What is your name and department/agency?
Jo Ann Kocher – I am retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). In June 1972, I had the honor of being sworn in as ATF’s first woman special agent.
Please give us a little background about yourself, i.e., family, education, hobbies, etc.
I grew up in Queens, New York, the only child of a widowed mother. From my early years, I dreamed of being a teacher. During my last semester at St. John’s University, I had to complete student teaching. It was then that I discovered that a teaching career was not for me. I did get my Masters Degree in Speech Education, not sure exactly where it would lead me. In 1969, I began working for a supplemental airline as a customer service agent and later station manager at JFK Airport. The job was exciting with great travel benefits. It also exposed me to new situations, which were far removed from my relatively sheltered background. Little did I know that it was preparing me for the next phase of my life.
When and why did you decide to become involved in law enforcement?
I never really considered a career in law enforcement until a chance encounter with a high ranking official of the U.S. Treasury Department on a plane resulted in my recruitment to be the first woman ATF special agent. The law prohibiting women from carrying firearms in federal law enforcement positions changed in 1971 and most agencies were seeking qualified women to join their ranks. A series of interviews in Washington, DC and New York followed and I was hired. It would be two years before ATF hired the second woman agent and she was stationed in San Francisco. Two years after that, the third and fourth ATF women agents came on board.
What is your present assignment?
I am retired after a 26 ½ year career which spanned assignments in New York, ATF Headquarters, Honolulu and San Francisco. I was the first woman agent to become a supervisor when I was named the Resident Agent in Charge in Honolulu in 1982. Despite fears that a woman would not be accepted there by other law enforcement agencies, and strong opinions by a few ATF managers that women should not supervise male agents. I retired in 1999 after serving as Assistant Special Agent in Charge in San Francisco for three years. I returned to my beloved Hawaii and now do background investigations for ATF as a contractor.
What did you like most about your job?
I love retirement and look back at my career with many fond memories. I will always treasure the bonds I formed with my co-workers and still keep in touch with many of them. One of the unique advantages of law enforcement is the camaraderie that permeates throughout the agency, especially with those who have shared dangerous or otherwise memorable assignments.
What did you like least about your job?
I have always had a hard time dealing with the negative publicity ATF has received based on a few investigations or incidents. The hard working men and women are almost never recognized for their numerous accomplishments.
How did your family feel about you being in law enforcement?
They were very proud of me. I have cousins who are/were in law enforcement on the federal and local level so they understood the situation best. I do admit that I never told my mother much about what the job actually entailed to spare her concern about my safety.
Do you think the consensus is that law enforcement is a man’s job? If so, have you had difficulty being accepted as an equal?
When I started in 1972, it was definitely the consensus that law enforcement was a man’s job. That has changed for the better over the years as co-workers and the public have come to realize the valuable role women play. Years after I retired, a friend told me that, on the day I was sworn in, another agent in his office sneered when he declared, “She’ll never last.” I proved him wrong. At first, I sat at my desk because everyone was afraid to work with me for fear I would be injured and they would be blamed. The search warrant in the story I submitted to Women Warriors was the turning point for me. My colleagues realized I could do the job.
When I applied to be the Resident Agent in Charge in Honolulu in 1982, I had to overcome stereotypes of how a woman heading the local office of a federal agency would be accepted. I was very fortunate to have had the support of several top managers at ATF who were willing to take a chance on me.
What would you like the public to know about your job?
I don’t think the public realizes how closely some federal agencies work with state and local police entities. During my career with ATF, we enjoyed strong relationships with local officers who often provided valuable information, assisted on search and arrest warrants and worked together with us to keep the community safe.
If you had to do it over again, would you choose law enforcement as a career?
Definitely! It was rewarding, exciting at times, full of opportunities and left me with wonderful memories.
Anything additional you’d like to share?
I am writing a book about my experiences as ATF’s first woman agent so that young women will get a glimpse into the world of law enforcement when women entering the field were pioneers and set the course for future generations.