Former beat cop Nancy Hightshoe teaches people how to be safe even in unsafe circumstances.
Hightshoe remembers the moment her life changed. It was in January 1981. As a detective with the St. Louis rape squad, she was arguing another felony sex crime before a grand jury. Her record was impressive: During her three years with the squad, she had investigated 150 sex crimes and made 125 felony arrests, resulting in more than 1,000 years of penitentiary sentences.
“I was testifying almost every week before the grand jury,” says Hightshoe, 48. “No one wanted to seriously investigate rape back then because no one was winning. The attitude wasn’t ‘Let’s get ‘em.’ Mine was. Some of my reports were 80 pages. I was really passionate about it, the most passionate of all the cops doing it then in St. Louis.
“At the end of my presentation that day, one of the members of the jury, an older woman, said to me: ‘You’re very good at sending criminals to prison, but you have the ability to speak and could make people a lot safer if you taught women how not to be victims, rather than deal with the aftermath.’
“I heard what she was saying,” says Hightshoe, “and everything fell into place. I had been soul-searching. I loved being an investigator. I loved being a cop. I was one of the first female beat cops in the country. But I wanted to do more. I do believe I have the answer, that I can help women be safer. I am not saying that rape is the victim’s fault, but a tremendous amount of it, the overwhelming majority of the cases, could be avoided.”
Four months after the juror’s words, Hightshoe resigned from the police force and started her own business: seminars on safety.
“I teach people how to think like a cop,” she says.
At 5 feet 5 and 130 pounds, “the same size as anyone’s wife, daughter or co-worker,” Hightshoe doesn’t look like a cop, which may be the key to her presentations. Audiences can identify with her. Through Nancy Hightshoe Seminars, she has taught her self-protection techniques in 17 countries on six continents. Her audiences have included executives at Fortune 500 companies, secretaries in South Africa, high school students in Canada, travel agents in Tokyo and members of the FBI Academy.
“So much of keeping safe is paying attention, taking in the situation - when it doesn’t feel right, trusting your uh-oh feeling,” says Hightshoe. “Our instincts tell us the truth, but sometimes when we get beaten up by life we don’t listen to our instincts anymore.
“I handled 150 sex crimes, and almost every single victim said to me that before the assault, she had that uh-oh feeling. She felt uncomfortable, but she didn’t want to appear paranoid, she didn’t want to seem foolish or rude. So often it was something subtle that made her afraid. …
“We especially need to be aware of when we’re under a lot of stress because at those times we are less likely to pay attention to what’s going on around us. Right now I’m overextended, and I’m not getting enough sleep. So I am careful where I allow myself to be. A high number of rape victims I interviewed had severe stress in their lives. They weren’t paying attention and took risks they normally wouldn’t take.
“I worry about my own safety more now than I did on the force because I don’t carry a gun anymore. Also, as a police officer, I had a radio. I knew no matter how bad the situation was that I’d have backup. As an individual, I don’t have a backup.
“As an individual, I don’t have a backup. That’s why the buddy system is so important. If you’re married, you have a built-in buddy system. I never go out with girlfriends without having them call to make sure I got home safely.”
Hightshoe, who has master’s degrees in human relations and administration of justice, wrote the grant proposal for St. Louis’ first rape squad.
“Rape is a horrible crime, but when you see something work it’s exciting,” she says. “That’s why I wrote the proposal. The rape investigations were not fun, but they were fulfilling, challenging and used every morsel of who I am. I’d rather crash and burn than rust out. Most people just rust out. As a cop, I learned how precious life is. I’m not going to waste mine.
“I honestly thought I’d save the world in just a couple of years. I thought we’d have rape all squared away. But our society is so incredibly violent. A violent assault occurs every 17 seconds. Even in the suburbs, we now have a one-in-four chance of being a victim of a violent crime or theft. It is harder to avoid being a victim today than it was 10 years ago because of the incredible number of guns on the street and because people don’t hesitate to use them.
“This is what frightens me the most. Fifteen years ago, my goal was to keep people safe. Today, it’s to keep people alive.
“We need to get smart about unwanted children because this is where criminals come from. I went to a private, convent school, but if we don’t stop unwanted pregnancies, good people will continue to get senselessly murdered.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SAFETY ON THE ROAD Nancy Hightshoe takes a lot of precautions when she travels. “Each morning, I leave a note for housekeeping with a $2 tip, in part because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a safety thing. A common break-in is by a man in jogging clothes who tells the housekeeper he forgot his key. But the housekeeper will know me. She’ll know there are no men’s clothes in my room. I also leave the TV and lights on when I leave the room, plus a ‘Do not disturb’ sign. When I come back to my room, I’m the only one there.”