Michelle Cook was 5-foot-5-inches and about 100 pounds when she signed up to be a police officer back in 1990.
Some had their doubts it was the right decision.
Almost 30 years later, she’s still the same height. She doesn’t weigh much more. But she’s proved doubters wrong with attributes that don’t show up on charts.
Cook, 47, has worked her way through the ranks at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the latest being named head of the Department of Patrol and Enforcement.
She’s the second woman to lead the group of men and women who guard Jacksonville’s streets.
“She will do fantastic,” said Carol Hladki, the first woman to run the department for a year before retiring after 30 years last year.
Determination. Passion. Eagerness. Work ethic. Hladki says Cook has those attributes and more.
There were some who thought she was making a mistake signing up for the job. Some of her peers in the department weren’t as eager to work with a female in what traditionally was a male-dominated line of work.
Cook hasn’t let any of it get to her. She just proves the doubters wrong — just as she always has.
‘I never wanted to make waves’
Cook went to what was then Florida Community College at Jacksonville and the University of North Florida in the late 1980s to become a teacher.
She took a criminal justice course as an elective because it fit her schedule.
One of the requirements was a police ride-along that ended up changing her mission.
Blue lights, sirens, breaking up a fight at the Jacksonville Landing on a Friday evening — oh, this was it.
Applying to the academy in 1990 was $500. It was money she didn’t exactly have, being a college student who paid the bills by waitressing.
She remembers walking into the Barnett Bank at Beach Boulevard and St. Johns Bluff Road. She wanted a loan to cover the fee, but the bank manager pulled her inside his office.
He said he was preventing Cook from making a terrible mistake, she recalls. Her family wouldn’t approve. He was doing her a favor and denied the loan.
“Whatever,” said Cook, with a slight shoulder shrug.
She ended up going to a women’s business organization to ask for a loan but instead received a $500 scholarship. She can’t remember the group’s name, but is grateful for the help.
There were 19 people in her class, with just three women. It meant she often had to spar with the men. Butt-kickings were constant, but she hung in there and always came back for more — an attitude that garnered respect.
Eventually, the trainers allowed her to bend the rules. She could bite, kick, poke in the eye, whatever it took.
Did she end up winning?
“When I cheated,” Cook said, with a laugh.
A sergeant at the sheriff’s office wasn’t quite sure what to make of the diminutive applicant in front of him. She was awfully little, he said.
How in the world would she make it out there?
Cook said she’d hang in there until backup arrived. She was hired.
Downtown and Springfield were the most dangerous areas of the city in those years. It’s where Cook wanted to be to prove herself.
She wasn’t fast enough to run down perps. She wasn’t big or strong enough to kick down doors.
What she excelled at was street diplomacy. She got to know the mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends and neighbors who would often seek her out to provide information.
Before long, Cook was asked to join a task force for what she calls “the fun stuff,” like serving warrants and busting up drug rings.
It was the kind of work that made her happy, but not everyone was happy with her.
When Cook joined the squad, one colleague told her she was taking the job away from a man trying to feed his family.
Cook took the hint and went to her sergeant, Jay Rutherford, and said it wasn’t a good fit.
He greeted everyone in the squad with a transfer slip. Take it or leave it, but Cook was staying.
A couple left, most stayed.
“I never wanted to make waves,” said Cook, who said Rutherford’s actions “spoke volumes.”
Years later, the colleague who made the comment apologized. He had a daughter who had grown up and understood a little better.
The early 1990s were a different time for women in law enforcement.
“We’ve come a long, long way,” Cook said.
She has, too.
Experiences local and afar
Cook’s career has been filled with different areas of the force.
Zone lieutenant, assistant chief of narcotics, director of professional standards — just a sampling of more than a dozen stops throughout the office.
An example of her vast experience took place not in Jacksonville, but in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Mississippi in 2005.
As part of the emergency preparedness team, Cook and many others in the office loaded up supplies and headed west to Pearl River, Miss.
The massive storm had left the rural area in ruins. Many local officers had evacuated while others who stayed were policing in shorts, T-shirts and gun belts. Their houses were destroyed and lives turned upside down.
A jail was used as a makeshift camp, with local families sharing space with prisoners. The latter were told the rules early on: Behave and everything will be OK. Misbehave or get near the families and it won’t be.
The squad was critically short on corrections officers, so Cook made the call for backup. She might have been the happiest person in the world when a busload of large corrections officers from Georgia pulled up.
Tear gas, shotguns and other needed supplies were unloaded, purposely in front of the prisoners.
There weren’t any major incidents.
The Northeast Florida group also took part in the search-and-rescue efforts in the undermanned area.
She said it was one of the most impactful experiences she’s ever been a part of with the office.
However, there is another story that ended up playing out on TV.
An unexpected encounter
Cook in 2001 was a female sergeant who worked the midnight shift for Downtown and Springfield.
It was an attractive combination for the TV cameras of “America’s Most Wanted” and “COPS.”
John Walsh, the longtime “America’s Most Wanted” host, was in town filming with Cook when they took a dinner break at the Landing. Steaks and conversation followed, but shortly after, the crew left for another city.
The next week, the crew from “COPS” arrived to shoot with her. It just so happened the previous week’s “America’s Most Wanted” aired and featured the profile of a man wanted for murder in Illinois.
A call came in. The guy had been spotted at a Downtown homeless shelter.
Sure, Cook thought. Such calls weren’t uncommon, but Cook and the crew went to check it out anyway.
It would only take a minute before moving on. The “COPS” crew didn’t even bring their equipment inside the elevator.
“There’s no way this is the guy,” Cook recalls saying.
Inside the elevator and up they go.
The doors slowly open and there he is, staring back at them and looking stunned. He had seen the show, too, and was on his way out.
Cook looked back to see the camera crew scrambling back to grab their equipment, but they missed her detaining the man.
Not only had the suspect seen the show where he was featured, but he had seen Cook and Walsh before, too.
It turns out he was the chef at the Landing restaurant who cooked their steaks that night.
Leading from the front
Leading the patrol and enforcement side of the office will be a natural fit for Cook, said Randi Glossman, a sergeant who specializes in hostage negotiating.
Cook has always “led from the front,” she said.
“And still does,” said Glossman.
Cook worked for Hladki for the first time in the late 1990s and most recently was a chief under her for the year she ran patrol and enforcement.
She calls Cook’s eagerness to learn one of her best attributes.
“A lot of people get in their comfort zone, get in their niche and never move outside it,” said Hladki. “She has done so much and regardless of where you put her, she is going to do a great job.”
Additionally, Hladki said Cook doesn’t have an “ivory tower mentality” and maintains a great connection with patrol officers.
Cook tells it like it is, doesn’t let things get under her skin and handles adversity well.
If she didn’t, she might have listened to the bank manager who was “doing her a favor.”
If she didn’t, she might have backed down when people said she couldn’t make it because of her size — or gender.
If she didn’t, she might have taken some of the early hints about her not being a welcome addition.
Instead, she’s just proved them wrong.