There was a time in law enforcement history when size mattered.
According to an employment opportunities flier from 1974, one of the minimum requirements for a job as a police officer at the City of Anaheim was that the applicant stand between 5 feet 7 inches to 6 feet 6 inches.
A flier from 1960 had a height requirement of 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet 4 inches.
“With some of the height restrictions, I would have never been hired,” says 5-foot-7 Joe Vargas, a retired Anaheim Police Department captain and a columnist for Behind the Badge OC.
But times have changed, and while being very tall or very short might have its advantages and disadvantages, there’s a lot more than size that goes into being a good cop.
Take Officer Angelica Mejia, who has served with the Anaheim Police Department for 16 years, and Sgt. Garet Bonham, who has been with the department for 26 years. They are literally at opposite ends of the size spectrum. Bonham stands at 6 feet 5 inches and Mejia is 5 feet tall.
But despite their height difference, they seem to agree on how to handle themselves in the field: mainly, to not immediately jump into the offensive.
“[It’s] how you come across and how you talk to people that makes the difference,” says Mejia, adding that since she’s not as tall or strong as say, Bonham, she has to find other ways to get people to do what she asks of them without resorting to use of force.
“[It’s using] communication skills, being patient, understanding and basically verbal.”
Bonham has a similar approach.
“I prefer, though not always possible, to talk with people in a relaxed manner and position myself in a non-threatening posture,” he says. “Non-aggressive, non-verbal communication is very important during contacts that seem like they can escalate physically. I just don’t want people to look at me and think the only option they have is physical violence. This is not to say I let my guard down. I’m always alert and ready to defend myself. In all the people who have taken a swing at me, only one has connected.”
There are many different law enforcement styles out there, Bonham says. There are both shorter cops and taller cops who get into more physical altercations than he does (he’s only been in around 10 serious altercations that lasted more than a few seconds during his 26 years).
“I’ve had officers actually question me for not getting physical with somebody,” he says.
At the same time, Bonham has experienced benefits to being large.
“Being my size, I have heard lots of times, ‘Man, I don’t want to mess with you,’” Bonham says.
He’s had shorter officers tell him they were glad he was there to assist. And he even recalls a suspect he was after who didn’t run from him because he didn’t want Bonham chasing after him.
“My personal opinion is it helps, but it’s not the most important (thing),” he says of his stature.
While Mejia has had to physically work harder at some things – in the academy, for example, when she really had to work her upper-body strength to get over obstacles like “the wall” (taller cadets were able to scale it a lot easier) – there have been times her height has worked to her advantage.
“Sometimes I can talk to kids easily, or the female victims,” Mejia says, explaining that she’s more on their level – literally. Also, she has an easier time getting into a house than Bonham does if police need to enter through a window.
Mejia says for her, police work is really about learning how to talk to people.
“I think it’s how you carry yourself,” she says. “Your wisdom, your experience with dealing with people. It has to do with your command presence and how you carry yourself.”