Profile: Diane Urban, San Jose Police Department's highest ranking woman

  • November 15, 2010

When she was a child, Diane Urban did not play cops and robbers.

She reveled in imaginary skirmishes between cowboys and Indians, galloping her horse, Dandy, through the raspberry fields of Oregon's lush Willamette Valley, where her father had brought his family to escape the gritty life of a street cop in Los Angeles.

Despite that, on Nov. 1, the countrified tomboy became acting assistant chief, the highest-ranking female police officer in San Jose history.

After the announcement, one of Urban's first phone calls was to her 85-year-old father, who was stone-cold silent when his daughter announced back when she was a student at Cal State Hayward (East Bay) that she was determined to be a street cop like her dad.

"I was going to put bad people in jail and make a difference in the community," Urban said. "It never crossed my mind that there weren't so many women in the department. My dad never told me that there were going to be men who weren't for me."

No longer surprised by his daughter's independence, ambition and competitiveness, the old cop was button-popping proud. She had inherited his blue-blooded fierce work ethic, braved sapping disapproval by fellow officers when she became the first female member of the department's elite SWAT team and led the department's special operations team. Today, she is a potential candidate for the chief's job.

When times are tough, her father's powerful words swirl in her head from back when she lugged five-gallon buckets of water to their cows and horses from their house in Oregon to their barn: "If it was easy," her dad reminded, "anybody could do it."

"I never thought she would be a police officer like me, but I always told her to do what excites her," said Dave Oswalt, the retired "new centurion" who figured his daughter would take over his home-alarm businesses when she graduated. "Well, in my job, there were times that I was picking up bodies and other times I was saving lives; I'm an excitement junkie. So, to be honest, I couldn't really squawk."

Championship level

Urban, 47, still rides these days, contentedly cantering her horses with her daughters Christine, 22, and Alexandra, 15, through the trails at Wicked Wind Ranch in San Martin. She loves riding because when she's doing it, her job and responsibilities are far from her mind unless the cell phone on her hip tolls to remind her.

Then, the adrenaline kicks in, like it always does, just as it has when she was standing like a circus-rider on the broad back of Dandy at a full gallop. Or when she was competing in the Olympic trials as a discus thrower, or even when she was brawling on the streets with a drug dealer.

The family moved to the South Bay when she was in high school, so her father could start a home-alarm business.

She was the Monte Sereno kid without designer clothes or a new Volvo. But perhaps due to all the chicken coop cleaning, she easily won a softball throwing contest and soon showed track coaches she could hurl a discus record-breaking distances.

By college, she was throwing at a championship level, breaking records and winning NCAA championships. She went to the Olympic trials in 1984 and just missed making the team.

At Cal State Hayward, she majored in business. But two weeks of a statistics class bucked her completely off that notion. For the fun of it, she took a criminal justice class, and suddenly, on that first day, all her dad's war stories erupted to life inside her head and heart.

"I fell in love," she said. "I went home, and I was rubbing my dad's feet as he sat in a reclining chair, and I said, 'Do you want the bad news or the bad news?'"

She persevered

In 1986, she became a San Jose Police Department patrol officer. A supervisor warned her about the psychological importance of surviving her first fight as an officer: "You are a Los Gatos country girl. But people are gonna see that blue uniform, and they are not gonna like you. When you get punched in the face for the first time, I need you to get back up."

She did.

Three years in, she decided to join the department's specialized unit, MERGE -- San Jose's version of SWAT. Women did not join MERGE. It was hard-core, and she endured hazing.

"Nobody wanted to work with me because I was the girl," she said. "They made it abundantly clear that they didn't want me there, that they would make my life miserable."

But with support from a few fellow officers and her superior, she persevered. Later, when she was the only San Jose cop to pass an FBI physical fitness test, she took over as the unit's chief sharpshooting sniper.

She was passed over numerous times for a chance to become a deputy chief, something her best friend, Menlo Park Police Commander Lacey Burt, said showed her amazing tenacity and inner strength. She got through the pain of two divorces. To make herself better, she earned a master's degree in criminal science at night from Boston University and was finally promoted.

Now she says her adrenaline comes from the great responsibility of being second in command to Acting Chief Chris Moore, who promoted her this month.

Twenty-four years after that first punch in the face, she gets inspiration from the job and the command staff ethics classes she teaches at the Los Angeles Police Department.

She asks the veteran cops why they do what they all acknowledge is a difficult job.

They rattle off: the pay, the pension, the benefits.

Urban still gets shocked by that unsatisfactory answer. She shows the movie about the Badge. She talks to them with such conviction about her father, some of them get tears in their eyes and remember why they love being police officers.

"I remind the men and women that we all wanted to make a difference," she said. "We do in fact serve the public, and we are accountable to them. Look at horses. They depend on me to care for them, to water them and feed them. The community depends on me, and I will not let them down.''

Diane Elyse Urban

Hometown: Born in Los Angeles; raised in Eugene, Ore.

Birthdate: Oct. 14, 1963

Family: Two daughters, Christine, 22, and Alexandra, 15

Education: B.S., Cal State Hayward (East Bay); master's, Boston University

Experience: Acting assistant police chief, started with SJPD in 1986. Worked patrol, selected to work in Special Operations, MERGE (SWAT) as a sniper. Promoted to Sergeant, 1993; Lieutenant, 2000; Captain, February 2004; Deputy chief, June 2010.

Hobbies: 4H leader, Santa Clara County, 10 years. Board member, California State Horseman's Association since 2003. Shows horses in both English and Western disciplines. Also: enjoys hiking, biking and reading. Last read: "The Alchemist," by Paulo Coelho, and "Blink," by Malcolm Gladwell

Few people know: She was a three-time NCAA National Champion in the discus and was a discus competitor in the 1984 Olympic Trials.

Read article: http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_16607517

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