In uniform including her motorcycle helmet, fully outfitted in police gear, standing next to her Coronado Police Department motorcycle, Officer Samantha Gearlds strikes an imposing figure. But my main impressions from our recent hour-long conversation were her outgoing personality and her willingness to interact with and serve the Coronado Community.
A Navy brat born at Naval Air Station Pax River, Maryland, her father is a retired aviation ordinance man. She attended high school in Meridian, Mississippi, home to Naval Air Station Meridian, where Gearlds was a self-confessed band nerd. “I won about every music award, and Presidential Awards for Academics. I played the saxophone.”
Later Gearlds related that she attended the University of Southern Mississippi, where she majored in Criminal Justice, with a minor in Spanish. I told her I was one of the few people in Coronado who had been on the campus of her alma mater. We exchanged stories about Hattiesburg, Mississippi and both agreed that our present locale was better.
After graduation, Gearlds attended a Police Academy in Mississippi, a three-month experience which she described. “Academies in Mississippi are live-in, and you don’t get to go home. The training is in a high stress environment. Here you go every day for six months and it’s in a classroom setting. Our instructors were former Marines and they screamed at us at night and threw trash cans down the hall to wake us up. It was basically bootcamp and a 12-week long live in. I learned you can either talk yourself into or out of a fight. It depends on how you deal with people and your rapport. I went from being a band nerd to running seven miles a day. I learned you can push your body farther than your mind can, so don’t give up. We were pushed so much, so tired, and yelled at because we couldn’t do anything right. So perseverance is definitely a big trait to have.”
Gearlds had already been with Coronado PD for three years before she made the choice to pursue a motorcycle officer position. “I was a K9 officer for a little bit, which was fun but not demanding, because the dog is doing all the work. You learn a few commands in Dutch and then you’re watching the dog and that wasn’t challenging enough. Plus, I have a dog of my own and I felt like I was betraying her. I did the physical requirements, passed the interview and I was one of two officers selected for the positions that became available. We have five motorcycle officers in Coronado.”
Her infatuation with motorcycles isn’t new, a love affair that began with a sports bike in college. “I was on the back of a cousin’s bike once. I liked the way they looked and I thought it was something different. And there was a little bit of defiance. I later flipped the sports bike and totaled that. Then I bought a Harley-Davidson Dyna Street Bob, with a 1300 CC engine, that weighs just over 400 pounds. My CPD motorcycle is a Honda ST 1300 which weighs close to 800 pounds. A police bike is like a sport cruiser and sits a little big higher and is more top heavy than my Harley, which is weighted at the bottom. The Honda is easier to handle because of the weird training I had on it. I have done things with the Honda that I definitely wouldn’t do with my Harley.”
Lest you think her Coronado PD Motorcycle training was easy, Senior Motorcycle Officer Danny Aguirre, who is also a certified motorcycle instructor, ran the three-week training course. “Due to COVID-19, Danny was approved to host our own motorcycle academy,” Gearlds said. “He went to the San Bernardino Academy and structured our classes to meet their requirements. We had two weeks of regimented classwork. We got graded and it was a pretty strict curriculum. And we had 40 hours of training on the bike, going over test cone patterns. We went from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. down at the parking lot of Silver Strand State Beach, in the very south end of the parking lot. We were in the sun and heat all day, riding for 10 hours. There was a lot of dropping the bike.”
And her biggest lesson from her training? “Don’t be scared of the bike. As many times as I have dropped or fallen off it, if you’re going slow, the most you might get are some scrapes. The more scared you are of the bike, the more likely you are to get hurt.” Gearlds and Officer Steven Snodgrass comprised the most recent motorcycle qualification class.
Despite being an experienced rider, Gearlds still faced some challenges during her training including ‘Supermanning’ her bike, meaning she flew over the handlebars on two occasions. “The way you train, you’re supposed to stay in the friction zone,” Gearlds explained. “To get around cones involves slow maneuvering, holding in the right spot and giving enough throttle to keep the bike upright while you are going around a slow, tight turn. A couple of times the clutch was just right and coming around a turn I got scared and pulled the clutch in, released it too fast, made the bike jerk and I flew over the handlebars. The first time, the shield hit me on the top of my ribs while I was going three miles an hour. The second one was between the handlebars and the windshield and I still have a scar on my elbow.”
In addition to being the first woman motorcycle officer, Gearlds believes she is the only female motorcycle officer in San Diego County. “Murrieta has one or two, but there aren’t any current ones in San Diego County.” Her primary responsibilities include traffic enforcement, working accidents, and responding to citizens’ calls to stop speeding in an area.
On several occasions over the years, the fact that not all police officers are the right fit for Coronado has been espoused, a concept Gearlds agreed with and provides context for. “The department I am from in Meridian, the city has gotten worse. There are armed robberies and shootings almost nightly. The crime rate is super high and you can’t interact with the community that much. Typically we were answering 911 calls. Coming to Coronado and how we interact with the community, a lot of officers wouldn’t be a good fit. You have to take a step back a couple of decades. Some officers have lived in Coronado. Keith James knows just about everybody in town. Here you develop a more personal relationship, it’s not rough and touch policing. There are only so many officers in the department and you get to know people and their faces. That’s not for everyone. If you’re looking for crime, don’t come here, at least not on a nightly basis. They wave at you with all five fingers here.”
According to Gearlds, there have been numerous indications of community support for her and her new assignment. “I had a gentleman the other day get out of his car when I was stopped at Orange Avenue and RH Dana. As I was trying to put the kickstand down, he said, “I saw you on the news and that was really cool. Congratulations and I have a Harley too.” That’s been happening to me almost every day. People honk and waive, it’s really cool. People like the fact there is a female motorcycle officer here. Coronado is a different kind of community. Part of me just wants to be on the bike so I can tide. A woman commented on Facebook recently that her daughter saw me riding and she thought it was cool to see a woman on a bike. I guess I’m now a role model for young women.”
When asked about the best part of working in Coronado, Gearlds didn’t hesitate before replying, “The Community hands down. Most of it is this is a military town and there is an outpouring of support from people in the community with everything. People say, ‘Hey we support you guys,’ and ‘We’re glad you’re out here.’ I would just like to reiterate how amazing it is having as much community support as we have, not just the motorcycle officers, but the department in general. It’s a crazy time with COVID-19 and the community is amazing in the way they treat us.”