Sergeant Jenny Duncan of the Waco Police Department is a lifelong Wacoan — she was born here and later graduated from Midway High School and then from Baylor University. Since joining the police department in 2007, Duncan’s life has come into a balance she didn’t expect when she was younger and had dreams of leaving her country life. Now the country is a place where she finds solace, with her girls and her horses. She finds fulfillment in serving her community as a police officer, and she’s learned the value of doing what’s right for her.
“Make decisions for yourself and no one else,” she said. “That boils down to knowing who you are and what you want out of life.”
Duncan started working for Waco PD as a dispatcher. In 2010 she entered the police academy and graduated in the top 5 percent of her class. In January she was promoted from officer to sergeant.
She has received two Lifesaving Awards and a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
The process to become a peace officer has several levels, each of which builds on the one before. After recruits graduate from the McLennan Community College Law Enforcement Academy’s Basic Peace Officer Certification course, they receive six weeks of in-house training. The probationary officers then work with different field training instructors. Following that stint, which lasts 12 weeks, officers are assigned a patrol shift. Evaluations occur throughout this process. They become commissioned officers after one year.
Sergeant Duncan encourages Wacoans who have a positive encounter with a peace officer to let the police chief know — make a call, send a note or post a positive message on Waco PD’s Facebook page. It will mean a lot because officers like Duncan join the force for a common reason.
“The bottom line is we all want to help people,” Duncan said.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome visited with Duncan by phone to learn about her work, her horse hobby and her role as a mom to two young girls.
WACOAN: I see you graduated from Midway High School. Are you from Waco originally?
Duncan: I was born in Waco.
WACOAN: When did you graduate from Midway?
WACOAN: And then you went to Baylor. What did you study?
Duncan: I got a Bachelor of Science degree in geology.
WACOAN: What was your plan with that degree?
Duncan: I was planning on working for an oil company and getting a master’s, but I was also in Air Force ROTC at the time. That was right around the time 9/11 happened. The Air Force hired a bunch of officers. By the time I was getting ready to graduate, the Air Force figured out they had too many people. Me and several other people [in ROTC], in lieu of enlisting, decided to get out of our contract and finish school instead. So I decided to finish Baylor and become a police officer.
WACOAN: Why did you do ROTC?
Duncan: I felt I needed to repay my debt to society in some way. ROTC presented itself when I was at Baylor, and I felt it was a good option.
WACOAN: So when did you enter the police academy?
Duncan: 2010. I actually started working in 2007 as a dispatcher. I worked in the call center, and you answer 911 emergency calls, you answer administrative calls, work in radio — dispatching officers and keeping up with them on the streets. I did that from 2007-2010.
WACOAN: What interested you about that civilian position with the police force?
Duncan: I had always thought I wanted to become an officer after I decided not to join the Air Force. But I wanted to get a feel for what it was like before I went all in and joined the academy. It’s kind of an eye-opener, being in dispatch. You see what all’s involved in this town, what officers are going through.
WACOAN: OK, back to the academy. What can you tell me about the process of becoming a police officer?
Duncan: We started around the first week of August, graduated in December. It’s a couple of weeks longer than a normal college semester.
There’s a lot of classroom training, a lot of tests, a lot of learning. There’s some hands-on parts: defensive tactics, how to fight, how to detain subjects and handcuffing and that sort of thing. There’s an extensive shooting training part: shooting skills and drills, shooting safety. There’s a driving course where you learn how to operate a police unit at high speeds and low speeds.
Some of the other programs: They do active shooter training, they do some reality-based shooter training. It’s basically guns that shoot paint balls. We do [simulative] traffic stops where a suspect has a gun. It simulates reality. You can learn about it in a classroom, but until you actually do a real scenario, it’s different. It helps you put things together.
WACOAN: How big was your class?
Duncan: There are about 20 in each academy.
Even after the police academy you still go through an extensive training process because even though you’ve gotten all the pieces of the puzzle, you still have to learn to apply them. You go through a field training process where you’re assigned a senior field trainer, who trains you on the job.
WACOAN: You were promoted to sergeant in January. Congratulations!
Duncan: Thank you.
WACOAN: How has that changed your day-to-day responsibilities? You were on patrol before, correct?
Duncan: When you work on patrol, you basically respond to calls for service, 911 or administrative calls. You may get dispatched.
As a police sergeant, instead of responding, you supervise a squad of six or seven people who are working the calls, and you make sure the calls are being adequately handled. You may help if [they] need help working the calls. You field any complaints from citizens. Basically, just making sure the work gets done. I guess that’s the same with any supervisor-type position.
