Fall 2009 Issue
Taking it to the Streets
Reality TV star, crime fighter, single mom and Barry student - this ‘police woman of Broward County’ literally never stops
By Rebecca Wakefield
Until this past August, Deputy Andrea Penoyer was just a typical cop, if a very busy one. Besides working punishing hours in the testosterone-fueled unit of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office known as the Regional AntiCrime Squad (RACS), she was a single mom pursuing a college degree at Barry University.
All that changed on August 6, when the first episode of “Police Women of Broward County” aired on TLC. Suddenly, the startlingly pretty young officer was a reality show star. And that made everything more complicated.
The show chronicles the lives of four policewomen as they juggle busy family lives with the requirements of a demanding and dangerous job. The four women include sex crimes detective Julie Bower, rookie street cop Shelunda Cooper, mid-career deputy Ana Murillo, and Penoyer, as the only female in an elite street crimes unit.
“Three months ago, I’m being called a pig,” Penoyer muses over pastelitos at Vecky’s Bakery in west Pembroke Pines. “And you get used to that. People hate cops.”
She continues: “The day after the first show, I did a vehicle takedown on these guys who were delivering drugs. I’ve got my gun drawn and all they can say is, ‘Oh my god! We were just talking about [you] 15 minutes ago, about how cool it would be if it was you [who busted us]. I feel like I’m being punked.’”
Sometimes Penoyer feels that way too. She’s an ambitious police officer who has worked hard to prove that she’s more than a pretty face. And now the 26-year-old wonders whether getting her 15 minutes of cable TV fame was worth the price of reinforcing that stereotype.
“I go back and forth on whether the show was a good idea,” she admits. “One of my big passions is [working] undercover. Obviously it’s not going to be so easy anymore. And then I get letters, some incredible letters, from people about their daughters being inspired by me. That has made every second of the show worthwhile.”
Sgt. Eddie Grant, her RACS supervisor, describes Penoyer as a “great detective” with a “flexible, well-adjusted personality that meshes well with the guys.” But he admits that when he first put the young officer into the formerly all-male unit, he was met with resistance, especially from her new partner, Ronnie Miller.
Miller, an intense 18-year veteran cop with an almost militaristic style, was concerned he was going to get saddled with an inexperienced girl he’d have to rescue when things got hairy. Then he found out, as viewers of the TV show also did, that Penoyer is as hard charging as any male cop could ever hope to be.
“I don’t want to blow her head up anymore than it is,” Miller jokes in a Boston brogue. “I’m very happy to work with her to tell the truth. I’ve had female partners and male partners and I gotta say she’s been the top partner I’ve ever had. She’s an extremely tactical and very intelligent cop.”
Penoyer’s entire life has been about measuring up. She spent her childhood trying to prove herself to her dad, the toughest guy in the world, who raised her and an older sister by himself after her mother’s multiple sclerosis turned her into an invalid.
She spent her teens constantly having to break into new groups of friends when the family had to move again, because her dad had to frequently switch jobs to maintain medical benefits for his dying wife. At age 18, she was a single mother, which put her college dreams temporarily on hold.
Then at 20, she became a cop. She was too young to even buy a gun.
“I remember that feeling of going to a house on a domestic violence call and thinking ‘How are these people going to take me seriously? I’ve never been married in my life and I’m sitting here counseling people who have been married 25 years on how to get along.’ ”
Penoyer couldn’t wait to get older, so people would take her seriously. Not only that, she had to overcome her looks. When she was first on the job, a fellow officer told her, “Listen, the only reason why you’ll ever make it anywhere here is because people want something from you.”
For all those reasons and more, Penoyer has made it her mission “to prove myself and be better, to try that much harder.”
Part of that mission includes getting a degree in public administration, which Penoyer is pursuing through Barry’s School of Adult and Continuing Education (ACE). The school serves working professionals like her by offering coursework primarily at night, weekends and online.
Assistant professor of public administration Dr. Eric Smith, who had Penoyer in one of his classes, describes the degree as the public sector side of the MBA, providing government employees the tools to do their jobs better and increase their chances of promotion. Penoyer is the perfect candidate.
“She’s a good student,” Smith says, “very engaging, very involved in the classroom, very bright.”
Penoyer intends to spend her career in law enforcement. Her strategy is to work in as many units as possible to get a well-rounded understanding of how the department works as she moves up the command chain.
“If you go into management, there are a whole lot of things you need to know,” she explains. “You can become a major, a sheriff, or anything. And if that doesn’t work out, you can go into another field with that same degree.”
So with her career plan of attack seemingly mapped out, how did Penoyer end up being one of four cops chosen to represent “Police Women of Broward County”?
She says that her department would occasionally ask her to do publicity stunts -- a drunk driving commercial aimed at teenagers, a radio promotion for a charity event. Usually, she tried to duck out of that kind of thing, wary of being pigeonholed as just a face. * When the department approached her about this series, they pitched it as a successor to the popular “Cops” show that filmed partially in Broward County years ago. TLC had chosen Broward County because the department was more open to the idea than many other police departments. And Broward has a large, diverse population sure to make for exciting shows.
Penoyer was skeptical, but agreed because she figured that she could remain fairly anonymous, the way the officers who participated in “Cops” had. After all, she really loved undercover work. That’s why she joined the Regional Anticrime Squad (RACS), which the Sherriff’s Office deploys to hit hot spots of criminal activity wherever they occur in Broward County.
In the RACS unit, and as the only female in the bunch, Penoyer has done undercover drug buys, vehicle takedowns, raids on drug dens, you name it. Viewers of the show have seen her jump fences and she always seems to have a wisecrack ready for perps and colleagues alike. Don’t let that fool you, though.
“A lot of people think that when she says, ‘Welcome to Broward County’ and closes the car door [on the arrestee], her part of the story is over,” says Sgt. Grant. “That’s not where it ends. She makes the arrest, documents it thoroughly, and follows it through to make sure the prosecution happens. She’s great testifying in court.”
Penoyer says that always being on camera didn’t bother her because there’s almost always a camera on cops nowadays anyway (whether surveillance, dash cam, or cell phone). She was more concerned about having to look after the civilian TV crew if something bad happened in a tense situation. As it turned out, the crew fit right in.
“It really became a flow that they fed off of us,” she recalls. “We would make fun of each other. If the camera man fell, we’d never let him live it down. Like once I hopped a fence chasing a suspect and the camera guy got stuck. It became a ‘you’re in this with us’ [situation]. That’s how cops are - brothers and sisters before anything else, and that’s what we do, make fun of each other.”
The flip side of the fun and adrenaline of “Police Women” was that viewers got a glimpse inside the lives of the four women and how they balance a tough job with being wives or mothers. In Penoyer’s case, she raises 8-year-old son Dominic in the same formidable style she admired in her father, training him to work as hard as she does and be able to handle a schedule as unpredictable as crime itself.
“Watching my dad’s work ethic was huge in making me who I am now,” she says. “To be always in between jobs with a dying wife and two little girls to raise, that’s devastating. But I never saw him crumble, never saw him think he wasn’t going to make it. He raised me to know that no matter whether you’re male or female, you’re good enough to do anything.”
Now that the first season of the show has finished filming (it’s not clear whether there will be a second season), Penoyer is concentrating on finishing her degree and moving on to the next adventure in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.
“If you are really are passionate about your job, you should never plateau,” she says. “You should always be learning. That’s what’s so great about our department – it’s so huge I have the opportunity to do road patrol, work in narcotics, be a canine handler, fly a helicopter, or be on the bomb squad. I won’t have enough time in my career to do it all. There’s just too much to do.”