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Not surprisingly, her brashness elicited special attention. The other half-dozen women in her class of 82 cadets were allowed to spar with each other when they practiced fighting techniques, but Lawrence's instructors insisted she square off with male partners. A slim woman, about five feet, nine inches tall and not particularly athletic, she wasn't much of a match for her brawnier peers. "I was continually getting thrown because I was so slow," she remembers. "I was continually getting beaten up."
Despite such obstacles, she graduated from the academy, and joined Metro-Dade. Her first assignment placed her at Station Five, now known as the Kendall station, one of the five substations then operated by the department. (Metro-Dade has since grown to include nine such stations.) It was a time when female officers were considered to be interlopers. "I went through this whole period in which I wouldn't get any backups," Lawrence recalls. "I would make a traffic stop on the midnight shift, and people would announce on the radio that they would be there, and then they wouldn't show up." Inside the station she was treated as a novelty. "I was continually manhandled," she says. "I would walk down the hall and someone would snap my bra or hit me in the ass."
Today such actions would be fodder for a federal lawsuit, but back then Lawrence believed them to be tests of her mettle, and she reacted by concentrating her energy on affecting change. She protested the uniform -- an A-line skirt, pumps, and dainty white hat -- by explaining to anyone who'd listen that it not only restricted physical movement, it also turned female officers into targets after dark. She agitated for new gun belts better suited to the female anatomy. She argued for the right of women to patrol by themselves.
"Whatever women may have on the department -- three-quarters of it came from Niki, and women don't realize that," says Donna Munro, a Metro-Dade sergeant who retired two years ago after spending twenty years on the force. "She was extremely competent, a very good police officer. Niki fought to get us a lot of things, and at the time people said, 'Oh, this is stupid.' But it was true: Niki made a lot of changes that people don't know about and don't appreciate. Niki's a rabble-rouser. That's been the gist of her career. But you can't take on [the department] over everything; you have to let some issues go. Sometimes I think she should have walked away."
In fact, there were incidents -- sordid, unpleasant, and unremarkable -- that Lawrence did let pass unchallenged. She tells of a patrol partner who attempted to sexually assault her while she sat on the hood of their car during a break. Luckily she had the keys. She drove back to the station, requested another partner, and let the incident slide. About a year later, she says, a supervisor shoved his hand down her blouse: "I said, 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! What's going on?'" She slugged the supervisor and almost immediately found herself booted from her post under his command, a coveted position in a specialized unit.
After that experience in the late Seventies, Lawrence finally understood. "They sincerely believed that it went with the territory," she recalls bitterly. "You just weren't supposed to complain about it." So in 1980, when a high-ranking officer proposed that they go together to a motel in Broward County, she didn't refuse. "He didn't demand it," she says, "but it was very clear what would happen if I didn't go." As one of the top scorers on the sergeant's exam, Lawrence was scheduled for a promotion, and most likely a transfer to another district, which would disrupt the complicated baby-sitting arrangements she had made for her children. "So I slept with him one time," she says, "and I got to stay in the district." In light of her promotion, this was a minor victory. "Normally, any time you got promoted you got transferred," Lawrence explains. "They seemed to have this belief that you couldn't supervise people you had been working on an equal level with, and my attitude was that if you can supervise, you can supervise. I was one of the first people [to receive a promotion] who didn't get transferred." For the next four years her annual performance evaluations alternated between above satisfactory and excellent, and her personnel file brimmed with commendations.
It was during this period Lawrence crossed paths with Becky Card. Also a single mother, Card had the well-scrubbed mien and wholesome friendliness of a Girl Scout troop leader. Recruited by Metro-Dade in 1982, Card, like all rookies, spent her first year on probation under the close supervision of various field-training officers. She says she had been working for several months when one of her training officers made an unusual proposition. "He said, 'Let's go out in the country and see what kind of police officer you are,'" she recalls. "Stupid me, I thought we were going to do some kind of surveillance. It turns out he wanted sex.'"