WACOAN: So does that mean you go out on patrol less often?
Duncan: I’m potentially out less often. When I’m out, I may show up to help work a call, see if they need anything. More often than not, when police are working a call, the more the merrier. I can help take a statement or talk to a person. Usually, I’ll take the call. There are usually five things [an officer needs] to be doing at one time, so you are helping do what needs to be done so they can get to the next call.
When police officers work calls, it’s a collaborative effort anyway — ‘This guy’s saying this, what do you think?’ You definitely learn to rely on your beat partners and squad mates. Even though I’m a supervisor now, I’ll help my people with anything they need on a call.
WACOAN: You’ve won three awards: two for lifesaving and one as part of your unit for meritorious service. Can you tell me more about those?
Duncan: I got one Lifesaving Award in 2009 when I was the first person on the scene in a head-on collision where both cars burst into flames. I was able to pry the door open on one of the cars and pull a 200-plus pound man from the driver’s seat and carry him a safe distance from the car, [which was] on fire, until paramedics arrived. He had broken both arms and legs and could not move.
The other Lifesaving Award was from 2012 (I think), when myself and three other officers were nearby when a fire broke out in a home in North Waco at about midnight. It was evident there were people inside. Me and my partner broke through the gate and began pounding on the door with no answer. Two other officers arrived and began to kick the door in.
I ran around the side [of the house], banging on windows and a side door. By the time they kicked in the front door —it was a very solid door — I got the wife to the side door. The house was filled with smoke, and the husband and wife seemed confused, either from breathing smoke or from being jolted out of sleep, I’m not sure.
We ran through the house to check for anyone else and found two small girls hiding under blankets in their bedroom, which is where the fire started. We grabbed the girls, got everyone out, plus the dog. By the time the fire department arrived, the house was engulfed. The fire originally started in a vacant house next door but leaped over to the occupied house due to close proximity. None of us felt like we did anything extraordinary; we were just in the right place at the right time.
The meritorious unit award was from a shooting I helped work where I was one of the first on scene and was able to provide medical assistance and get suspect information that led to an arrest later that night. All the officers who helped on that call that night received this award for a great collaborative effort.
WACOAN: Wow. I am so grateful to have you on the force, serving the community.
These stories you’re sharing, it makes me think of a writing class I taught this fall. I asked students to write about an encounter with the police. I expected to get humorous stories about speeding tickets. Instead, I got very personal stories.
It made me realize that police officers are often involved in some of the most intimate moments of our lives.
Duncan: You’re exactly right. That’s something we try to keep in mind. Our job can be frustrating. Lots of times, people are difficult to talk to or get information from because nine times out of 10, we’re not talking to them on their best day. We’re talking to them on their worst day. They’ve called us for help. We try to be patient and compassionate. It’s just another day of work for us, but it’s sometimes the worst day of their lives for them.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your family. You have two girls?
Duncan: The 5-year-old, Marilyn, she’s in pre-K. And a 2- almost 3-year-old, Joslin.
WACOAN: Where do they go to school and day care?
Duncan: Speegleville Elementary. The day care just closed down. I’m trying to figure that out right now. My mom and dad watch her during the day so I can sleep.
WACOAN: That’s something I wanted to ask about — how do you get help with your working midnights?
Duncan: My mom and dad are a big help. They watch the girls; they love watching them. They’re great.
My schedule on midnights is kind of perfect because when I’m at work the kids are sleeping. So when I get off at 7 a.m., I take them to school and then I sleep. Then I pick them up at 3 [p.m.] and have the whole evening with them, get everything ready for school in the morning and put them to bed and then get ready for work.
WACOAN: Tell me more about your schedule, working midnights.
Duncan: We always have set schedules, time-wise. You’re always on the same hours. The only thing that changes is that patrol works four days on, three days off. There are two separate patrol groups. The A group will work Monday through Thursday, and the B group will work Thursday through Sunday. Thursday is the day everyone overlaps. Then you switch.
Every other month you have weekends off. It’s also good for scheduling doctors’ appointments and stuff like that. You’ll have one month where you have weekdays off, so you can schedule your stuff during the week. Then the other [month] you schedule stuff for weekends.
WACOAN: Is it hard, flipping back and forth from working nights to having regular days off?
Duncan: A lot of people who work midnights keep their same schedule when they’re off. I don’t do that. I go back to day hours, which it’s easy for me to do that.
