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Carroll’s first female police officer saluted for exceptional career

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True blue to the very end. Deb Davis’ career took an unwanted, sudden turn, but she always remained a police officer at heart.

In fact, one day during her final weeks of hospice, Davis got to sit in one of Carroll Police’s SUVs, which was loaded with computer equipment and other technology that was still years down the road when Davis served on the force from 1980 to ’97.

“One of her favorite TV shows was (A&E Network’s cop-reality series) ‘Live PD,’ and she said, ‘I can’t believe all the equipment and computers you guys have in the cars,’ ” Jeff Cayler, Carroll police chief from 1985 to 2013, recalled of a visit with Davis. “I said, ‘Do you want to see one?’ ”

So Cayler, current Carroll Chief Brad Burke and one of Davis’ former colleagues, Dan Schaffer, now police chief in Denison, visited her home with a Carroll Police SUV.

“We had her sit in the car and showed her how the computers worked and how much different it was from when she left in ’97. And she was just in heaven,” Cayler said. “She was so happy you’d have thought she’d won the lottery. She was so happy to be in a car and see that.”

Davis latched onto the idea of becoming a police officer from the time she was a youth. It was that determination that led her to make history, becoming Carroll’s first female police officer when she joined the force on March 31, 1980.

There were few female officers in the state at that time, especially in communities Carroll’s size. So Davis was especially proud of that achievement.

“Oh my goodness, she loved that job,” Davis’ mom, Eileen Wirtz of Carroll, recalled several days after Deb passed away Nov. 1 at age 62 following a longtime heart ailment.

She suffered trauma to her chest in 1997 that required placement of an artificial heart valve and ended her police career at age 39. She was scheduled to have a new valve placed in October 2016; however, the day she was ready to leave for Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, doctors called and told her they were calling off the surgery. That portion of her heart had become too calcified, making the operation too risky, they said.

Deb decided when she was eighth grade she wanted to become an officer. She grew up in a family with a brother six years younger and sister two years older. Her dad, the late Rev. Allen Wirtz, was a Presbyterian pastor, spending most of his service in Davenport before he and Eileen retired to Carroll because of his health (diabetes) and so that they could be close to Deb and family in northwest Iowa. Allen and Eileen both grew up in West Bend.

Eileen recalled of Deb’s career decision, “We went to a youth meeting in Chicago, there was a policewoman there, and that really tripped Deb’s trigger. She said, ‘That’s what I want to be someday.’ She never wavered. She always wanted to be a cop.”

Davis received an associate of science degree in law enforcement from Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois, in 1977 and a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Buena Vista College in Storm Lake in 1980 and later graduated from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.

Former Chief Cayler, who worked with Davis throughout her law-enforcement career, said she more than made history as the city’s first female officer.

“She was absolutely exceptional,” he said. “She was probably the most-dependable officer who ever worked for me. If I asked her to deal with a situation or take care of a problem, she was on it immediately. She did it extremely well, and she had a way about her, the way she cared about people, she got things done without upsetting them, which is sometimes difficult. She was a rock.”

She may have been petite, but she stood tall in commanding respect.

“She was pretty small,” he said. “When she worked for us, she weighed only about 110 pounds. Back then we had a lot of bar fights and such, but Deb had a way to talking with people that she could show up at a very volatile situation and just had a way of calming it down.

“She complemented what the other officers had. Some people are very good at investigations, some are very good at traffic stops. Deb had a personality and a way of dealing with people that complemented some of the guys that worked with her.”

One of Davis’ colleagues throughout her police career was Mark Heino, who retired as a captain in 2016 after a nearly 40-year law-enforcement career.

“I worked with Deb for quite a few years on both afternoon and night watches,” Heino said. “She was smart and quickly developed a veteran-like ability to read people and sniff out fact from fiction. She was a natural at conducting interrogations.”

“On the other hand,” he noted, “she was empathetic with victims, particularly so when a crime involved children or the infirm. She was the kind of officer you’d want to have help your mother if in need, but if you were the miscreant who brought that about, well, hang on. It was gonna be a bumpy ride. I never saw Deb shrink from a confrontation, but she could quell a volatile situation with her presence. She had the innate ability to let the air out of boisterous gasbags before things got nasty. That’s a handy skill to have if you’re going to make it as a peace officer.”

Indeed, she poured her heart into law enforcement, but she also did her job with heart, Cayler said.

“If she went on an ambulance call, even for somebody she didn’t know, with her own money and on her own time, she’d buy a get-well card,” Cayler said. “She’d send a note to the people hoping that they’d get well soon and that everything went OK. She really cared about people.”

