In January 1993, Katrina Cooke Brownlee finally made the decision to leave her relationship.
“It was dark, very dark. I was in an abusive relationship with my ex-fiancé for five years,” Brownlee tells Yahoo Life.
Tired of the abuse, and seeking a new life, the 22-year-old pregnant mother packed up her two young children and fled their Medford home on Long Island. After a few days in a motel, she went back to the home she shared with her ex-fiancé to get clothes and other supplies for her daughters.
“It was a setup, because when I went into the home, he pointed a gun and said, ‘This is the day you’re going to die, bitch.’ That’s the day that he shot me 10 times,” says Brownlee.
“Anyone that's in a domestic violence situation, forget the clothes, forget the money, don't go back. Just don't go back. It's not worth it," she says, "because had I not went back, I wouldn't be telling this story.”
Left for dead after being shot many times in the stomach and groin, Brownlee only survived after her ex-fiancé’s cousin happened to stop by the house, discovering her on the floor. He rushed her to the hospital, where she went into a coma after doctors worked diligently to save her life. They removed as many bullets as they safely could, but had to leave six bullets inside of Brownlee.
When she woke up, the first thing she thought about was her children — and while her two young daughters were safe with their grandmother, the fate of her unborn son was almost too much to bear.
“The baby that I was carrying was dead,” Brownlee says.
On top of that, doctors also informed her that she may never walk again, and she lacked the motivation to try until an at-home physical therapist pushed her to. “I had to learn how to speak again, I had to learn how to write again, I had to learn how to walk," she recalls of that early recovery time. "I was paralyzed from my waist down."
The shooter, Brownlee's ex, was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison for her attempted murder, then released in 2003 after serving a 10-year sentence.
Brownlee spent years in physical therapy, along with psychotherapy to help her process the trauma. She committed herself to move forward, but one thing she could never forget were the numerous times she called police officers to her home after she was physically and sexually abused by her ex-fiancé. Each time her pain was ignored as officers sided with her ex — a prison guard at Rikers Island.
“I had called the cops so many times and they always turned their backs on me. So I didn’t have any faith in the justice system," she explains. "He was law enforcement, and they respected and honored that."
As Brownlee started to build a new life, she took a job as a traffic agent, eventually grabbing an opportunity to take the exam for a promotion to the police department, graduating from the police academy in 2001.
“All of my thoughts were, ‘I’m going to be a good cop,’” says Brownlee. “Police have their reputation for not caring about people in the Black and brown community, that’s not a secret. So I wanted for people to also see that this was a woman who looked like them, and she does care and she’s a police officer. I always wanted them to be able to say they could count on officer Brownlee and give them some inspiration.”
During her career in law enforcement, Brownlee worked undercover in the narcotics division, making drug deals and helping to clean up the streets. She was then transferred to the vice squad, where she worked undercover, posing as a prostitute. Brownlee says she encountered many women on the streets who were fleeing some sort of abuse, and in many ways, it felt like a sisterhood. And while she was undercover and couldn’t share her own personal stories of abuse, she knew their pain all too well.
“Most women that are in those types of situations are women that have endured abuse. They’re probably still in abuse and they have nowhere else to turn. There's no safe haven for women that are abused," she says.
After years of working undercover, Brownlee received a big assignment in 2013 when she joined the executive security detail for Mayor Bill de Blasio and his family. As his “advance one” she was the person who would enter the room first to ensure its safety.
“Once the mayor arrives, he follows me wherever I go, if I go into a ditch, he going into that ditch because he and I had that type of bond with each other,” she explains.
She says that the role was important to her because it wasn’t typical to see it filled by a Black woman, and that she wanted to shake up the status quo and create space for other women like her to get promoted. So she served faithfully and loyally, all while keeping her own past a secret.
“They would have fired me,” she tells Yahoo Life, explaining they would have thought, “'We’re not going to bring in a woman who has been in a domestic violence situation at that level. She’s going to crack, maybe she’ll shoot someone or maybe she’ll go after the person that shot her.' That kind of stigma.”
Instead of revenge or retaliation, Brownlee turned her own trauma into a path forward for other women. In 2012, she started a program for at-risk teens, which was eventually renamed Young Ladies of Our Future. Today, she uses this platform to mentor, educate and empower young women — showing them that where they were born doesn’t have to determine the outcome of their lives.
“The workshops consist of self-esteem awareness, anti-violence, bullying, nutrition, financial literacy, it’s a whole list of things that we do," she says. "So I give these young girls hope so that they can experience what love is all about, so they will be able to give love wherever they go."
After 20 years in law enforcement, Brownlee retired last summer, and on her last day, she finally shared her harrowing story of survival. “The day I came on the job I always said I was going to leave June 30, 2021, and I’m telling my story that day,” says Brownlee.
One of the first people she told was Mayor DeBlasio.
“He asked me what was my plan moving forward. And I said to him, ‘I'm writing a memoir.’ He said, ‘oh really?’ And I said to him, ‘I was shot 10 times.’ The look on his face is priceless. It was just priceless.”
That upcoming memoir, seeking a publisher and called And then Came the Blues, is Brownlee’s chance to finally tell her story and to share her message of perseverance, faith and love.
“I feel my purpose is being served," says Brownlee, "and I feel that people all over the world will be able to feel that 'now I can get out, I don’t have to stay, I don’t have to deal with this, I deserve more, I deserve better, and I am somebody.'”
—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove