Chris Cocuzzi grew up in Montgomery County reading Nancy Drew mystery books and dreaming of the day when she would be old enough to become a detective.
"In 1968, when I was 18, I called the Montgomery County Police Department and asked about a job," Cocuzzi said. "They said they had no openings for meter maids or crossing guards. I said I wanted to be a police officer. They laughed."
Cocuzzi didn't give up. In 1974, after police department rules changed and doors opened for women, Cocuzzi was hired. She graduated from the Montgomery County Police Academy in 1974, and since then has worked in undercover investigations and in the pharmaceutical division tracking down illegal drug dealings. Currently she patrols a beat in Silver Spring.
In her white Chevrolet Celebrity patrol car, Cocuzzi drives about 100 miles a day, investigating everything from runaways to robberies.
Montgomery County employs 754 police officers, 82 of whom are women. The county long ago stopped assigning its female officers exclusively to crosswalks and juvenile work, but even as patrol officers, the women know they are closely watched at first to see if they can do the job.
"And the smaller the woman, the more she's watched," said Cocuzzi, who is of medium height. "It is assumed that a man can do the job."
Cocuzzi wears a silver-colored revolver in her holster and knows how to use it, for patrol work puts her in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. Most of the time, the gun stays in its holster.
Earlier this fall, she played a critical role in the chase and capture of three bank holdup suspect, who took off in their car after she stopped them for questioning. During the chase, Cocuzzi had to maneuver her patrol car down Rte. 29 in Silver Spring at more than 90 miles an hour to keep up with the robbers. Another patrol car was wrecked during the multi-car chase, which ended when two of the men were caught in a wooded area.
"The best part was that we got the robbers and nobody got hurt," Cocuzzi said. "We were all on an adrenalin high for days."
A recent typical day on the road with Cocuzzi started at 10 a.m. at roll call at the Silver Spring district headquarters, 801 Sligo Ave. It ended at 8 p.m., 91 miles later.
10:30 a.m.: On the road. For patrols, the Silver Spring district is divided into two sections, one primarily commercial, and the other mostly residential. Cocuzzi is assigned to the biggest of the residential patrols, a swath of Hillandale, White Oak and Colesville. It is an area both of middle- and upper-income homeowners and of apartment dwellers from a wide range of ethnic groups. When police are needed in this beat, it is usually for burglaries, larcenies or a family disturbance.
Cocuzzi stops to offer help to a man with a disabled car. From her radio comes an order to check on a 15-year-old boy whose family has called for help. The boy locked himself in the room the night before, but now has disappeared.
Cocuzzi drives to the house and learns that the boy, who has not been doing well in school, has run away. She interviews the family and asks for a photograph of the missing child. When he returns, she suggests, the family should seek counseling for him.
11:15 a.m.: "These are some of the nicest homes in my beat," Cocuzzi says as she cruises past big rambling houses set amid tall trees in the Springbrook High School area. Two collies bark loudly at the patrol car.
Cocuzzi spots a young man with a coat hanger trying to retrieve keys from inside a locked car. She checks on her radio to find out if the car has been reported stolen. It hasn't. Cocuzzi gets out and helps the young man retrieve his keys.
12:15 p.m.: The patrol car glides along Quebec Terrace, in an area of modest houses and apartments. In a back parking lot, several men are working on a car. An older woman is walking slowly toward an apartment building. Cocuzzi said she prefers the Silver Spring patrol because of its interesting mix of people.
"We have Hispanics, Cambodians, Jamaican and Vietnamese -- sometimes you have to get a translator just to handle a traffic investigation," she said.
In the upper county, the "Germantown district is predominantly country, and you literally have to answer calls for cows on the loose if you patrol there," she said.
"In Bethesda, you have the diplomats and congressmen and White Flint Shopping Mall, where a shoplifter takes $1,300 -- compared to the $13 they might take in some other district. In Wheaton, you get mostly juvenile problems, with a lot of party calls and disorderlies. In Rockville, you get a little of everything -- I live there and I love it."
1 p.m.: A stop for lunch at a small shopping center. Cocuzzi parks her portable radio on the table and listens for calls while she eats soup and salad.
