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Colonel Marian J. McGovern of the Massachusetts State Police

Going Where No Woman Has Gone Before

By Ellen O’Connor

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Colonel McGovern and her Mom on her swearing in day

Marian J. McGovern, the new head of the Massachusetts State Police, certainly does not view herself as a trailblazer, although others may argue that point.

Colonel McGovern, who was appointed in January as the first female to lead the 144-year-old law enforcement organization, is a Vernon Hill kid who well understands that hard work, perseverance, and dedication are what matter.  These were the values instilled in her by her immigrant mother Mary, who made her way to the United States from Ireland many years ago and who has lived her life by that simple credo.

Like mother, like daughter.

Colonel McGovern, who became a state trooper more than 30 years ago, did the job, worked hard, and made her way up the ladder to a position she never envisioned holding ~ in charge of the oldest statewide law enforcement agency in the nation.

McGovern decided to become a state trooper way back in 1979 ~ a lifetime ago when women in the police field were an anomaly.  Three decades ago, she was just enjoying her job as a small claims clerk in the Westborough District Court. Because of her courthouse job she got to know a lot of police officers and state troopers. They encouraged her to take an upcoming state police exam.

“I had no interest in it at the beginning,” she recalled during a recent interview at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Framingham.  But, she took the test regardless and passed it and the next thing she knew she was at the doctor’s office getting a physical, passing a background check, and trying to get into shape to pass the physical part of the state police requirements.

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Colonel McGovern salutes a student trooper

She kept her new career goal a secret as long as she could, but eventually she let people know what her plans were, if only to explain why she was working out.

When McGovern graduated from the state police academy, she was one of just nine women in the class.  The training was 20 weeks long and ran from Monday through Friday, with the recruits bunking at the academy during the week.  Back then, the training academy was located in Framingham.  Today, it is in New Braintree.

In fact, in a turn of events that neatly represents coming full circle, the office she occupied when she made the rank of lieutenant colonel was actually the same place where she had once bunked with her fellow recruits.

The training McGovern received during those 20 weeks was tough, but the recruits became like a team and “…we fed off of each other,” she said. Some of the people in her class are still her friends because of the great camaraderie that grew between them during those trying weeks.

Being exposed to a paramilitary environment took some adjustment for McGovern, not the least of which was getting used to an entirely new vocabulary. Floors were now decks and doors were now hatches.

Nonetheless, “It was a tremendous learning environment,” she said.  The recruits spent a lot of time in the classroom becoming familiar with criminal law and procedure. But there was also a very hands-on, practical aspect to the training. Numerous factual scenarios were created for the recruits, which reflected as closely as possible the types of situations they would face in their everyday jobs as troopers.

“There was no more valuable tool than that. They truly prepared us for what we would see out there,” said McGovern. “It was an environment very conducive to learning.”

The training certainly came into play early in McGovern’s career. She was on patrol out in the western part of the state (she was stationed at the Northampton barracks for her first assignment) when she pulled over a car on a dark and deserted back road.  She was alone on patrol, as all troopers are.

Governor Deval Patrick & Colonel McGovern on her swearing-in day

Governor Deval Patrick & Colonel McGovern on her swearing-in day

She trained her cruiser’s spotlight, as well as her flashlight, on the car.  As she approached the car, she spotted several weapons in the back.  A routine stop had suddenly turned into something entirely different and dangerous.  To make matters worse, she had no way of communicating with the barracks when she was out of her cruiser because portable radios were not standard equipment and would not be for many years to come.

As she approached the car, the driver got out and she could see he was holding something in his hand.

She did not shoot and got the man in handcuffs.  Turns out, he was not a bad guy. He was a gun dealer.

“The training is so very important,” she said. “You have to use your head and think on your feet and you have to be 100 percent accurate.”

After things were sorted out, the gun dealer told her that he never even realized that the trooper who had put him in handcuffs was a woman.

“He said to me, ‘I didn’t think they made women troopers,’” recalled McGovern with a laugh.

*****

McGovern was one of the first detectives on the scene of the well-remembered, tragic shooting death of Trooper George L. Hanna on February 29, 1983.

Hanna had stopped a suspicious car in an Auburn liquor store parking lot, near the intersection of Routes 12 and 20. The car contained five occupants ~ three males and two females.  Hanna did not know that the group was planning an armed robbery and that the men were carrying guns. They were speaking Spanish, saying that if Hanna found their weapons, they would have to kill him.  As he searched one of the men, Jose Anibal Colon pulled out a handgun, shooting the young father of three multiple times.

“It was an unbelievable case,” said McGovern.

