Each morning, Cpl. Iris Cortes arrives at the headquarters of the University Police where she checks in and loads her vehicle with a Taser, shotgun and other sanctioned materials.
She then begins the 20-mile commute to the Cal State Fullerton Irvine Campus to start her 10-hour shift at CSUF’s rapidly growing location in Southern Orange County.
Cortes has served in University Police for 15 years, and she has been the primary officer at the Irvine Campus for eight years.
Cortes majored in public relations at CSUF, but recalls her desire to become an officer beginning before her undergraduate years.
“It was something I wanted to do long before I wanted to do anything else,” Cortes said. “I’ve just always felt passionate about helping people; I know it sounds corny but it really is the truth.”
Cortes was drawn to the Irvine Campus largely for the same reason many students are drawn to it: the unique sense of community offered by the small campus. She can often be seen walking the halls of the two-story, office-building-like structure, taking time to say hello to students and to greet staff and faculty by name.
Unlike the main campus, where University Police headquarters is in a standalone building, Cortes’ office is located inside the Irvine Campus building and is adjacent to its main lobby. Her office door is usually open or displays a sign saying, “Will return shortly.”
Students know Cortes’ office to be a place they can go to get any type of help.
Many students enter Cortes’ office in hopes of retrieving an item that has been lost or misplaced. Found items like cell phones, sunglasses, laptops and textbooks are often placed under Cortes’ care.
“Our turn around for lost and found is very, very good,” Cortes said. “And I’m proud to say that.”
Cortes attributes this return rate and the fact that no major thefts have occurred at the Irvine Campus to the small, community feel that campus offers; something that is not entirely possible at the much larger main campus in Fullerton.
In addition to her work at the Irvine Campus, Cortes helps to serve Fullerton’s students and community through her work with the Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) program. The RAD program is a three-day course conducted on the main campus each semester that seeks to equip women, children, men and seniors to better protect themselves.
Cortes said she has been touched by many of the people who have attended the RAD classes. They have been conducted on the campus for almost a decade.
Typically, at least one of the participants in the class per semester has been the victim of an assault, Cortes said. Because of this, it is important that the class is conducted in a manner that is both informative and thorough as well as sensitive and compassionate.
“She has a knack of connecting with the public,” said Eva Mazzeo, community service specialist and former Irvine police officer who has worked with Cortes at varying capacities for over 10 years and has assisted in conducting the RAD program. “I think she has a real, natural gift for that.”
Cortes attributes her ability to connect with people in part to her role as a mother of two. She said being a mother has helped her to “deal with people on a more real basis,” recalling an incident where a student confided in her that he felt he could never please his father.
Cortes had been called to assist the student who was suffering from probable alcohol poisoning. She went beyond the call of duty by reaching out to the student’s father. She offered advice on how he could help his son and how he could improve their relationship.
She also said her approach to leadership and work differs from others in law enforcement, which remains a male-dominated field.
“We do law enforcement a little different than men do, because we are more detail-oriented and we are more verbal,” Cortes said.
Although these differences have proved to be beneficial in many respects, Cortes said she has faced some challenges as a woman in law enforcement. This is a sentiment which Mazzeo, a fellow female officer, echoes.
“They require you to prove yourself a little bit more,” Mazzeo said. “Just to make sure that you can handle the more assertive type of roles.”
Cortes responded to this pressure, which was created by those within law enforcement and in the general public, by doing her job with exceptional fervor.
“I didn’t want anybody thinking I was weak,” Cortes said. “So I did … a lot of work to prove myself. I felt I had to prove myself.”
Cortes recalled an incident where she felt she needed to prove herself more than a male officer might need to when she was greeted as a “cute little female officer” while responding to a call in Fullerton regarding domestic violence.
Still, Cortes is quick to note that the vast majority of her experiences with both her fellow officers and the public have been positive and that both welcome her in the field.
“We need women in law enforcement,” Cpl. Jose Rosales, 29, said.
Rosales said he feels the field is “changing for the better” in this respect. He also said he personally does not feel there is any difference between his relationship with female officers like Cortes and male officers.
“I always like to have women being my partners as well,” Rosales said. “If you’re a good person, then I like you. Not necessarily if you’re a man or a woman.”
Cortes plans to retire within the coming years, but hopes to continue pursuing her passion for serving the community through the RAD program.