1:30 p.m.: Back to the Silver Spring station to pick up the form for a runaway report. Such cases are special to Cocuzzi, who says she went into police work because she wanted to help people.
After a decade on the force, "I don't know how much help I've been," she observed. "I think I may have helped some victims, but it's hard to know if it has made a difference."
Ultimately, she said, she'd like to work in the section that investigates forged prescriptions and other illegal drug transactions. It's real detective work, she said.
For the most part, she really likes her job, she said. "I must -- to go through what you have to go through at the academy."
The six months of classroom work were no problem, she said, but the physical requirements, which included some boxing sessions and completion of a three-mile run, were torturous. "Before the academy, I thought that running twice around my house was a mile," she recalled.
Cocuzzi earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Maryland last year, after studying for it for more than 10 years.
Trying to carve out time from police work for a domestic and social life of her own has not been easy, Cocuzzi said. She married a fellow officer several years after she joined the force, but they have been separated for more than a year. She said their erratic work shifts left them with little time together, a problem that puts a drain on many police marriages.
At the Silver Spring station, she stops by the women's restroom, added only a year ago. Female officers formerly used the restroom set aside for female prisoners.
"We told them this was crazy," Cocuzzi said, "because we have to take off our guns when we go to the restroom, and there we would be, unarmed, with prisoners who might try to get the guns while we had them off."
It wasn't until the chairwoman of the local Neighborhood Watch program went to bat for them that the restroom was installed, she said. Officials had said up until then that money wasn't available, she recalled.
2:30 p.m.: The police dispatcher tells Cocuzzi to check on a report of a burglar alarm going off at a home in the White Oak area. "Most of these calls are false alarms, but you can never be sure," Cocuzzi said.
The brick and frame house on Caplinger Street looks deserted, Cocuzzi knocks on the front door and walks around the outside of the house. There is no evidence of a problem. A neighbor comes up to say that a relative of the owner had been in the home a few minutes earlier and may have triggered the alarm accidentally when he left.
3:25 p.m.: Cocuzzi stops at the Hillandale fire station to write a report on the 15-year-old runaway. "I use this as an office," she said.
The men on duty are in a good mood and they tease Cocuzzi unmercifully, declaring their intention to present her with a red nightgown for Christmas as a token of their affection. The blonde officer laughs at them. "They were good today," she observes on her way out.
4:25 p.m.: The dispatcher tells Cocuzzi to check on a report of a car damaged in a hit-and-run accident five minutes earlier in White Oak.
The car owner tells her he had stopped behind a black pickup truck when the truck suddenly backed up and rammed the front of the his Datsun 200 SX. The truck driver had sped off, but not before the Datsun owner jotted down his license number.
Cocuzzi calls in on her radio for details on the tags and learns that they are registered to a company with offices less than a mile from the scene of the accident.
4:45 p.m.: Cocuzzi drives to the company offices to see if she can spot the truck. A truck with scratches on it rear bumper is parked near the back door of the building, near a pile of boxes.
Within a minute or two, the driver comes out of the building, and in response to questions, he admits that his truck hit the Datsun. He said he left because he didn't think the accident was his fault.
Cocuzzi issues three tickets charging the driver with leaving the scene of an accident, backing up when unauthorized, and driving without a valid Maryland driver's license.
"If you hadn't left the scene, you might not have gotten any tickets," she told the man, "because you would have been able to work out something with the man you hit."
5:45 p.m.: Cocuzzi stops at a county gas pump in Wheaton to fill the tank. Over the radio, the dispatcher says that the 15-year-old runaway has returned home.
6:30 p.m.: Cocuzzi stops by the boy's home. "If you are having problems, you need to talk to your famly about them," she tells him. "Running away won't help."
7 p.m.: The car now has 15,683 miles on its odometer, 91 miles more than at the start of the shift. Cocuzzi returns to the station to report on the hit-and-run accident and to finish other paperwork details of the day before she gets off duty at 8 p.m.
"It was a quiet day," she said. "Some days it's one call right after another, but anytime I have a ride-along, I can be sure that nothing will happen.