A tough 'Nott': New London cop shows strength, compassion on the beat

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New London — Women in law enforcement, it is sometimes said, need to use their mouths to make up for what they lack in physical strength.

Patrol officer Deana Nott of the New London Police Department says that's nonsense.

In her 15 years on the job, Nott has been spit on, kicked and bitten. She has jumped on people's backs, thrown punches and, she admitted, had her rear end "whooped" more than once in the line of duty.

"I'm not that female who's going to turn around and walk away," she said during a recent interview.

Nott, 47, was a three-sport athlete in high school who still packs a lot of power into her 5-foot-3-inch frame. She's ready to rumble, if necessary, but also has a compassionate streak.

She'll shake a suspect's hand two minutes after a scuffle ends, and if he looks hungry or has tattered clothes, she may leave an anonymous care package at his front door. 

She regularly sees homeless men in the city wearing the clothing she donated after the death of her beloved father, retired Waterford Police Lt. Joseph A. San Juan Sr.

Her good deeds come with a warning.

"Don't mistake my kindness for weakness," she said.

She and her husband, New London firefighter Joseph Nott, routinely provide Christmas gifts to families who can't afford them and, on several occasions, the couple, who have four kids, have taken in babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

"One day, on bike patrol, I found a set of twins in a back yard, in onesies, freezing," she said. Nott talked to the mother, but the twins got out of the house twice more, and the mom was arrested.

"She asked to speak with me," Nott said. "She said she was having a tough time. She said, 'Can you take my kids?'''

Nott called her husband, who stopped by the home after work.

"They ran up to him, and he says, 'Take them home,''' Nott said. "Now we had a family of eight."

The twins stayed with the family for two years.

Nott is a crisis intervention officer trained to work with the mentally ill and a field training officer who mentors new recruits. She has served on the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, sometimes working undercover as a decoy prostitute.

"If you're in the police job just to be a tough guy and arrest people, you're in the wrong field," she said. "Policing in this age is difficult, but I say it to everyone: It's the best job in the world for me."

Nott and New London detective Sgt. Lawrence Keating have been friends since they attended the training academy together. Early in their careers, they were partners in the department's Safe Neighborhoods Program, patrolling together on foot and bikes.

Keating said that criminals often are less likely to get into a fight with a female officer, but when somebody got combative on their beat, he would tell them, "I'm not the one you have to worry about. It's her."

Nott's desire to help was never far from the surface, according to Keating.

"She has probably one of the most amazing on-off switches I've ever seen," Keating said. "She goes from mother to enforcer faster than the blink of an eye and back again."

Nott said growing up as a tomboy in a close, Italian family gave her the skills she needs on the job. 

Living on Fulmore Drive in Waterford, she hung out with the neighborhood boys who she says tried to cast her into the Niantic River as "bluefish bait" and threw her into a drain so often she learned to catch frogs at lightning speed. 

As she got older, the boys recruited kids from other neighborhoods to fight her and took bets on who would win. There were many trips to the emergency room.

She came onto the job a bit later than many, joining the police department in her early 30s after being recruited by then-Sgt. Kenneth W. Edwards Jr., who was looking to hire a few good women. Edwards said he knew Nott's family background and thought she had potential.

She had been a standout softball, basketball and soccer player at Waterford High School in the mid-'80s and played softball in France after college. She was a certified lifeguard, and in August 1991, town officials declared a "Deana San Juan Day" after she rescued a swimmer off Pleasure Beach.

Her competitive streak was evident years later when she took the physical fitness test to qualify for police duty. Though the standards are lower for women based on their different body type, Nott passed the test at the level of a much younger man.  

"It was bad enough I was getting the job because I was a female," Nott said. "I wanted to do it as a 21-year-old male."

Like the other female law enforcement officers interviewed, she said male cops treat her with respect. She doesn't take offense if the conversation occasionally takes a bawdy turn, perhaps because she's been around policemen her whole life.

Nott's father retired as a lieutenant from the Waterford Police Department, then worked for many years as a judicial marshal before he died in November 2012. 

Her younger brother, Joseph San Juan Jr., is a sergeant with the East Lyme police. He was on the job for eight years before she was sworn in, and Nott, while still a civilian, once dressed up as her brother the police officer for his annual Halloween party.

Later, the sibling officers worked together on a couple of cases, including one that netted an arsenal of weapons and a large cache of drugs.

Nott's parents weren't crazy, at first, about the idea of her becoming a police officer. Her brother said it was because, at the time, people perceived that cops should be 6-foot-tall men.

"I think my Dad was concerned she wasn't going to get a fair shake because she was a woman," San Juan Jr. said. "I think that changed after some of the guys saw she could fight like a man."

Her mother, Patricia San Juan, said recently that she still worries about her daughter, but trusts her ability on the job. Mrs. San Juan said she was in Florida two years ago when her daughter's picture appeared in the paper after she had captured a bank robber.

"I couldn't believe it," San Juan said. "That guy was so big. Unbelievable."

k.florin@theday.com

Twitter: @KFLORIN

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