Carla Donica has three short words of encouragement for the new Priest River police chief: “You go girl.”
Donica heads the McCall Police Department. She was Idaho’s only female police chief until Priest River appointed Elaine Savage.
The 43-year-old recently beat out a dozen other applicants for the job, including a current officer who formerly worked in Los Angeles.
Savage will don her Priest River blues Monday to take charge of the four-officer - all male - department.
“I don’t think anyone should have a problem with it,” said officer LeRoy Rasmussen, the acting police chief until Savage’s appointment.
“I’ve always looked at it this way. I don’t care if you are white, black, brown or what your sex is. I always go by the uniform. She is not a woman, she is your partner. It’s a brotherhood and it’s the uniform that counts.”
Savage’s appointment was a bit of surprise in this traditional North Idaho logging town of about 2,000. In fact, Savage herself was stunned - not that she was selected but that she was such a novelty. She thought for sure there would be more women in the upper ranks of Idaho law enforcement.
“I didn’t come here to be a novelty,” Savage said. “I came here to do a job.”
She’s already fielded plenty of congratulatory calls. Many are saying it’s about time a woman held such a position in North Idaho. It doesn’t hurt that Savage grew up and graduated from high school in Priest River.
She moved back to town from Texas about nine months ago. Her aging father needed help at Meadow Brook Ranch, the family homestead and cattle operation. When not handling chores there, Savage flies back and forth to Salt Lake City to work as a ticket agent for Southwest Airlines.
“I didn’t have a chance to make a career here. It was always in the back of my mind to come home, though.”
Hiring Savage helps smash the perception North Idaho is full of rednecks with decades-old attitudes, said Priest River Mayor Tom Hartliep, also a local pastor.
“You won’t find much of the old attitudes here. Frankly I don’t expect a single negative word about it,” he said.
Hartliep called the City Council vote to appoint Savage an “enlightened” decision based on experience, not gender.
Savage is indeed qualified. For 17 years she was a police officer in Irving, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Before that, she was a military police officer in the Army. She had to wait a year before the military would accept women into the police program.
“There were still some good old boys in the military at that time that thought women should be at home taking care of babies and not in the street,” Savage said with a smile.
She brings 1,400 hours of law enforcement training to Priest River. That includes FBI schooling and training as a hostage negotiator. “This young lady is extremely well qualified. She can take care of herself,” said Hartliep. “I would hate to be on the receiving end of trying to hassle with this lady.”
When police chief Donica heard the new Priest River chief’s first name was Elaine she broke out in laughter.
“You are kidding? There’s another one? This is absolutely wonderful,” she said, hoping to exchange some of the challenges she has faced as police chief. Neither is Idaho’s first woman chief, however. A woman in eastern Idaho held the post about 10 years ago. Donica has been McCall’s chief for 13 months.
“There are not really that many women in law enforcement in Idaho,” said Jerry Hubbs. He’s the acting president of the Idaho Police Chief’s Association and police chief in American Falls.
Women in law enforcement, especially in small city departments is relatively new here. “You just don’t see a whole lot of them, but it’s coming. It’s a needed thing,” he said.
Her new job, with a $27,800 annual salary, will keep her home more.
She expects a few people will challenge her credentials on the street or taunt her with sexist comments. It happens everywhere at first, she said. The women usually are the worst.
“They think they can talk you out of it (an arrest or citation) because they are a woman, too.”
“Being a woman really has nothing to do with the day-to-day issues of police work,” she added. “My dad’s proud and I’m flattered to be here.”
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