A large group of young men and women dressed in bright yellow shirts ran down a flight of steep concrete steps at Miramar College on a June day.
It was Day 2 of the six-month Police Academy 135 at the San Diego Regional Public Safety Training Institute.
They were in for a solid workout in the large quad area, doing everything you’d expect recruits to do at a paramilitary organization: run. squat.
It was tiring just to watch them. Some of them barely hung on.
“I don’t want you looking like a gaggle of yellow shirts running across the quad, understand?” a woman said in a black tracksuit from the middle of the quad area.
She didn't even take a breath from shouting the command when the yellow shirts shouted back: “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”
Her name is Lisa Hartman. Officer Hartman to you, me and most people, but it’s “Ma’am" or “Yes, ma’am” to the group in training. She’s one of the San Diego Police Department’s finest. And they might not look it, but she’s training the next generation of officers.
She gathered the recruits and stood in front of the group, and gave it to them straight.
“There's going to be pain with this profession. There's going to be sweat with his profession. There's going to be uncomfortable with this profession,” she said, adding the recruits should consider themselves lucky, because they’re getting paid to work out.
During the 900-hour-plus academy, the new recruits would be pushed to their limits. Those who make it, will move on to be supervised on the job training, known as field training. This is meant to prepare them for what they will encounter on the streets and neighborhoods of San Diego County and beyond.
“I was told by people I know who worked in other departments: ‘Hey it’s going to be tough as a woman,'" Hartman said. She was also told: “You know, there's still a lot of older officers around that don't feel like you belong.”
But, on that June day, her presence commanded respect. She was greeted with a “Ma’am” and a salute everywhere she walked on the campus. And in a profession dominated by straight, white men, this 20-year law enforcement veteran was in charge of the most important aspects of the police academy.
“If you’re struggling in P.T., I guarantee you, you will start struggling in D TAC (Defense Tactics), you will start struggling in the classroom, driving, shooting,” she told the group. “It trickles down, okay? And, if you haven’t come in here for your A-game, figure it out really quick. Make sense?”
“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” the recruits shouted.
Off the quad, in her office, Hartman reflected on how she got where she is. “I never would have thought, becoming a police officer, I’d be able to use my master's degree in exercise science in this capacity,” she said. “But here I am. I run the physical training program for the new kids as well as mental illness and first aid.”
Yes, mental health training is included. Being physically strong used to be what mattered most as a cop, but there’s been a shift.
“Back when I was a baby cop, we didn't have that, we didn’t have that,” she said. “We had: ‘Hey, you come to work, you do your job. Anything you see here, you know, any traumas you go through at work? Well, figure out how to deal with it,’” she said. “It was kind of a mentality.”
But the new mentality is that your life also depends on learning how to cope with what you will see, experienced and felt on the job. It had become standard training. Hartman helped usher in that change about five years ago.
“We actually started a two-hour block for the recruits to learn how to understand what they're going to go through in this career,” she said. “From shift work, from being hypervigilant from having your head on a swivel and always looking around, dealing with your family, and just the constant roller coaster of emotions.”
They quickly found it made a difference, so they incorporated even more time in the next academy.
According to the National Institutes of Health, people who work in law enforcement are 54% more likely to die of suicide than other jobs except firefighting. But women in law enforcement have even higher rates of suicide than their male colleagues.
“I still suffer from things I’ve seen, and it’s always there,” Hartman said. “Will it be there when I retire? Probably. Probably. It's just, it's truly a career that sticks with you. It’s a tough career.”
Hartman said it was critical to teach new recruits to recognize and deal with mental distress before it becomes destructive. She said that would not only make them better officers but could save their lives and others too.
“We really need to take care of our officers, for longevity to keep them safe, really be aware of suicide prevention and try to minimize that as best we can,” she said, acknowledging that half the battle is removing the stigma of asking for help. “And let these kids know: Hey, it's OK to go ask for help — it's okay to let your sergeant know, ‘Hey, you know what? I'm having a hard time.' So I think that's huge,” she said. “I think that is going to also better help the recruits when they become officers and deputies to deal with those on the street that are suffering from any type of mental health crisis.”
Recently retired SDPD Assistant Chief and former Academy Captain Sarah Creighton said that what the recruits learn is as important as who is doing the training.
“It’s such an important piece to have the right people here,” she said. “They need to be firm, they need to be empathetic and compassionate and all the things that really are required today of a police officer.”
She said Hartman brought that and more.
“She’s kind, empathetic, I never saw her lose it, ever, under any circumstances,” she said. “Never got complaints," she added, "and that's the ideal employee: somebody who can go out there and connect with the people who are at their absolute worst.”
As Hartman reflected on her career, she said it was the people who take time to mentor others and pass along wisdom and insight, like Creighton, who made a big difference. “You by far impacted me more than anybody in this department and I'm just thankful you're here and feel blessed for your words,” she told Creighton, and they hugged each other.
The confidence in her ability to lead this next generation of officers comes from knowing that she’s not just respected, but that the people who work with her care about her.
She has two sons, a grandson, and a partner.
“Just like with my boys and everything else, I am very lucky and very blessed to have her in my life, she is the light of my life,” Hartman said as she showed off pictures and gushed over her grandson.
She said that, for years, she didn’t share that part of her life with anyone — not even her family. “It’s hard. It's stifling, you kind of lose a piece of you,” she said.
She said diversifying leadership roles sent a message of hope to people suffering in silence.
“Whether it be LGBTQ+ community, Black, Muslim, whatever, if they see people in those positions, hopefully it empowers them and makes them feel like: ‘Hey, you know what? I can do that!’ especially if they're struggling,” she said.
She said it would also help departments that are struggling, too.
“It’s frustrating because so many of us are the good ones, but the few bad ones make it very challenging and it's all kind of evolved to other stressors and we are still getting recruits — it's not at the level in which we used to,” Hartman said.
And her impact was evident in this Police Academy 135. The class had about twice the number of female recruits than the average.
One of them was Brenda Sotomayor. She said seeing Hartman in a leadership role has allowed her to dream big.
“Thank you for showing us the way, thank you for what you teach us,” she said. “It really does motivate us, and seeing females in roles like yours, it inspires — inspires us.”
“I've always wanted to help people since I was a little kid?” Hartman said. “Now, being at the academy, if I get to one recruit, I feel like I've made a difference.”
Hartman has been a training officer at the academy for a decade, and she's just getting warmed up.