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Detective found her true calling on police beat

Polly Davin drives from the sheriff’s office to the Grays Harbor Child Advocacy Center in Montesano, Wash., where as a sheriff’s deputy she interviews families and children when investigating abuse.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Polly Davin drives from the sheriff’s office to the Grays Harbor Child Advocacy Center in Montesano, Wash., where as a sheriff’s deputy she interviews families and children when investigating abuse. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
By CALLIE WHITE Daily World (Aberdeen)

ABERDEEN, Wash. – When Polly Davin moved to the Grays Harbor area in 1990, she was a reporter for the Daily World, listening to the scanner from her desk, writing about crime. But eight years later, she got out from behind her notebook to become a deputy with the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Department. Since February, Davin has been the first woman detective in the department.

Her journey hasn’t always been an easy one, according to the soft-spoken detective.

“It’s a different world,” Davin said of law enforcement.

Davin grew up in central Illinois. Her dad was a farmer, her mother worked in an insurance agency. She said she had always liked to write, but started her college career at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri intending to study biology. As it turned out, she didn’t care much for the subject.

However, an English professor singled Davin out as a writer and encouraged her to join the campus newspaper.

She eventually became editor-in-chief of the paper, which she said was a huge headache but also helped open the door to jobs. She was a part-time sportswriter for the Quincy (Ill.) Herald-Whig while in school, and then she was an intern at the State Journal-Register in Springfield in her senior year.

After graduation, Davin started her career working in tiny Effingham, Ill., but ever since she was in high school she had been obsessed with Washington state, and she had spent a summer working in the Northwest with a college friend from Seattle. So she “carpet-bombed the state” with her resume.

Davin got an interview in Port Angeles, but when they didn’t hire her, they passed her resume on to John Hughes at the Daily World, who did.

She was excited about her big move and figured she’d spend a couple of years at the Daily World and graduate to a larger paper, eventually ending up in Seattle. But when she got here in July of 1990, she said she fell in love immediately.

The terrain was nothing like the Midwest. There were the mountains on one side and the sea on the other, and Davin enjoyed exploring.

The vacation came to an abrupt end when Davin began covering an intense, rough ITT/Rayonier strike. The self-professed “farm girl” had never dealt with such inflamed emotions, controversy and rascally corporate and union interests before, and day after day she ground out stories that attracted no end of angry letters.

“She definitely earned her stripes,” said Bill Lindstrom, who was then the city editor for the Daily World.

If she had a rough first year as a journalist on the Harbor, she also soon decided that this was where she belonged, and where she wanted to stay. But she said as soon as she made the decision, she realized she’d have to find something else to do for a career. Journalism is famous for poor pay, and it only took a few years for Davin to realize the grind of the beats – writing stories on one issue multiple times – was not her cup of tea. Features, she said – longer stories about people or issues that explore in depth – were more fun.

Davin covered all kinds of beats over the years, including the cops and courts beat.

“She did a good job with all the beats, but she really blossomed when they gave her the police beats,” said Rick Anderson, the paper’s sports editor. “It was pretty obvious that she was comfortable dealing with the cops, they were comfortable dealing with her and she had a real knack for those types of stories.”

And it was through covering the work of law enforcement that she began considering it as a career.

Davin took a law enforcement test for a story she was writing.

“I did better than anyone expected,” Davin recalled. The seed planted, Davin decided to pursue a spot in the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Department. Out of all the law enforcement leaders she had worked with, Davin said, Sheriff Dennis Morrisette had particularly impressed her and earned her respect.

One of the things it took time for Davin to learn was how much more threatening her new job as a deputy was.

As a reporter, she felt no qualms about meeting people she didn’t know for a story. Early on in her career, Davin said, she arrested a man, for what she can’t recall, and a search turned up an odd little device. The man said he didn’t know what it was, so Davin stuck it on her console on the drive back to jail. She even brought it into the squad room.

The device, it turned out, was a blasting cap.

“I should have known, the guy had no fingers,” Davin said, shaking her head in embarrassment.

That incident established the “Davin Rule” for the sheriff’s office: No bringing in things to the squad room if you don’t know what they are.

“I was not taking it seriously that this is a dangerous job,” Davin said.

Even if Davin brought that sense of safety or invulnerability with her from her job as a reporter, there were other traits she brought that made her a terrific deputy, her colleagues said.

Sheriff’s deputies can fill a lot of different roles, and one of Davin’s first duties was as a school resource officer in Ocosta. Ed McGowan, another sheriff’s detective, said the job was well-suited to Davin’s abilities.

“She has a lot of compassion, and she works really well with kids,” McGowan said. “She did a really good job.”

Davin’s ability to talk with kids garnered her notice with her bosses and it certainly helps her as a detective. Detectives work on 30 to 40 cases a year, maybe more, McGowan said (Davin said definitely more – as of October she had more than 30). And many of those, Davin said, involve some sort of sexual abuse, often within families and involving children. It is Davin’s job to elicit the clearest, most coherent narratives of what happened to the victims, often the most painful and humiliating moments of their lives. Frequently, the victims are taking a huge risk, accusing family members of hurting them and losing support from the rest of their family.

Although the county has had Davin take a lot of special training to do these delicate interviews, they require a certain kind of personality and high level of sensitivity to do well. And Davin’s colleagues agree, she is very compassionate.

Although Davin said her job certainly has the ability to take a mental toll; she instead gets a lot of satisfaction from her work.

“I enjoy it,” Davin said.

The other side of Davin’s work is interviewing perpetrators. She and McGowan said those interviews have the potential to be just as emotional and precarious as any victim interview.

“Sometimes they want to confess,” Davin said. “It’s something they’ve done that is weighing on them and telling us is a way to get that off their chest.”

There are a lot of remorseful perpetrators, McGowan said, but then there are others who will “deny, deny, deny … until the polygraph.”

One of the most surprising things Davin said she learned is that being a detective doesn’t really offer a lot more resources for interviewing than being a journalist. Sure, there are the one-way mirrors and the little speakers in her ear that allow another detective to prompt her with questions, but in general, all she has is preparation. And, sometimes, a polygraph machine.

In spite of everything, however, there are times when a case won’t pan out, especially if there’s no physical evidence. Those are the worst, Davin said.

But Davin said there is no comparison to the feeling she gets when a clue falls in place. And it is a string of these kinds of connections on which a case hangs.

“It is satisfying. It really makes you feel good,” Davin said. “It is so fun when you get a fingerprint and can narrow down your suspects.”

Since the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Department is small, Davin said all detectives get to do some work on major cases. She said she likes that flexibility, and especially the way the deputies share the load and the glory.

And time and again, the thrill of solving cases, of bringing peace to victims, makes Davin’s day.

“This is the first position I’ve had where I feel totally that this is where it’s at, this is where I need to be,” Davin said. “I’m making a difference.”

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