It seems harsh, but on my first day back to work, I get up at the normal time in the morning and do what I need to do — try to take a nap (but it usually doesn’t happen), then put the kids to bed and go to work. By the time I get them to school [the next morning], I’ve been up for 24, 26 hours. On the day I’m getting off [nights], where I might work Sunday night, I take the girls to school at 7 a.m. Monday, sleep while they’re gone, get up to pick them up, and put them to bed that night, and I get to go to bed that night and make up for it.
I usually don’t have any problem switching. It’s kind of an individual preference. By the time I hit my 24-hour mark, I’m back in the groove.
WACOAN: When you are off work, what do you like to do for fun?
Duncan: I like to relax and hang out at the house. We like to go to the trampoline park, watch a movie. Sometimes I’ll pick up my niece and nephew and have a kids weekend. I like to hang out with friends and family. Sometimes I’ll hang out with work friends and relax and do something. I’m kind of a homebody.
WACOAN: I saw a note on the announcement about your promotion that you have a ‘horse hobby.’
Duncan: I’ve been riding horses since I was 6 years old — and I’m 36 — so 30 years now. We’ve owned horses since I was 10.
I still have horses, and my girls love to ride. I used to actually compete. I have Appaloosa horses, and I used to compete at national and world championships every year.
WACOAN: What events did you compete in?
Duncan: Hunter under saddle, hunter pleasure, equitation, Western horsemanship, hunter hack.
But I haven’t been able to ride regularly since I’ve had children. I ride every now and then, casually. The girls will take a lesson once a week from my best friend.
WACOAN: Where do you keep your horses?
Duncan: I own land in Crawford. Some of the year I keep them out there. I have a place in Speegleville that’s not quite as big, but we can ride there more easily.
My parents — as soon as I became an adult and could afford my own stuff — they’re like, ‘OK, here’s your horses. Good luck taking care of them.’ My parents are awesome. I wouldn’t change anything [about them]. They’re amazing.
WACOAN: It sounds like your girls are getting an early start with horses.
Duncan: Man, these girls! They’ve been around horses forever, since they were a couple of months old. I remember when Marilyn was about 9 months old and she realized those things were animals, and she squealed and laughed and stretched out her hands. Joslin, she was the same way. They still beg to ride every day.
My old show gelding that I used to show, he is 14. He was born in ’03. He’s worth his weight in gold. Those girls can do anything with him, and I do not worry about them getting hurt. He watches out for them. He’s like a babysitter. He’s the best investment I ever made.
WACOAN: How many horses do you have?
Duncan: I have three: that show gelding, I have a broodmare that I like to breed every other year, and I have a little miniature horse, like knee-high. I just got him for Christmas for the girls. They like to lead him around and pet him. He is so funny. He thinks he is a big horse.
WACOAN: When you three aren’t riding horses, where else do you like to go in Waco?
Duncan: The Jump-n-Place in Woodway with the inflatables; we like to go there. Not many people know there’s a mini golf [course] in Richland Mall called Lunar Golf. It’s lit by a black light, so everything is neon. They love to play that.
They love [roller] skating and bowling as well. That little Joslin, she’s a little, tiny 2-year-old, and she gets up and skates. She’s very coordinated for her age. The bowling, they have the bumpers, but they also have this little ramp that they roll the ball down for kids who are too little to roll the ball.
Marilyn, actually, she’s already asking to have a bowling party this year, and her birthday’s in October. Of course, [kids] have no concept of time. They ask, ‘Is my birthday still a long time away?’ And I say yes, and then they ask again the next week.
WACOAN: The title of this article is Keeping Balance, and I’ve found that every working mom has a different definition of what that term means. What does it mean to you?
Duncan: I think I’m unique in that respect because, for lack of a better word, my children are my hobby. I love to take them to do things, in essence. I don’t have this need — I have me-time sometimes, but I don’t get to the point where I go crazy if I don’t take time for myself.
Some people crave me-time or adult conversations. Maybe because sometimes it seems like going to work is a vacation for me. I have adult interaction.
As far as keeping balance, balance for me would be structure, keeping my routine. The only time where I feel like I’m spinning out of control is when I’m off my schedule, if I haven’t been to the grocery store in a week.
Being prepared is the balance for me.
WACOAN: Tell me more about being prepared.
Duncan: Like if I’ve been needing to go to the grocery store and dinner won’t be ready for 30 minutes and I don’t have [the girls’] snacks, bananas or strawberries. Something that would cause a meltdown. Being prepared for me is half the battle.
WACOAN: How do you de-stress?
Duncan: Once I put them to bed — I live in the country, so just sitting out on the back porch with a glass of wine in the dark, just sitting there, thinking about stuff or listening to the wind blow through the trees. That does it for me. There’s always a breeze blowing through. Getting peace and quiet, doing nothing.