That caring also earned the attention of students in local schools, where Davis was the department’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer.

“Some DARE students from the ’80s still came up and talked to her and thanked her,” Cayler said.

Carroll Middle School sixth-grade teacher Mark Peters saw how Davis related to students.

She was a very kind and compassionate person who strongly believed in DARE and its potential impact, he said.

“Deb loved coming into the classroom and referred to the students as ‘her kids’ as she worked with them,” Peters said.

“Deb was the consummate professional while she was in the school. She was always prepared and put energy into every single class period. She truly was 100-percent-committed to being the perfect DARE officer. Students knew she cared about the DARE program and them. Many of them would comment to me about how they saw Officer Davis outside of school, and their eyes would light up with excitement as they shared the details of the encounter.

“I am extremely proud to have known Deb as a coworker and friend. She had a very kind heart with children.”

Heino said Davis also had a light-hearted side that made her a pleasure to work with.

“She could tell jokes with the best of them and take a ribbing like a champ,” he said. “She had a laugh that was uniquely hers, and she freely dispensed it. When Deb laughed, well, you had to laugh, too, because you couldn’t help it.”

After having to give up her police career, Davis served as customer-service representative at Lou Walsh Motors in Carroll until that dealership was sold and became Motor Inn in 2012.

“She loved life, and she loved people,” Wirtz, Deb’s mom said.

And the love shared with her husband, Leigh Davis, that made them an inseparable couple was remarkable. Fittingly, they married on Valentine’s Day in 1990.

“They were joined at the hip, weren’t they?” Wirtz said. “When you saw one, you saw the other.”

The only time they were apart for an extended period was when Leigh was deployed to Afghanistan from February 2004 to June 2005 during Operation Enduring Freedom, serving with Carroll’s 70-member Company A, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry.

During that time, Deb was a family readiness group co-coordinator and received many awards for the all-out effort she put into that role.

Her obituary said, “Deb loved being an Army wife and was a great supporter of all soldiers, mailing letters and care packages to over 40 military friends during various deployments and referring to them as ‘her’ soldiers.”

Julie Klink of Westside, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Rob Klink, was deployed with Leigh, served as co-coordinator with Deb.

Julie said their duties included holding monthly meetings for the family members and providing them information from the commander and state family programs. If the family members had concerns or needs, they brought them to Deb and Julie, and then they would filter them to the correct resource. They were tasked with keeping the contact information for the family members current and had a calling tree ready at all times in case the commander activated it with official information for the families. Deb also created a monthly newsletter that was emailed or mailed out to all the family members.

“Deb also sent care packages regularly to Leigh and to other deployed soldiers, and made extra effort to send them to soldiers that she heard were not getting much mail from home,” Julie said. “She continued to do this even after Leigh’s deployment, when other soldiers she knew were deployed.

“Deb was the rock for many families during the deployment, including me. And she did all of this while worrying about her own soldier who was also deployed. It wasn’t always the easiest job. Sometimes families would become upset because they felt we knew more information than we were telling them and would take their frustrations out on Deb. She handled it with grace and compassion.”

Leigh embarked on a nursing career at St. Anthony Regional Hospital in Carroll and later was a registered nurse and manager of the ER Department at Manning Regional Healthcare Center in Manning.

When Leigh’s health suddenly deteriorated — he underwent two brain surgeries, suffered strokes and was diagnosed with cancer — Deb served as his full-time caregiver until his death on Dec. 29, 2015, at age 58.

Wirtz, Deb’s mom, said, “She never got over the fact Leigh died. I think she visited the cemetery almost every day. They were meant to be together, I think.”

Davis’ former colleague Heino in an email to the Times Herald said, “Cops tend to be intensely private individuals. They really can’t discuss their work with anyone but their peers, and even if they could, they wouldn’t want to. Even in towns like Carroll, officers see things they can’t un-see, and hear things they can’t un-hear. So, most cops aren’t too talkative about their personal lives and are parsimonious about sharing. Deb, however, was effusive about her love for her family, each and all. Notwithstanding the gritty, hard-shell armor cops develop over time, Deb’s chink in that armor was her family. I am sure they knew it, but we officers did, too.

Even long after she retired, she would wax eloquent about her time with the Carroll PD. She never laid righteous claim to having been the first woman officer at the Carroll Police Department, only that she had been one of us. I, however, will polish her finial in her stead: Deborah K. Davis, first sworn female Carroll peace officer, set a standard to which all officers should aspire and of which Carroll’s citizens may be proud. D.K., you did good.”

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