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Samantha Sonnett ’04 Works for the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Division

By Koren Wetmore

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Samantha Sonnett ’04 rides a radiation detection boat in New York harbor – one of the tools she uses in work detecting chemical hazards. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson

Samantha Sonnett ’04 recalls the moment that changed the course of her education and career: It was Sept. 11, 2001, during a public speaking class at Wilkes. Her instructor switched on a television and Sonnett watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell.

“It angered me so much,” she says. “Right after 9/11, I decided to focus my career on ensuring that something like that doesn’t happen again.”

It was too late for the psychology major and U.S. Air Force Reserve member to change her degree path. So Sonnett augmented her coursework with self-study, devouring books on terrorism and the Middle East.

She later studied master’s degree courses in international criminal justice and counter-terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Sonnett had hoped to apply her education to a military career, but the Air Force unexpectedly discharged her because of her sexual orientation. Before the 2011 repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, openly gay Americans could not serve in the military. Instead, she joined the New York Police Department.

Today Sonnett is an instructor with the Chemical, Ordinance, Biological and Radiological Awareness (COBRA) unit, in the police department’s Counterterrorism Division. She and her colleagues teach 18,000 officers a year how to protect the public and themselves when responding to calls related to terrorism and hazardous materials. She is one of two women who are instructors in the four-person unit.

The three-day COBRA course includes a day of lecture followed by two days of field exercises. Participants perform tactical operations—shooting, clearing rooms, victim extraction and running decontamination lines—while wearing hazmat suits and breathing through a respirator.

The training covers situations ranging from terrorism-related events to more common dangers encountered on the job. Sonnett cites an example scenario of an overturned tanker surrounded by a low-lying cloud.

“A cop with this training will understand how to read the truck placards and know that the cloud isn’t from some fire. It’s anhydrous ammonia and if you walk into it, it will kill you almost instantly.”

She also teaches basic life support skills and trauma treatment through the police department’s Medical Emergency and Critical Intervention Unit.

Sonnett began her New York police career two months after graduating from Wilkes. Courses that still serve her today include the public speaking class—she is “often at a podium using a microphone”—and a psychopharmacology course that helped when dealing with drug users.

She served several years as a patrol officer and in 2010 shifted to the Domestic Violence Unit, where she handled nearly 4,000 cases per year.

Elder abuse was rampant as were crimes against women. Sometimes her investigations led to arrests, but frequently the elderly had dementia and couldn’t be easily interviewed.

“Then I started to realize a lot of women were being choked, but not to the point where they were completely unconscious or dead,” she says. “Because of a gap in the law, there wouldn’t be an assault charge even though someone had closed their airway.”

In 2010, New York added a second-degree category to its strangulation laws, stating that choking to the point of injury or unconsciousness could be classified as a felony. This meant that cases previously treated as misdemeanors could now result in up to a seven-year prison term.

One of Sonnett’s cases was the first to be tried under the new law. A man had beaten his 26-year-old girlfriend and choked her till she passed out. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and second-degree strangulation.

Sonnett testified in the groundbreaking trial, but the jury found the boyfriend not guilty of the second-degree charge. He served 38 days in jail for misdemeanor assault.

Throughout her career, Sonnett continued to hone her counter-terrorism knowledge and skills and, in 2016, was invited to join the COBRA unit.

“I was looking for people to staff the department’s counter-terrorism training program and she was the first person who popped into my head,” says New York Police Lt. Matthew Strong, who has known Sonnett since their days as rookie cops. “Her enthusiasm is contagious. She motivated everyone to become an expert in the field and that had a positive effect on the whole unit.”

Sonnett recently expanded her reach to include first responders nationwide. As an adjunct instructor for Texas A&M’s Extension Service, she uses her vacation time to train officers in hazmat operations. She also hopes to develop a one-day safety workshop so every patrol officer in America can receive training.

“We go to funerals nearly every week for people who died from what they were exposed to during the 2001 attacks,” Sonnett says. “I want cops to understand the threats—whether it’s carcinogens from a building explosion or sarin gas in a subway—so we don’t have another 9/11.”

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