I think that for a lot of working moms who feel stress and feel like they’re not getting anywhere, the main part of the battle is finding out what you need. It seems like they’re meeting everyone else’s needs. They don’t even know what they want or what they need.
WACOAN: It seems like that’s something you’ve been good at, knowing your needs. Were you always that kind of a person?
Duncan: No, I wasn’t. I’m sure there was a breaking point somewhere in there. Let me think back. It seems like when I was in my mid-20s, I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted. Ever since I started working for the police department seven years ago, I get a lot of my fulfillment from the job, knowing I went to work that day and helped someone or made a contribution to our community.
I guess also, since I had children, it made me realize that 1) life is too short to be unhappy, 2) a positive attitude is worth millions, 3) don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff, and worrying doesn’t help anything. Ever since I had children, I realize what’s important and what’s not.
WACOAN: You said earlier you were born in Waco. So have you been in Waco your whole life?
WACOAN: Has your perspective on the city changed since becoming a police officer?
Duncan: It’s a huge eye-opener. Before the veil is lifted from your eyes, you’re kind of, not in a bubble, but shielded from all of the evil. You see it on the news, but you’re not exposed to the depth of it.
When I first worked in dispatch was when the veil was lifted. You go through a period where you think, ‘Oh my gosh, the whole world is evil.’ Then you process it enough that you understand that it’s still 2 percent or 1 percent you’re looking at. The rest is good people who have jobs and contribute to the community.
Once you process it and realize it doesn’t represent the majority, you learn to appreciate the community again. And that’s actually the reason we’re here, to shield the other 98 percent from the other 1 percent or 2 percent. I’ve probably gone through a stage two or three times in my career where you get down. You feel there’s too much evil, too much hatred, and then you grow from it and go back to the perspective of that’s why we’re here.
Actually, that exact thing is what they call burnout. They have entire classes on how to avoid burnout. It’s kind of tricky to avoid because you go to calls to where you see the same things, the same people getting beat up or robbed or worse. There are people who are unappreciative, who cuss you up and down when you’re just there to help them. In those classes they teach you to find your happy place away from work to recoup.
An effective police officer means not being down about what you see all the time. I’ve been there a couple of times, but again, you have to find out what makes you happy and relax when you’re off work. Don’t carry work home with you.
WACOAN: It sounds like you do that with your place in the country and your horses and time with your girls.
Duncan: Which is kind of funny because when I was younger, I wanted to get away from all that, not be a country person, go to Baylor and get my degree. And I guess you figure out who you are and what’s important, and that’s the only thing that matters — not what matters to other people. Make decisions for you and do what’s right for you, regardless of what other people think. That’s part of what becoming an adult means.
WACOAN: In preparing for this interview I’ve enjoyed reading Waco PD’s Facebook posts. Whoever does that, it’s great.
Duncan: It’s Sergeant [Patrick] Swanton.
WACOAN: He does those himself? Well, kudos to him!
He had a story about Officer Roger Barrett, who ran in to a Whataburger on New Year’s Eve while on duty to grab a quick bite, and a Mr. and Mrs. Travis invited him over to join them because they didn’t want him eating alone. Do you have any stories like that, of Waco citizens reaching out to you as a police officer?
Duncan: I’ve had people come up and shake my hand. People will say, ‘I really appreciate Waco PD and what you do in our community.’
A couple of weeks ago I ate lunch at Pei Wei when I was on duty, and a nice lady came up and said she appreciated us and everything we do and gave me a gift card for Pei Wei. I’ve had countless other times where I’m ordering in line, and I pull out my debit card to pay, and they say, ‘Oh, the person in front of you already paid for you.’ Oh, my goodness! I don’t even know who it was because I was looking at the menu, and they’re already gone.
WACOAN: Other than paying for a meal, how else can Wacoans show their appreciation for a police officer?
Duncan: Usually, I recommend to people if they appreciate something that an officer did on a call or if an officer went out of their way to help them, call the [police] chief’s office and tell them about it or send it into our website or put it on our Facebook page. The whole department sees it. It’s an uplifting thing for everyone. When I see, hey, Officer Gomez did this, I’ll go up to him, like, ‘Awesome! Way to go!’ because someone took the time to show their appreciation.
I work with a lot of good people. Lots of the people I work with would go above and beyond to help somebody. Some people join because they also want to be a detective or work in a specific area, like drug enforcement, but even before all of that we’re all police officers that want to help people. The bottom line is that’s why we’re all here. No one I know would put on a bulletproof vest and wear a gun to work for any other reason. It’s not for ego. Putting your life on the line, it’s not worth anything else.