Enforcing the Law

Sex crimes Detective Kelly Gorham, K9 Officer Michelle Cole and Patrol Officer Kate Phelan are among the 17 women on the force keeping Portland safer

Criminal investigator Kelly Gorham knew she wanted to be a detective by the time she was 10. K9 Officer Michelle Cole loves being on the job with her dog and Officer Kate Phelan discovered her knack for crisis management when she worked in a special education classroom.

These three Portland Police officers are among the 17 women on a total sworn force of 154. “It’s like any other male-dominated field,” Phelan says. “We’re here, but there’s not a ton of us.”

Detective Kelly Gorham, 41, of Cumberland

Officer Kelly Gorham directing traffic during a Sea Dogs game in Portland this summer. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Gorham remembers that when she joined the Portland Police Department in 2002 she was one of 22 women. Coming off a two-year stint with Federal Border Patrol in Arizona, the Grafton, Massachusetts, native with a degree in criminology applied for municipal officer positions all over New England and got picked up by Portland.

“I never thought I would stay here,” Gorham says. “I wanted someplace bigger, like Worcester or Boston. But I was surprised by how much crime there is here for a small city.”

She worked drug enforcement and undercover with the plainclothes division, eventually married another Portland Police officer, and had two children, who are now 9 and 8.

“I don’t really want to be out there doing the things I was doing in my twenties, going call to call,” Gorham says. “You never know who will open the door. I prefer the intricacies of long-term investigations rather than the crisis management and initial investigation of patrol calls for service. And, having children—I want to go home to them.”

But being a mom also makes her current work as a sex crimes detective all that more emotionally charged when the victims are children.

“I try to do everything I can for the victims, and sometimes it’s not enough,” Gorham says. “It’s so hard to prove things. I need A to Z to show a jury what happened. Jurors want evidence. I work my ass off, because it’s a human being who has been violated.”

Two detectives split the city, with Gorham handling all sex crimes that happen east of Forest Avenue. Her territory includes all of the Old Port, where alcohol and drugs are even more likely to be involved, blurring the distinctions of consent.

“It is easier for a female to tell me about a sex assault than to tell a male,” says Gorham. “Nine times out of 10, I know that the girl’s not lying, but how do I prove it? It really comes down to the quality of the case and whether there’s proof.”

And, Gorham says, sometimes the accused is innocent and it’s her job to prove that. Either way, cases are never solved in an hour like they are on television.

“I just got a DNA hit on a burglary from three years ago, because that’s how backed up things are at the Maine State Police crime lab,” Gorham says. “But violent crimes—crimes against people rather than property—take priority.”

She’s the first person in her large Irish-Catholic family to go into law enforcement.

“I always wanted to put away the bad guys,” Gorham says. “My parents were divorced when I was really young, and I think it had a lot to do with that. Sixteen years in, and I still think it’s the best job out there. One successful case makes all the other ones okay to handle.”

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

K9 Officer Michelle Cole, 40, of Casco

While some officers strive to leave work behind when they go home, K9 Officer Michelle Cole takes explosives detection dog Barni home with her to her husband, two kids and narcotics detection dog Kaine, who retired to pet status at the age of 8.

“Kaine was trained to sniff out marijuana,” Cole explains. “And when it was legalized, it sort of crippled us. His sniff used to be probable cause to search a vehicle. But you can’t untrain that.”

Since April, Cole has been working with Barni, a German shorthair pointer, patrolling bus stations and ferry terminals and responding to calls about bomb threats at the airport. An officer since 1998, Cole joined the K9 unit in 2001—the day before 9/11.

“If I go my entire career and I don’t find a thing, I’m totally OK with it,” Cole says. “I’ve had two other explosives dogs, and we never found anything. But we always train as if we will find it. Working with the dog is all about timing, positive reinforcement and appropriate corrections as necessary. The way we’re training, my dog thinks we go to work and play a game.”

But, for her, knowing the stakes of her dog’s ability to detect an explosive device, the work is serious—as well as sometimes physically demanding, dirty and wet.

“You need to be able to take care of yourself and be able to keep up with your own dog,” she says. “For me, the position is all the time. When you’re home you’re worrying about what your dog is doing, his eating and sleeping. Like an Olympic athlete who fuels their body for what they’re doing, I need to keep my dog healthy all the time.”

Officer Kate Phelan, 27, of South Portland

Officer Kate Phelan of the Portland Police Department on patrol. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Officer Kate Phelan studied elementary education and spent two years teaching special education before she joined the Portland Police Department. The two careers, though completely different on the surface, both involve crisis management, being part of a team and serving the community.

“Once you’re sworn in as an officer, you’re part of the family, and that’s clear right from day one,” Phelan says. “We’re in the cars alone for the most part, but we’re driving to calls and meeting our partner there.”

A patrol officer in the Deering neighborhood of Portland, Phelan encounters everything from traffic violations to theft, burglary, suspicious activity and domestic disputes. She’s also a member of the crisis negotiation team, having trained with the FBI in a 40-hour course on how to handle, for example, suicidal individuals, barricaded subjects and hostage situations.

“Females in general tend to be great communicators,” Phelan says. “We’re able to de-escalate a lot of situations through communication and tone of voice.”

There have been calls that have certainly gotten her heart pumping, but she relies on everything she learned not only in the FBI course but over 18 weeks of Maine State Police Academy and 14 weeks of field training.

“Your training and experience kicks in,” she says, “and you take control of the situation.”

Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.

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