By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos courtesy Special Agent Karen Mory
For a quarter century, corrections veteran Karen Mory has worked to dismantle preconceptions and stereotypes in her own life as well as those of offenders.
Mory began her career working with youth offenders. She moved on to parole and eventually became a special agent for the Office of Correctional Safety’s (OCS) Special Service Unit (SSU). She’s done much in the department from helping youth offenders get on the right path to helping topple gang leaders. Special Agent Mory is one of only 32 SSU agents in the entire state.
As she put it, “SSU is CDCR’s 24-hour response team that ensures safety, decreases liabilities, restores justice and resolves emergency issues to preserve the reputation and sanctity of CDCR.”
Meet Special Agent Karen Mory
“I started my 25-year career at the California Youth Authority (now the Division of Juvenile Justice) at Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino in 1993 as a Youth Correctional Counselor,” she recalled.
The experience was life-changing on a professional as well as personal level.
“I met my husband there,” she laughed. “No, he was not an inmate, and we have two amazing children.”
For three years she was a field parole agent in San Diego and then served almost six as a Parole Agent II.
“Most of that time I was on the Gang Intelligence and Apprehension Unit covering all of San Diego County by myself,” she said. “I was cross-sworn as a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal during two years of that assignment. … In October of 2006 I got hired into my dream job as a special agent for OCS’s SSU,” she said. “I’m a Tactical Firearms Instructor, Master Taser Trainer, Entry Operations Instructor, and teach Confidential Informant Management, Report Writing, Gangs and more. In my spare time I enjoy hiking, fishing, traveling, and many sports with my family. I previously stayed in shape with Jiu Jitsu and kickboxing, but stay on the tamer side of exercise now that I am in my 50s.”
Special Agent Mory is competitive by nature.
“I was a competitive power lifter from 1994 to 2011, accruing 20-plus medals in the Police Summer Games for powerlifting, bench press, arm wrestling and tug-of-war. My last and most memorable competition culminated in world records for bench press and powerlifting in the 148-pound weight class in the World Police Games held in New York City in 2011,” she said.
With the weights, exercise and training, one might expect an imposing figure but Mory said she’s just the opposite.
“If you are picturing me based on my work skills and hobbies, you likely are not envisioning a 5-foot 2-inch female with a big sense of humor, who believes that a law enforcement officer’s greatest weapons and skills are verbal judo, ethics and the ability to understand human nature,” she said.
An average day isn’t average
“Every day is different. Some days are long and endless, some are filled with excitement, and others can change from one moment to the next. Patience, flexibility, and a strong work ethic are required to take on tasks assigned by headquarters, at a moment’s notice. This is what makes this job special and challenging at the same time. To understand the effectiveness of a female special agent on SSU, you first need to know what all the agents actually do,” Mory said.
SSU agents take on many roles.
“The job duties of an SSU agent require us to wear many hats. You must be a good investigator, interviewer, interrogator, report writer, tactical operator, undercover operator, good with various firearms, case developer, informant manager, communicator, crisis/hostage negotiator, networker, trainer/teacher, presenter, teammate and leader, time manager, testifier, gang expert, and willing to work at a moment’s notice, day or night. A simple day could include working on a self-developed case targeting drug, firearm, or violent crimes committed by parolees, inmates, prison and street gang members as well as Mexican cartels. We conduct database searches to find leads, develop connections and evidence between suspects and crime, then follow up with field investigations and liaison with task force officers or other law enforcement to develop larger joint investigation cases,” she said. “Many SSU agents are task force officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigations; Drug Enforcement Agency; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); Department of Justice and other agencies. These could lead to endless hours of wire taps, surveillance, interviews, developing informants and managing them in the field for buy/walk operations or introduction of undercover agents to potential suspects. Sometimes this can lead to testimony in state and federal courts.”
Flexibility is key.
“The prison investigators have cases they develop in which narcotics cases or violent crimes necessitate warrant service in the community or investigations and evidence collection outside the prison walls. We are available to assist the prison investigations units with these cases and serve the search and arrest warrants. We are called to serve our own high risk warrants as well as those of other agencies, the prisons, and in large scale operations where multiple targets are taken down simultaneously,” she said. “We could have a day of copious paperwork, writing detailed reports, reviewing gang validations, writing warrants, documenting data base search information, memos, etc. Although each SSU office has a particular set of counties and prisons to service, there are only about 32 SSU agents in the state so we frequently work together across county lines, up and down the state.
