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Holding her own

First female on Boston's version of a SWAT team rises to challenge

When the team of elite Boston police officers burst from the back of the big, black van, wearing heavy, bullet-resistant vests, helmets, face masks, and goggles, it was impossible to tell one team member from another. Inching in a line toward the brick housing development, crouching behind ballistic shields as they passed a decrepit pink couch, the officers moved in silent, seamless cohesion, like one many-legged creature, toward an unknown danger in an upstairs apartment.

Only when the drill was over, and the members of the special unit pulled off their masks to critique their performance, did one of them stand out: 32-year-old Jessica Wagner , the first woman to serve on Boston's equivalent of a SWAT team.

Man or woman, the faint of heart need not apply for this job. The prestigious, highly trained unit, known in the department as the entry and apprehension team, is called on to defuse the city's most volatile eruptions. Only 40 officers serve on the team, considered the cream of the crop within the masculine, adrenaline-charged world of special operations. To make the grade, members must demonstrate prowess in shooting firearms and climbing rooftops as well as subduing armed and dangerous suspects.

Watchful and unassuming, with little appetite for the spotlight, Wagner has by all accounts been well accepted by her teammates, who do not hesitate to tout her superior marksmanship. Largely unnoticed outside the department, her ascension three months ago to the highly selective unit is nonetheless a milestone in a field dominated by men. Of the department's 2,174 sworn staff members, about 300, or just under 14 percent, are women. Nationwide, about 11 percent of all police officers are women, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

No statistics pinpoint how many women serve on Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, teams throughout the country, but specialists say they are few, for reasons that include the demanding, 24-hour on-call schedule as well as the masculine culture and physical rigor. Just 80 women are among the 30,000 members of the National Tactical Officers Association, which provides education and support for military, SWAT, and special operations personnel, said John Gnagey , the group's director. Only 21 are SWAT team members.

In the midst of crisis, in dark, cluttered alleys and abandoned buildings, "I do exactly what everybody else does," said Wagner, who works on the motorcycle unit between entry team assignments, and can lift her 900-pound cycle.

Officer Joe Collins , her motorcycle partner and a fellow rookie on the entry team, concurred.

"She does the job so well, everyone feels confident in her, and treats her like everyone else," he said. "She definitely holds her own."

But when the crisis is averted and she is back on the streets, there is no denying the double takes from onlookers.

"When the helmet comes off, all eyes are on me," Wagner said.

The entry team practiced its maneuvers one morning last month, charging into vacant apartments at the soon-to-be-demolished Franklin Hill housing complex in Dorchester. First, team members traded in their weapons for practice guns loaded with colored soap capsules. Wagner was assigned to the "light and cuff" position, behind the officer carrying the first ballistic shield, as the team moved through a series of exercises.

Each make-believe crisis unfolded in a rush of noise and action. In one drill, the team scrambled to reach an emotionally disturbed, possibly suicidal person -- an "EDP" in police lingo -- who refused to open the door. Next up was an especially risky scenario: an armed suspect cornered in an upstairs apartment.

"BOSTON POLICE -- OPEN THE DOOR!" one team member bellowed at the closed door. Then, with a bang, another teammate forced the door open.

"Shots fired!" someone else yelled. The team pushed through to the back bedroom, heads snapping back and forth, weapons in the air.

"Get your hands up! Get your hands up!" came Wagner's voice, loud and controlled. She cuffed the suspect, and the drill was over.

Team members gathered in the apartment's dingy, orange front room.

"You recovered his firearm?" asked Sergeant Scott Gillis , the supervisor running the drill.

"Yup," Wagner answered.

"Good deal," said Gillis. "Good communication in there."

Openings on the entry team are competitive, attracting as many as 30 or 40 applicants for one or two spots, unit leaders said. Wagner's selection reflects a fundamental change in team philosophy; not long ago, physical size was the primary requirement.

"Now we're looking more for teamwork and decision-making skills, for people who are steady under pressure," said Deputy Superintendent Thomas Lee , commanding officer of special operations.

Former police commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole , who became the first woman to lead the Boston department in 2004, helped pave the way for Wagner's selection, said Lee, by drawing attention to the lack of women in special operations.

Some older leaders in the department questioned the choice of Wagner, expressing doubt that a woman could measure up, but Lee said the critics work outside the unit and do not grasp how its mission has evolved. "They're thinking of the old days," the unit commander said.

Wagner is one of the team's best shots, he said, but just as valuable is her calm demeanor, well suited to resolving conflicts.

"The number one thing is not to lose your cool," he said.

Wagner -- who is not the smallest entry team member at 5 feet, 8 inches and 160 pounds -- is nothing if not cool. Asked about her role in the Oct. 16 capture of Michael Addison , the suspect in the killing of a police officer in Manchester, N.H., who was apprehended in an elderly housing complex in Dorchester, she described the incident, with characteristic understatement, as "somewhat nerve-wracking."

More recently, called in to help extract an armed robbery suspect from a Mattapan house, Wagner and her partner moved in to handcuff the man when he finally emerged.

A Minnesota native, Wagner moved to Boston to attend Northeastern University, where she captained the women's hockey team her senior year and led the Huskies to a conference championship. She majored in human services and worked with mentally ill people after graduation, but the job did not quite fit, she said. Intrigued by an opening for a campus police officer at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, she attended her first police academy in 1999 and was hooked.

"I liked the challenge, I liked that every day was different," she said.

After three years in Lowell, Wagner went to work for the Harvard University police force, where she became the first woman on the two-person motorcycle unit. Enrolled in MBTA motorcycle training, and aware that she would have to pick up a 900-pound cycle to qualify for the course, she spent a week mastering the trick before classes started.

"A lot of the guys had a hard time, but I did it on the first try," she said. "I may not have the same strength, but I focus on what I'm doing."

Wagner joined the Boston police force three years ago. She started on patrol in Roxbury and graduated to the motorcycle unit, in special operations, a year ago. Her supervisor recommended her for the entry team. Eager for the challenge, Wagner faced a battery of tests to win appointment.

Like other recruits, she held a 25-pound shield aloft for 45 minutes and broke down a door with a 35-pound battering ram. She ran for 20 minutes wearing 50 pounds of gear -- and then fired her rifle with flawless accuracy. She demonstrated proficiency on a range of weapons, including a 12-gauge semiautomatic rifle, a Remington beanbag shotgun, and a 9-millimeter submachine gun.

Happiest with her helmet on, merging into the well-oiled machinery of her team, Wagner has also come to appreciate her role when singled out on the street. Patrolling busy Hamilton Street one chilly morning last week, blocks from the scene of a fatal New Year's Day shooting, she stopped to talk with a group of girls waiting for a school bus.

One of the girls -- Debora Andrade , 11 -- told Wagner she wants to be a police officer when she grows up.

The officer looked pleased. "I want young girls to know they can do anything," she said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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