One conversation with Gwen Patton, lieutenant and unit commander at the Washington University Police Department (WUPD), will leave anyone feeling like they just spoke with a close friend. Her careful responses and warm smile speak to her attentiveness with everyone she meets.
As she shares her story, it becomes clear that her care for people is genuine.
Patton grew up in north St. Louis, at a time when neighbors were an “actual community” and families would dance and skate in the middle of the street.
Her family unit included her older brother and her mother, who provided for the family as a single parent.
“She influenced me a lot,” Patton said. “She was just always very nice to whoever and she was a hard worker who cared about her family and the community.”
A full-circle moment
Patton’s mom worked as a housekeeper at Washington University in the 1960s, helping to clean the residence halls. Her mom’s supervisors took notice of her work ethic and sent her to school to become a supervisor for the housekeepers.
“She had a really good career here and stayed several years,” Pattton said. “I’ve been in the WashU community for a really long time, since I was pretty young, and I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
When it was time for Patton to choose a career path, she knew she wanted to make an impact and help others. She began a career in social work, assisting people with special needs, ranging in age from 4 to 80 years old.
While she enjoyed making a difference in other people’s lives, she reached a point in life where she needed to provide more for her family after becoming a single parent of four children when her youngest was a toddler.
She decided to transition to a career in police work and enrolled in the police academy.
Patton began working with the St. Louis Police Department in 1997, a role that still allowed her to make a difference in the community while also being better able to support her family.
She later pursued a position at WUPD, joining the force as a police officer in January 1999. The opportunity was a win-win for Patton, as she could continue serving as a police officer while also having benefits such as health insurance and tuition for herself and her children. It was also a homecoming of sorts, returning to the place where her mother also once worked.
Patton took advantage of the tuition benefit, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from University College in 2015, as well as a certificate in somatic studies. Her daughter, Danielle Patton, followed a similar path, earning her bachelor’s degree from Arts & Sciences, in anthropology, in 2010.
No two days alike
As a member of WUPD, Patton has set tasks that she needs to complete, like most university employees, but some parts of her work can be unpredictable. In addition to looking over reports and overseeing fleet management for the department, something out of the ordinary is bound to arise. For example, the WUPD recently had to rescue people in University City who got stranded on top of their vehicles while trying to escape rising water in the aftermath of the flash floods that devastated many areas in St. Louis.
Her favorite part of the gig is no surprise: She loves interacting with people in the community.
“I’m a firm believer that I can learn something from everybody that I come in contact with,” Patton said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a call. I could be out, say at Jimmy John’s getting lunch, and somebody will strike up a conversation and ask questions about what I do and what the university offers.”
Her colleagues also recognize the skills and personal touch that Patton brings to her job every day. She always tries to leave a situation better than she found it.
“I have worked with Gwen for over 20 years,” said Dave Goodwin, WUPD captain and bureau commander. “There is no one I know more dedicated to serving the campus community. She is a tireless supporter of the mission, vision and core values of WUPD. Gwen has demonstrated time and time again that she is compassionate, engaging and humble.”
During her tenure, Patton has worked on four presidential debates held on campus.
“I got to meet all kinds of people that I never would have met before, and I have something from each debate,” she said. “It was just really cool working with the other law enforcement entities like the Secret Service and the FBI.”
A close call
Unfortunately, some moments working in law enforcement can be harrowing. Many years ago, when Patton worked as a St. Louis police officer, she experienced a moment that sticks with her to this day.
On that day, Patton received a call about someone tampering with a vehicle. When she went to investigate, a person jumped out of a car with what at first glance appeared to be a shotgun. Thankfully, Patton got a closer look and realized that it was not a weapon, but rather an arm cast, so the situation didn’t escalate as it could have.
“Although I carry a gun every day, I never ever want to have to use it,” Patton said. “I was like, ‘Thank you, God.’ Come to find out, he was only 18 years old.”
At the time, Patton had an 18-year-old son at home herself. That unforgettable moment helped shape how Patton views her role.
“I’ll never, ever forget that,” Patton said. “It’s quite a challenge because you have maybe half a second to think and you know you have to keep yourself safe.”
Finding joy in the little things
To combat the stress that police work brings, Patton practices yoga and tai chi, a meditative martial art. She takes classes at the university.
Many members of the campus community may be familiar with Patton not only from seeing her out on patrol, but also as an instructor of the Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) system, a program she has taught at WashU for 23 years.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve gotten into and it serves the community.”
Patton continues to teach the classes along with six other instructors.
Former students have even reached out to let her know the impact the self-defense classes have.
“I got a letter from one of the students after she took the class and went overseas,” Patton said. “She was riding the subway and she had to use the techniques she learned when someone was bothering her. She said it was one of the best things she ever did for herself.”
What brings her the most joy these days? “Being healthy, having good friends, my family, connecting with people.”
Patton makes an effort to truly connect with the community she serves, work that is all the more important given the negative perceptions that some people have about police officers.
“I’m the first to say we have some people who shouldn’t be police officers. But we have some people who shouldn’t be teachers, ministers and store clerks as well,” she said. “Just try to look at people as individuals.”