Retired SWAT Officer Patricia Knudson Talks About Turning Pain into Purpose
Patricia Knudson faced adversity from a young age when her 4-year-old brother died from meningitis and then cancer claimed her father. Trish and her other two siblings were raised by their widowed mother who became a role model for accepting and overcoming life’s challenges.
Trish’s mom lost a son and her husband. She was the caregiver for her disabled mother and had to suddenly provide for her family and care for them all by herself. She couldn’t afford to give up so she got up instead.
What felt like enormous unfairness was flipped into opportunities to grow. It’s this early life lesson that stuck with Trish and upon which she built her own foundation of grit and tenacity.
That foundation serves her well in life, for like most people, her life is packed with challenges. Some of them are everyday challenges. Some are bigger, and some would cripple a weaker person.
When Trish was 30 years old, her well-crafted life took an unanticipated turn and she was faced with starting over. “It wasn’t even a slight angle,” says Trish. “It was more like a right turn,” she laughs as she goes on to say that’s what makes life fun and interesting.
The area they lived in was declining. The sight of police officers responding to calls became common, and Trish was fascinated by these men and women – some of whom seemed to be very young- showing up the way they did and placing themselves in harm’s way.
She thought they were amazing. She also thought they were crazy to do what they did and swore she would never do that herself.
Never say never, would be that life lesson, because when she reached a turning point in her own life, law enforcement is precisely what she pursued.
It happened by accident. She set out to become a firefighter in Phoenix. But by the time she moved and sought out the application she’d just missed the window to apply. Now unemployed and new in town, Trish realized she’d never created a Plan B and would have to figure one out fast.
Her Plan B lead her to part time jobs where she met Phoenix police officers. Hew new friends spoke so highly of their jobs that she couldn’t help but feel their passion. She decided to put in her application and from there, things happened quickly.
Trish was 32 years old the day she started at the Phoenix Police Academy.
She was surrounded by men who were younger than her. But instead of feeling intimidated, Trish dug in with confidence. She knew she was physically fit enough to hold her own and never backed down in the field of competition.
Trish loved being a police officer. She never felt uncomfortable in the male-dominated field as a female rookie. Instead, she slipped right in to the camaraderie of the police force.
It was everything she could have hoped for and more – until tragedy struck.
Twenty-eight-year-old Marc Atkinson was a Marine Corps veteran, a husband, and new father. He was also one of Trish’s close friends. One March night in 1999, she chatted and joked with Marc as usual before they went their separate ways. Less than an hour later, Trish responded to the call for an officer down and found herself desperately trying to revive life into her lifeless friend.
Marc had been ambushed and shot by drug dealers.
Trish and the rest of her brothers and sisters in blue were devastated. “It destroyed me,” she remembers. It also redefined her as a police officer. Suddenly she was not so invincible. Suddenly she even felt vulnerable. She even felt resentful.
“I’m thinking, we give our community everything we have every day and this is what we get in return.”
But just as quickly as that resentment began to take a grip on her, an outpouring of support from the community ripped that resentment right off.
Trish grappled with the weight of the trauma from that night and the loss of her dear friend. But with the enormous support from the community and a police department that went to extraordinary measures to step in and guide its officers through their pain, Trish found a new purpose in her job.
“It wasn’t just a job anymore after his death. It was about Marc and not letting his death be in vain. It was about not ever having anyone in the community experience the hurt I felt when we lost Mark.”
What helped Trish most through those dark times was identifying that her pain was bigger than anything she’d ever dealt with, and she needed help.
Asking for or accepting help was not a natural instinct for her. She’d been raised to manage her own emotions and accept the burden of grief without complaint. She’d been a small child then and hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of her loss. Now, though, the weight was too much for her to bear.
That’s when the police department sent experienced SWAT officers to partner up with the police officers. Having a seasoned SWAT officer ride alongside her not only relieved the sense of vulnerability she’d been experiencing, but it also offered her a mentor in her grief.
‘We had a badass sitting next to us,” she says, who reassured her that he’d been through what she was going through and come out stronger and that she could too.
“We get it,” the SWAT officers reassured them all. “We will help you along on this ride. You are not going to walk this alone.”
One of those SWAT officers especially connected with her. Today they are married. She smiles as she notes every situation can indeed have a silver lining.
It also opened her up to the drive to do even more with her life.
Dinner conversations with her husband quickly revealed that the job she’d once felt was as cool as could be was not winning the Cool Contest with her husband.
Patricia Knudson wanted to step up her game. “If you’re going to do something, go all in,” she says.
Six months after she tested for SWAT she was placed on a team. Soon she was in the point cover position, which meant she was the second one to go through the door in dangerous situations. When the point position became open, Trish stepped into that role and was the first Phoenix SWAT female officer to lead the way through the door.
This was it. She was happily married and had the best job on earth, as far as she was concerned. She was an expert in her field, and she’d given her grief a purpose.
Life could not have been better until it got worse.
Tragedy reared back up in Trish’s life. This time it aimed directly at her via the weapon in the hand of an armed suspect. It was a bad situation that had her 20 feet from the man. After hours of negotiation, the suspect fired.
Trish was struck in both legs. She fell to the ground amidst the chaos of the moment.
Although she recovered from her injuries she was not able to recover enough to return to the career she loved.
Once again Trish’s life was upended by tragedy. And once again Trish was ready to determine for herself what the purpose of her pain would be.
Today Trish not only shares her story with audiences, she teaches, trains, and consults on a variety of issues related to Public Safety. She instructs statewide (AZ) for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office on the topics of Street Medicine (Downed Officer) and Tactical Field Care. She’s a certified (AZPOST) Firearms Instructor and General Instructor.
She’s presented multiple times on the Lessons Learned in Hostage Rescue for both the National Tactical Officers Association and the Arizona Tactical Officers Association, as well as spoke on additional police-related topics to various police departments and associations around the state and nation.
In her “spare time” she volunteers in numerous capacities.
The message Trish imparts to her audiences when she speaks is that help is out there and no one has to walk their path alone. It’s a lesson she resisted, but that changed everything for her.