Metropolitan Police Department
The first sworn policewoman to be killed
in the United States was shot
on September 20, 1974, in Washington.
A NATIVE OF NORTHEAST WASHINGTON, Gail Cobb was one of five children in a busy house where no one sat idle for long. There were rules to be followed and manners to be minded. Gail and her siblings attended Catholic grade schools, and each of the girls continued on to the now-defunct St. Cecilia's Academy.
Strong-willed, Gail struggled to conform to the discipline of Catholic school. Her teachers described her as a creative and energetic student who brought home only ordinary report cards. She was recognized for “Outstanding Performance as Class Conniver” among her high-school classmates. When Gail graduated in 1969, she wanted to be a world-famous fashion designer, but had no sense of how to pursue such a career. Instead, she became a long-distance operator at the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company.
A single mother, Gail’s son Damon was born on February 26, 1970. Her family recalled that she really loved life and didn’t let problems get her down for very long. If she was going to have to raise her son alone, then she would do so.
Necessity and opportunity intersected for Gail in the summer of 1973. City officials opened the door to more female police recruits by reducing the height requirement to five feet. Gail applied, much to the surprise of family and friends.
GAIL A. COBB WAS ONE OF 13 WOMEN to graduate from the police academy in 1974 in a class of 34 total members. Her training officers noted that she had a very good attitude. She was pleasant, even when pulling hard duty. She was determined to succeed. Her probation was supposed to involve a mix of foot- and car-patrol work. Gail spent most of her duty on foot, but didn’t complain. She signed up for training to get a scooter license and began taking a night class to learn sign language.
LATE ON THE MORNING OF FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20,1974, two men carrying two loaded sawed-off shotguns and two loaded handguns approached the Eastern Liberty Federal Savings & Loan at 21st and L Streets NW planning on robbing it. Two plainclothes officers saw them on the street and thought they looked suspicious. The officers stopped the men and asked for identification before they even walked into the bank. The two men ran in different directions.
Officer Cobb was still on probation and just six months out of the academy. She was assigned to a downtown foot patrol beat a block away from the bank. Bystanders told her they saw an armed man running into a garage. She followed and confronted the suspect inside the garage. Cobb drew her gun, instructed the perpetrator to put his hands against the wall, and was radioing for help when the suspect spun around and shot her. The bullet went through her wrist, shattering a wristwatch her mother had given her for her birthday, passed through her police radio, and penetrated her heart. She was 24 years old.
THE FUNERAL FOR OFFICER COBB was large and ornate, even by Washington standards. The streets leading to Holy Comforter Catholic Church in Southeast took on the colors of a military parade ground. Hundreds of officers, some from as far away as Hawaii, stood at attention in sharp formations of blue, of green, of gray, of brown. A police honor guard made several passes along East Capitol Street before entering the church. Delegations of uniformed officers filed past the open coffin. Cobb herself was not in uniform; she would be buried instead in a green suit. Her best friend had styled her hair, applied her favorite makeup, and finished with gold hoop earrings that would have been strictly forbidden for an officer on duty.
District Mayor Walter Washington and FBI Director Clarence Kelley were among the many government officials who attended the packed service on Tuesday, September 24, 1974. At the hour of the funeral, President Gerald Ford called for a moment of silence as he addressed an International Association of Police Chiefs conference across town.
Several weeks after her funeral, Gail’s parents purchased a glass curio cabinet in which to house memorabilia about their daughter. They displayed a picture of Gail in uniform, her badge, a 45 rpm copy of her favorite song — “Tell Her Love Has Felt the Need,” by Eddie Kendricks and the Young Senators, which had been sung at her funeral — and proclamations and letters from public officials. Given a section all its own was a letter from President Ford saying that Gail “has our lasting admiration for the cause of law enforcement and the well-being of our society, a cause for which she made the highest sacrifice.”