Tomi McLean’s office seems like a bit of a time capsule.
On her desk is a photo of her from the early ’90s, taken when she was a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) officer. She’s pictured – complete with early-’90s hair – standing next to a 1989 blue Camaro with “Rathdrum Police” painted on the side.
Back then “that was probably one of my favorite parts of my job, working with the kids,” she said, recounting her long career at the Rathdrum Police Department. “They’re like sponges, always willing to learn.”
Fast forward 20 years, and McLean still works for the Rathdrum Police Department, albeit in a much different capacity.
In June, longtime Chief Kevin Fuhr resigned to lead the Moses Lake Police Department. When he left, McLean was picked by Rathdrum’s longtime mayor to fill his shoes, and thus his office, too.
“I told her, ‘You have six months to prove yourself,’ ” said Vic Holmes, Rathdrum’s mayor of 10 years. “We gave her a list of things to take care of and she proved herself way beyond it.”
On Dec. 14, McLean was officially appointed as Rathdrum’s newest police chief, a move that unknowingly made her the only woman leading a city police agency in Idaho.
“I was really surprised to learn that,” Holmes admitted.
While some would consider it a momentous occasion, McLean didn’t seem to let the moment get away from her.
“If you think about it, I’ve been here for so long,” she said. “Really, nothing’s changed other than I’ve moved to a different office.”
In the past, Idaho has seen other female city police chiefs, though they are somewhat rare. Wendy Carpenter was chief of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department from 2003 to 2007 and Margaret Lehmbecker in St. Maries from 2010 to August of this year.
On the county level, there’s Patti Bolen, who’s been the sheriff of Valley County since 2004.
Still, the fact that McLean is now the lone female among a roster of male chiefs has some people impressed enough for the both of them.
“I have high hopes she’ll be able to take that city to the next level as they continue to grow,” said Scot Haug, chief of police in Post Falls and president of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association. “With any community that’s growing comes challenges, so she’s going to have her work cut out for her.”
When it comes to size, the Rathdrum Police Department is on the small end. It serves a city with a population of about 8,000, but even still, has 12 officers on staff and keeps an officer on duty 24 hours a day.
By their own admission, though, the work is much less drama-filled than other municipalities.
“It’s mostly burglary,” said Det. Bill Ray. That, and a lot “installing car batteries,” or helping people with their groceries.
But it’s that sense of community and the “everyone has my back” mentality that McLean says made her fall in love with Rathdrum in the first place. It’s also the reason she came to the small town to begin with.
“They really support their police department here,” she said.
McLean first started her career as a reserve officer in 1993. By 1997, she’d moved up the ladder to become the D.A.R.E. school officer, a position she held until 2005.
“I was going into 6th-grade classes and teaching them about self-esteem, and drugs and how to make good choices,” she said. “That was enjoyable, working with the kids.”
By 2007 she’d decided it was time to make the big leap. McLean and Fuhr applied for the vacant police chief position, but she wasn’t selected. She said she never felt jealousy or remorse, and in fact, she thinks it was good that she was forced to wait those extra years.
“I learned so much more being under him,” she said.
Under Fuhr, the department began to dabble in new technologies, including body cameras and better equipment for police cruisers. Mayor Holmes said he and the City Council were happy to approve the funding that made the cameras possible.
And, McLean says the officers love them.
“Technology only helps us,” she said. “When you can tell what happened and show what happened, it protects the officer, it protects the citizen.”
Looking back, McLean said she can’t really remember why she wanted to go into law enforcement in the first place. But she does remember hearing stories about her grandfather, Joe O’Neill, who was a police officer in the Kellogg Police Department in the 1930s. She remembers being fascinated.
That fascination led her all the way to Rathdrum, and now, to the biggest office in the building.
“This job is perfect for me,” McLean said. “When you first start out, you’re in your car and making traffic stops, then you go into D.A.R.E. and you’re meeting kids, and it’s a whole new excitement that you enjoy.
“I just really love it.”
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