When she applied to the Seattle Police Department in 1959, Noreen Skagen surely had no plans to become a pioneer in women’s history and law enforcement. At the time, she merely wanted a steady job.
But Chief Skagen, 87, who died at her home in Mill Creek last week, would become the city’s first female assistant police chief, and attract notice from President Ronald Reagan, who nominated her to become Western Washington’s first female U.S. Marshal in 1988.
She’d come a long way from pounding the pavement in a skirt and high heels, carrying her pistol and handcuffs in a specially made purse, which was standard during the 1960s for the two dozen female officers in Seattle’s Women’s Bureau, said author Adam Eisenberg, now a Seattle municipal-court judge, who profiled Chief Skagen in his book “A Different Shade of Blue: How Women Changed the Face of Police Work.”
By the early 1970s, the Seattle Police Department had merged its male and female branches into one, and Chief Skagen’s career took off.
But during the early days, much of her work involved advocating for women and children in dire situations, crawling beneath homes and into crawl spaces to rescue abused and neglected kids.
“They were social workers with guns and badges,” Eisenberg said. “It’s not that men weren’t trying to help, but they really didn’t get it.”
They did, however, understand Chief Skagen’s ability.
She moved quickly through the ranks, often serving in a communications role as the face of Seattle police and eventually heading the department’s field support bureau, until Reagan tapped her for the federal post.
“She understood her role as a trailblazer, and she was very proud of it,” Eisenberg said. “But she was also very sharp in understanding that to navigate a man’s word in that time required a tremendous amount of finesse.
“She was incredibly smart and subtle about how to work in the boys club,” he observed.
Sometimes the job meant calming angry police spouses who called to complain about their husbands suddenly riding in patrol cars with women. Other times, she coached male officers who had no idea how to work with women in the field.
Chief Skagen met her second husband, Roy Skagen, at the SPD, where he too was an assistant chief. He survives her.
Born in Seattle to two Italian immigrants, Chief Skagen graduated from the University of Washington during the 1950s with a degree in journalism.
She wed her first husband and began a career as a writer. But by the late 1950s, with her marriage falling apart and two young sons to support, she applied to the police department, primarily for the paycheck, said her elder son, retired Seattle Police Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer.
Graduating first in her class at the police academy, Chief Skagen was, nonetheless, relegated to chasing down runaways, handling “domestic disputes,” and other disturbances deemed the province of women.
Kimerer recalled visiting his mother at work as a teenager, and listening while she spoke with a young suspect arrested on prostitution charges.
“I sat there for about 45 minutes, because my mom was absolutely not going to break away from that conversation. This was a woman with a horrible life story and some pretty dark moments, a person who might have been a throwaway in many peoples’ eyes,” Kimerer said. “But mom spoke to her with such patience and compassion.”
That image lasted in the young man’s mind for weeks afterward. Later, he learned that his mother had stayed in touch with the suspect, attempting to shift her life onto a safer path.
“I saw that kind of thing over and over again,” Kimerer recalled. “She was trying as hard as she could to bring humanity into shattered lives.”
But Chief Skagen was no pushover.
“She’d go toe to toe with any kind of demonstrator in any kind of confrontation, just like you see on TV today,” said former Seattle Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons, who promoted Chief Skagen more than once. “She was equal to any three guys. She’d put her uniform on — but it was a skirt, not trousers.”