Strong arms of the law

What enables 5'4", 115-pound Julie Darby to be a crime-fighting hero? Guts, passion and a hard-earned, superfit physique

October 1, 2008
Strong arms of the law
When Julie Darby was 13, her favorite TV duo wasn't Laverne and Shirley. Nope, it was Ponch and Jon. And when CHiPs wasn't on, she'd flip to Charlie's Angels, TJ Hooker or Adam 12. In other words, if people were fighting crime, she was watching. "I had a lot of respect for them," she says. "They were good guys taking bad guys to jail. I always wanted to do what's right and be a hero."

Twenty-five years later, this Southern California deputy sheriff is living that dream. After six years working custody at an all-male jail and five years securing the streets on patrol, Julie has become such a law-enforcement star that her superiors made her a staff instructor at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Academy early last year. She spends her days whipping recruits into shape and her free time in a patrol car. "I still work overtime in the field so I can stay up on everything," she explains. "I love patrol so much."

But her success hasn't come easily - it's the product of a true passion for the job, as well as for fitness. She developed both while preparing to go to the academy in the late '80s. "I wanted to be as in shape as I could possibly be," says Julie, a wife and mother of two who also credits her family and her Christian faith for her achievements.

"[The sheriff's department] is a man's world, and I knew I'd have to be able to pull my own weight. I couldn't imagine my partner going over a wall and me not being able to get over it and help him in a fight. I wanted to build the confidence to go out there on a daily basis and confront people. I might have to put my hands on somebody. So I had to ask myself: Do I have the confidence to get through something like that?"

To answer that question, Julie put herself through a punishing regimen of weightlifting, running, circuit training and mountain biking. She also upped her intake of chicken, fish, vegetables and whole grains and began studying criminal law at a nearby college. After a "very frustrating" three-year hiring freeze, she entered the academy at age 25 in 1993. The grueling 21-week program was her first chance to demonstrate her toughness - and her integrity.

"There was a physical agility test, and if you scored a 500 (the highest score), you got to be a road guard, wear an orange vest and lead the group in a run," she recalls. "I scored in the high 400s, and they wanted to make me a road guard, but I declined. I didn't want to ever get any special treatment because I'm a female."

She took that attitude to her first assignment, a correctional facility where she monitored 400-500 male inmates every day. Soon she was working supermaximum security, where grizzled cons occupy individual cells. "There were some hardcore guys in there," she observes. "It was an incredible experience, seeing the way they think. It gave me insight into the type of people I'd be dealing with on the street."

And it did. On patrol, Julie encountered shootings, stabbings, drugs and, well, really bad drivers. Once, while pulling into a gas station for a bathroom break, she ran the plates on a shady-looking car and it came up stolen. "I had my gun drawn and told the driver to get her hands in the air," Julie recalls. "She jumped in her car and tried to hit me!" Julie dove clear and a highway chase was on. Thirty-five minutes later, the woman - who was wanted for several felonies - smacked into a house and Julie took her to the hospital in handcuffs. "I really had to go after that," she laughs.

Fittingly, the same physical assuredness that enabled her to handle rowdy inmates and apprehend criminals serves Julie well as an instructor. "When I walk into a room for the first time, the recruits think, 'She's a tiny female, what does she have to offer?' " she says. "When they actually see me in action, they respect me. We run with them. We do circuit training. I want them to know that I won't ever expect anything out of them that I can't do myself." And she doesn't stop when they're done. "It's a nice warm-up," she says matter-of-factly. "Then I do my own workout."

In addition to fitness training, Julie and five other instructors educate classes of more than 100 recruits on defensive tactics, fighting, handcuffing, firearms and driving skills, as well as the particulars of the law itself. With so much to learn, things get pretty intense. "There's a lot of yelling the first couple of weeks," she says. "Any mistake they make, we're on them. We'll get so close that the brims of our hats are touching them. I've actually made a couple of guys cry."

That's just part of the process of molding tough, smart officers who can handle any situation, regardless of their gender. "We have so many women who come in and think they're gonna get by because they're female," says Julie, who would like to become a child-abuse or homicide detective when her academy stint is done. "I want to be a role model for them. I can perform all the same physical tasks as the guys because of my lifestyle and how I've prepared for it. I want other officers to think, 'I can count on her. She's gonna be there for me.' I want that for all women."

At the end of every day, Julie asks herself three questions: Did I do what was right? Did I do my best? Did I treat people how I'd want to be treated? "If I can answer those three questions with a yes, it has been a good day," she says. Somewhere, Ponch and Jon must be smiling.

>> For Julie's workout secrets, click here.