escaped from every one of them. He was also a federal parolee.

"And just as I was getting closer to finding out that the truck he was in had been stolen, he spun around and pulled a gun on me," Koren said. "On my second day as a police officer, I got into a gunfight on the side of the highway!"

The bad guy shot at Koren six times and she shot at him 11 times "All from the distance of about half a car length," she said. "We were shooting at each other over the trunk of my car. He also chased me around my car, like a game of tag, and I was shooting behind myself, over my shoulder, while running away.

"At one point, I felt something hit my vest. But I forgot about it. After all," she adds with remarkable nonchalance, "I was in a gunfight."

The man then jumped into his truck and took off ... but not fast enough to avoid being apprehended about five hours later in a box canyon, where he had been trying to bury himself in dirt.

As it turned out, the bullet that hit Koren was deflected by her vest directly between her arm and chest.

"I had a flesh wound about the size of a silver dollar on my arm, and just a bruise on my chest. That was all," she said.

The bad guy had been hit in the hip, and another bullet grazed his face and went through his ear.

Believe it or not, Koren's harrowing story doesn't quite end there.

"He was sent to the Navajo County jail. And after two months, he escaped. Needless to say I slept with a shotgun, with my handgun on my headboard that night. But as my dad said, 'You're the last person he'll want to find. He doesn't want to find a cop. He wants to get away.'"

Once again, though the career criminal was picked up this time while stealing tennis shoes in a Mesa K-Mart. He was armed with a knife and a toy gun, and was driving another stolen truck.

"He took a plea agreement and they dropped all the charges against him except for the shooting," Koren said, "and for that, he got sentenced to 28 years, the maximum penalty."

Koren smiles broadly at this point in the story.

"He's eligible for parole the year I'm eligible to retire. But there's a good possibility that he'll never get out."

One question begs to be asked. As bullets were whizzing past Koren not to mention into her was she thinking, 'Maybe I picked the wrong job?"

"That went through my head after the fact, of course," she said, laughing. "But I was so new, and so freshly trained, it was like a training exercise at the academy. It wasn't real ... My thinking was, 'Well, I got that out of the way! What are the odds of this ever happening again?' But I will admit, it did take some time before I got over it."

In fact, Koren admits, to this day she cannot approach a vehicle in a traffic stop without thinking of the incident.

"But in a way, that's a good thing, because a lot of officers go 20, 25 years, and nothing like that ever happens. They get too relaxed. And I feel like I got an extra benefit out of it: They may never know how they would respond in a situation like that. But me? I know."

The daughter of retired Payson DPS officer Paul Koren, Bernadette was born 33 years ago in Nogales entering a world similar to that of an Army brat.

"Nogales was my dad's first duty station as an officer," she said. "By the time I was a year old, we lived in Sunflower, and then Payson for a short while, and then Strawberry. That's where I grew up."

When it eventually came time to make a career choice, Koren said, she didn't have to think too hard beyond the positive influence of her father.

"I knew I didn't want to go to college," she said. "I love being outside and with people and doing things.

"I don't like to sit behind a desk all day. So this looked like the perfect career, with good benefits and a 20-year retirement plan. I could get the job with a high school diploma and eventually live in a nice place," she said.

Didn't anyone ever point out the down side of being a police officer ... like gunfights, for example?

"Yes, they did. But for the most part, people are decent. And even when you're dealing with automobile accidents and things like that, you can have a really good outcome because you're there for that person. They're very happy to see you. That can be very rewarding."

Even awful tragedy can have its rewarding side, Koren has found.

"There have been a few car wrecks that I haven't been able to shake off," she said. "In one of them, a very close childhood friend was killed, and I was the first officer to get there ... Once I found out who it was, I lost it. I mean, I wasn't hysterical, but I was crying. Another officer showed up, found out what was going on, and took me away...

"My friend's wife was in the wreck with him. So the other side of the story is, I was there for her. I was probably able to help her a little more than someone else might have because of our personal relationship."

The rewards do not just come from surviving shootouts and helping victims of tragedy. They can spring from far more simple and routine events.

"I changed a tire for four little old ladies once, and they thought I was the most wonderful person in the whole world," Koren said. "It wasn't a big deal, I was just driving by when their tire went flat ... but it meant so much to them, because they had been feeling helpless. Little things like that, which we do all the time, can make you feel good.

"I really love my job, and I work with a great group of guys," Koren said.

"I'm the only woman in the whole district. It's like having a bunch of brothers. I pity the fool who ever tries to hurt me, because the guys I work with take really good care of me."

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