Colon and the two other men, Abimael Colon-Cruz and Miguel Angel Rosado, were caught after a short but intense manhunt. The city of Worcester opened up its police department to the state police, said McGovern, for what was one of the biggest cases in memory. All three men were eventually convicted at trial and given life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Initially, the belief was that Hanna would be OK.

“The first information we got was that George had been shot in the knee,” said McGovern. “I will never forget when word came back that he had died.”

McGovern had been on the job for just about three years at that point.  She would work on many, many more cases as a detective before she made the move to the administrative side of things. As a detective, she frequently dealt with ~ as all police officers do ~ extremely tragic and troubling situations.

“There are haunting images that are left with you,” she said. “You have to find a way to compartmentalize it and go on to the next one. You give each situation the honor it deserves and you do the best job you can.”

Becoming a detective was always in the back of her mind, said McGovern. But troopers have to put in their time first.  She worked out of the Northampton barracks for a few years and then the Holden barracks for a year.  She became a detective in 1983, shortly before the Hanna killing, and worked in that capacity for the next 20 years.

“I loved every minute of it,” she said.

She worked on all kinds of cases ~ narcotics, murders, child abuse, robberies. The only kinds of cases she never caught were the fire cases. Those were left to people with a fire science background.

In 1983, the state changed the child abuse laws. Some people, such as medical personnel, were now classified as mandated reporters. If they suspected a child was being abused, they were obligated to report it to the authorities. And any case that was reported required a follow-up criminal investigation. The end result was that police departments all over the state were swamped with cases.

“We got 25 cases a week ~ and I am underestimating,” said McGovern. “It opened the floodgates.”

The local police, particularly the smaller departments with limited manpower, frequently would call the state police for assistance. Also, the more severe cases were sent to the state police.

“We were inundated with cases. I worked non-stop.”

While McGovern was a detective, she worked on what was at the time called the CPAC unit, which was a group of detectives attached to then-District Attorney John J. Conte’s office. She eventually became a commander of the unit.  During that time, she oversaw the implementation of the AMBER Alert Program, a tool that helps find abducted children. While she loved being a detective, she eventually decided to move to the administrative side of the job.

Colonel McGovern on her swearing in day

Colonel McGovern on her swearing in day

“I wanted to explore and see other things,” she said, even though the draw of doing investigations was still very strong. She wondered if she would get bored doing something other than detective work. Turns out she did not have to worry ~ she says she has thoroughly enjoyed all of the jobs that she has had.

She worked for a time in the crime lab, where she helped develop a database that seeks to match DNA samples collected from crime scenes to profiles of known offenders. By that time, she had been promoted to the rank of major.

She also spent some time in media relations, which was an eye-opening experience ~ even with all the time she had been with the state police.

“The amount of knowledge I gained about the department amazed me,” she said. “It opened my eyes to what a great department we have.”

One of her goals during that time was to better promote the state police, to make sure that the public understood that its officers were not just one dimensional.  Toward that end, the state police website began highlighting all the things that troopers have done off the job ~ like charitable work and volunteer work.  The website also notes trainings that the department has held or its officers have attended or community programs that troopers have participated in.

“There is a side [of the troopers] that the public doesn’t see too often,” said McGovern.

The website also notes when the state police lose one of their own.

Sergeant Douglas A. Weddleton, a 28-year state police veteran based in Foxboro, died in the line of duty in the early morning hours of June 18, when he was hit on Route 95 in Mansfield by an alleged drunk driver. McGovern, who described his death as senseless, called him “a gentle, compassionate, caring man” who loved his family and was always doing things for people. Weddleton, who was at the graduation of one of his children just hours before his death, leaves a wife and four sons.

*****

As a lieutenant colonel, McGovern served as commander of the Division of Standards and Training, which oversees internal investigations and the State Police Academy. In January of 2009, she was appointed deputy superintendent, which is the department’s second-in-command.

A little less than one year later, Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the top position ~ colonel and superintendent of more than 2,200 police officers and several hundred civilians. Her swearing-in ceremony was at, appropriately enough, the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in the city where she was raised and went to school.

“Luck and hard work gets you to your final destination,” said McGovern, who downplays that she is the first female ever to lead the state police. Her philosophy is the same as her mother’s.  The rest will take care of itself.
As varied as her career has been ~ road trooper, detective, crime lab, media relations ~ McGovern has loved every job she has had in her lengthy, but still ongoing, career.
“It’s been great,” she said.  “It has been the best 31 years anyone could ever have.”

You get the sense that she believes her newest job will be the best job of them all.

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