April Norman remembers the reactions people had when she started patrolling the streets of Lewiston.
Children would stop and point at her as she drove by in her police car; adults would do double and triple takes.
“I’d knock on a complainant’s door and they’d look at me and go, “You’re a woman cop,” Norman said.
A campy headline for a story in the Lewiston Tribune announcing her hire read: “Holy Handcuffs, Batman, Lewiston Has A Lady Cop!”
It was 1974 and the Lewiston Police Department did what no other department in the state of Idaho had done before — they hired a female patrol officer.
Being taken seriously was the first big hurdle Norman, now retired and living in Eugene, Ore., would face in her 30-year career as a police officer.
She will go down in history as a pioneer, much like the more than 30 women featured in a special section in today’s Tribune called Pioneering Women.
Craig Clohessy: How tough was it back in ’74 to be a woman in what had been a male-exclusive occupation?
April Norman: Well, I had gone through the police officer training course up at Lewis-Clark State College. ... The captain from the Lewiston Police Department called me up and asked me to come in for an interview and I was kind of thinking he was going to interview me for a dispatcher job, but he interviewed me to put me on the street doing parking control. ... I passed the POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) exam, so I was a certified police officer. The captain ... kind of had in the back of his mind that it would be a good place for me to start if I was going to eventually want to get put on patrol. ... I eventually passed all the tests and got put on patrol.
To begin with, it was a little difficult because some of the officers were a bit overprotective. The sergeant that they had me work with on the day shift was protective of me. A couple times when he felt like I was getting a little bit too close to a hot call, he would have me go help out on the desk (doing paperwork). That was really frustrating for me. I felt like if I was out there, I should be given an opportunity to do the job. If I couldn’t do the job then I shouldn’t be there. ... Eventually I got more and more support from people that I worked with and they let me work other areas in town. To begin with they put me up in the Orchards, where they figured there wasn’t quite as much happening. They eventually brought me downtown and they let me work graveyard shift. ...
CC: Did you realize at the time that you were breaking new ground?
CC: Was there a lot of pressure to that?
AN: I had to prove myself more. I had to do a little extra to prove myself, whereas if it was a guy in the same role, they’d just let him do his job. ... I always felt like they were really watching me extra closely.
CC: Meaning they weren’t ready for a woman to be in that role, not that you weren’t doing a good job?
AN: Yeah, it was back when women weren’t just doing it and they weren’t in those positions. They were on the cutting edge there, you know, because Lewiston didn’t have any other women that ever did that job. Boise finally got a patrol officer just shortly after I started.
CC: Was there a particular case or call that you were on that stood out for you?
AN: There was a sergeant on the swing shift and he was kind of a gruff character. He and I went into a building together one evening on a burglary in progress and he was really impressed with the way I handled myself, so much that he wrote up a memo to the captain and the chief complimenting me. ... There was another incident where there was a burglary in progress at the Bon Marche downtown. I responded on that and a kid came barreling out of the building and I got into a foot chase. ... I wasn’t able to actually catch up with him but I kept radio contact with the other officers and they were able to cut him off at the pass, so to speak. Things like that, and I was able to show that I could do the job as well as some of the other officers.
CC: You moved on from Lewiston, staying in law enforcement in Eugene, Ore. What was the transition like there?
AN: The training was so much better there. First of all, there were other women on patrol. There were five or six other women officers on the Eugene Police Department when I started there in 1978. ... I was exposed to more things in the first six months than I was in almost four and a half years in Lewiston. Plus, they went ahead and sent me through the basic police academy. They had me working with a coach, which they do with all the officers. They’re assigned a coach for a couple, three months. ... In Lewiston, I rode with a few other officers for about two weeks and then I was cut loose.
CC: Did you stay in patrol your entire time in Eugene?
AN: It seemed like about every three years I had an opportunity to do something a little bit different. The 25 years I was with the Eugene Police Department, about half of that time in total was on patrol and the other half I worked crime prevention for three years, I worked the University of Oregon campus and did a lot of gang rape work presentations over there. I worked in the forgery-fraud unit for a year and a half, and then I finished out my career as a school resource officer. I did that for the last six years of my career.
CC: Was that enjoyable?
AN: Yeah, yeah, it was really positive. ... Working with the kids felt like I had an impact with them, a positive impact with them.
CC: When did you retire?
AN: I officially retired at the end of February 2004.
CC: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
AN: Over the years, from 1974 when I first started until now, women have really gone a long ways in law enforcement. ... Anymore it’s not uncommon to have women in command situations. A woman that I worked with was promoted to captain and there was a chief of police in Portland, a woman chief, while I was still working. It’s accepted.
I feel good that I might have had a small part in being one of the women that started out and had a positive influence.
Clohessy is managing editor of the Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2251.