Behind the badge: Silverthorne detective and interim chief share leadership advice
“We’re better than Superman because we’re just one call away,” Silverthorne police detective Theresa Barger laughed.
She and acting police chief Misty Higby have worked for the department for more than a decade, each taking steps toward lifelong goals. Like any superhero, both work to save lives, juggle several tasks at once, and are never truly off the clock.
“You’re on 24-7,” Higby said. “It’s not a job for everyone, but it’s something I thoroughly enjoy because I get to help people.”
After she was hired as a patrol officer for Silverthorne in 2001, Higby worked her way up to sergeant. Her goal to work in law enforcement started long before she went to the police academy, before she got her bachelor’s degree in criminology and even before she did her first ride-along in high school.
“I told my parents when I was five years old that I wanted to be a police officer,” Higby said. “As I got older, it changed. I said one day I will be chief.”
Barger joined the Silverthorne Police Department a few years prior to Higby’s arrival. Hired in 2001 by chief John Patterson, Barger noted at one point the department was 50-50 between men and women. The reason, she explained, was partially because female police officers are more likely to “talk people down” in an incident before resorting to force.
“(Patterson) said, ‘I have less liability with a woman than I would with a man any day,’” Barger laughed.
From the beginning, Barger’s goal was to become a detective, but her path into law enforcement was less direct. At 19, Barger had a daughter, and didn’t attend the academy until several years later.
“Everybody kept saying it would be stupid for me to go into law enforcement, you’re a single parent,” she said. “I always did odd-and-end jobs, just enough to pay the bills.”
Several years later, at church, a woman in law enforcement visited as a speaker. She was able to direct Barger through the steps she needed to take to join the police force.
“I thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to do it, let’s just do it,’” Barger said. “The day my daughter had emergency surgery on her appendix, I found out I made the academy.“
For the next year, she would work during the day and attend the academy at night. Finally, she interviewed with Silverthorne.
LEARNING TO LEAD
Since she was promoted to sergeant, Higby developed her own leadership style to match the needs of the department and each officer’s learning style.
“It’s a dance where you have to go from leading by example to ‘this is exactly what you need to do, at this point in time, no questions asked,’” Higby said.
As a woman, in a male-dominated field, Higby said she had to put more thought and effort into finding the best way to lead.
“When I first started here I had a hard time because I’m smaller than a lot of the people here and there was always that question, ‘do you really think you’re gonna be able to take down that 6’3” man who’s fighting?’” Higby said. “It’s about showing, do I have to always just take people down? Why not talk to them?”
While Higby prefers to lead by example, when a situation gets serious, she will not hesitate to give orders. Her current role requires her not only to make snap decisions, but to look at the big picture: For example, in the case of a wildfire, she would not only set up a command post, ensure everyone is brought to safety and that enough resources are available, but she must also consider budgets.
“You have to think about things at a higher level,” she said. “It’s pushed me quite a bit.”
Still, she added that she has stayed with Silverthorne for a reason.
“I know I have to earn everybody’s respect… I know I have to work hard for it,” she said. “But I know I can go into it, and give my all, and not be judged because I’m a female. That’s one thing I appreciate about working here, because it’s not that way in many places.”
According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice, despite modest improvements from 1987 to 2008, women are still a minority in law enforcement. Nationwide, the trend is less drastic in large police agencies, with women accounting for 15.2 percent of officers in 2008. For smaller departments, however, departments employed just 2,000 women nationwide, accounting for just six percent of all officers.
“It’s not easy, because this is a male-dominated profession, and you do have to prove yourself,” Higby said. “A lot of people see you coming in as maybe you’re weak, maybe you can’t handle yourself, and you not only have to prove it to your coworkers but also the people in the community.”
She encouraged anyone interested in law enforcement to participate in a ride-along, to reach out, and talk to Silverthorne officers.
“Whether it’s a young girl or someone who’s older and looking into law enforcement, I want them to know that it is possible and you can do it. You can do whatever you set your mind to,” she said.
One tool key to working in law enforcement is developing what Higby calls an “officer presence,” exuding a calm confidence in speech and body language when dealing with a potentially dangerous situation.
“You have to earn respect compared to a male partner who is usually given the respect with their peers,” Barger said. “For us, you have to show what kind of person you are, what kind of patrol officer you are, before you get the respect.”
“The fact is, when these two bark orders: yes ma’am!” sergeant Bryan Siebel added, striking a salute.
“When we first started, there was no yes ma’am, and you know that,” Barger laughed.
looking at THE EVIDENCE
Barger’s job isn’t limited to detective work, but also teaching D.A.R.E. and fraud-prevention classes, working with new officers and of course, writing reports.
“Any female who wants to get involved in law enforcement, just FYI, there’s so much paperwork you’re gonna die,” Barger added with a laugh.
Still, cracking a case is her favorite part of the job. Her history with the Silverthorne Police Department includes helping solve a 2010 homicide case and multiple thefts, including the robbery of a local gas station and an Old Chicago.
In the case of a cash theft from Old Chicago, Barger said they had initially checked for DNA and fingerprints on the drinking glasses the suspects had used, because they had dinner prior to the incident.
“They had so much grease on their hands, there was not really any DNA or anything on the glasses,” Barger said. “But I found fingerprints somewhere else that nobody else would have thought of.”
Between the prints, and connecting the crime to a related vehicle theft in Frisco, the agencies were able to track the couple to California.
“I was dumbfounded,” Higby said. “We have solved multiple cases because of her tenacity. We are fortunate to have someone like her. People can do the job, but she takes it a step higher, if not another step, because she has such a strong passion for it.”
Ultimately, the nature of crime in the county has changed in recent years, with a growing population driving both residents and tourists to Summit. During the recession, the majority of crimes were driven by money, now the department sees a wide variety of cases.
“There’s a learning curve at this point,” Barger said.
For an officer, the most dangerous situations they can approach are traffic stops and domestic violence calls. Not only are these cases emotionally trying, but they can become complicated, between trying to deal with an aggressor, protecting a victim and potentially even talking at the level of a child who may also be present.
“Don’t mess with children, animals or the elderly and I’ll stay away from you,” Barger said.
She added that some of the lessons she’s learned in law enforcement have spilled over into conversations with her daughter.
“You almost scare your kids a little bit because you don’t want them to be in the situation you just dealt with three nights ago,” she said. “There’s a sense of how do you protect yourself.”
At the end of the day, for both women, they don their uniform each day with the goal of protecting others.
“Knowing I am able to save them and get them away from that, that’s what I want to do,” Higby said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy. We all know when we put that badge on you might not come home that night. I’ve been in some situations where I’m not sure how we came home, but we did.”
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