“SSU agents do not just wear many hats, we wear many clothes. On any given day an SSU agent could start out in a suit testifying in court on a case or as a gang expert, change into jeans, tennis shoes and a t-shirt for undercover work, throw on a BDU uniform, boots and tactical gear to serve a planned warrant or firearms range training, and just as we are headed home for the day we get an emergency call out, utilizing the emergency overnight bag we all carry. As much as we plan for each potential situation, we can never plan exactly when we can go home for the day and frequently eat fast food on the fly, drink our share of coffee and energy drinks, and struggle to fit personal fitness into our schedules.”
She said one of the more important tasks of SSU agents is the apprehension of escapees.
“Emergency response can be any number of tasks mandated by top brass at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento. The most important and unexpected are prison escapes and inmates that walk away from camps and correctional residential placements,” she said.
Underestimating the female agent
What special qualities does a female OCS (SSU) agent bring to the team and the agency?
“Having a female agent on the team makes transporting and searching female suspects/inmates more comfortable in a public setting for both the agents and the female being searched or transported. The likelihood of false accusations of inappropriate actions by male agents diminishes significantly. Dignitary protection of a female VIP, when they need to access gender specific facilities, is easily facilitated. Getting the door opened for a ‘knock and talk’ is successful more frequently when a female agent is sent in undercover clothing to do the knock. Again, people on the wrong side of the law usually do not see a female as a cop or as a threat, so they open the door,” she said.
“When handling female confidential informants, it is preferable to have a female handler at least co-managing the female informant for the same reasons just stated. Also, having a woman’s perspective and communication style seems to elicit more information from the female informants and the informant trusts that the agent can see her perspective as a woman. Even when a female confidential informant tries to manipulate through flirtation or looks to garner sympathy from a male agent, a female agent can identify those tactics readily and address them immediately. When SSU develops female citizen informants during escape or fugitive cases that are willing to point out locations for our suspect, having a female agent to accompany them and continue to talk them into assisting is helpful. The female informant will perceive that a woman understands their love and devotion to their family member or significant other and do not see us as a threat to their loved one, but someone who wants to help and bring their loved one in safely.”
Children and family members of offenders tend to look to the female agents when serving warrants.
“During warrant service we often find multiple generations in the home. They are shocked to find themselves out on their front lawn in pajamas and blankets in the early morning hours. The kids are scared, grandparents in disbelief, and frequently there are angry parents or siblings of the suspect. Once we are Code 4 at a location, SSU agents immediately tend to the physical needs of the family, warm clothes and shoes, morning medications, etc. I find that in those moments the family will turn to me, as a female, and look for help with their emotional needs,” she said. “I am able to calm them down, treat the elderly with care and compassion, and kids warm up to a female in BDUs a lot quicker because we do not resemble the movie character cops they see on TV manhandling suspects in a movie. This helps them understand we are there just doing our job but that we see them as people too.”
Agent Mory said young girls tend to be curious about her job.
“I have also seen how having a female agent in warrant service can have a positive effect on young girls in the home or in the community. They ask me a lot of questions about being a ‘girl cop’ and see that girls can do the job well without having to be 6-feet tall and built like a Mack truck. Comments like, ‘You aren’t as scary as the cops in the movies,’ is a compliment. We do not always have to be scary and overpowering to do our job effectively,” she said.
Male and female undercover agents are able to blend in easier and female agents also tend not to arouse suspicion.
Communication is key
“Communication skills and the ability to read other people’s emotions are female agents’ best assets. Giving insight on a case from a mother’s, sister’s or girlfriend’s perspective to SSU teammates can be beneficial when assessing motivations and courses of action when the suspect’s drive or weaknesses are linked to their relationship with a woman in their life,” said. “Going through Crisis Negotiation certification with CDCR Crisis Response Team showed me how incredibly important verbal skills can be. Choosing the right words in critical situations, understanding the psychological state of the suspects and hostages, and communicating with understanding and authority brings success in negotiations. Women generally possess an ability to communicate effectively.”
Outside agencies also see the benefits of female agents.
“In working with outside law enforcement special teams that do not have a female agent assigned to the unit, I find that they quickly see the advantages of having a qualified female team member. There have been a few teams that hired a female investigator to their unit after working with me for a period of time,” she said. “They really grasped all the subtle differences and unique skill sets that a female agent can provide to the team dynamic.”
She said it’s all about living up to the values of the department.
“Ultimately I believe the SSU goal is to support the mission of the department with honor, uphold the law with integrity, and serve and protect society with humility,” she said. “Ideally and gratefully we come home to our families at the end of the day.”