Durango Police Cmdr. Rita Warfield, one of the city’s longest tenured police officers who championed retraining on domestic violence and sexual assault, will hang up her badge and gun after a 26-year career.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Warfield said. “It’s a little bittersweet. But it’s also exciting.”
Warfield started with the Durango Police Department in 1995, and in the years since, she has worked her way up the ranks, becoming a commander in 2017, one of the highest ranks among the police force.
Warfield is the highest-ranking woman within the department. Over the years, a point of emphasis for her has been bringing new ways to respond to and handle domestic violence and sexual assaults.
“Rita has accomplished many achievements over 26 years and her contributions have benefited many in our community,” said Chief Bob Brammer. “Her legacy will live on through others.”
Warfield was born in Galveston, Texas, but her family moved around a lot, and she spent a good bit of her childhood in Southwest Colorado. Eventually, her family settled in Delta.
Warfield first visited Durango in the 1970s after graduating high school. She had a short stint at Fort Lewis College, but she had to decide between school or work to pay the bills, and she chose work, taking odd jobs as a waitress and in retail.
In 1982, Warfield took a job with the city of Durango, and eventually ended up working for the Parks and Recreation Department for 13 years. Several of the parks around town are a result of her grant writing for funding.
She then worked at Region 9 EMS for a couple of years. But around the early 1990s, she was looking for a career change, and a colleague mentioned an opening at DPD for a community service officer.
“That’s how I really was first introduced into law enforcement,” she said.
As a community service officer, Warfield wasn’t exposed to the more serious calls, instead working on traffic control, monitoring school zones and writing accident reports.
Around this time, however, a community service officer in Farmington was shot and killed while conducting a house check, and the Durango police chief at the time, Al Bell, decided to do away with the position.
Bell offered, however, to pay Warfield’s way through the police academy.
“Being a CSO made me want to become an officer because there was so much more I wanted to do,” she said.
Indeed, Warfield went to work immediately, making her focus domestic violence and sexual assault crimes.
In the past, it was typical for police officers to arrest both the man and the female victim during a domestic violence call. At the time, there just wasn’t the nuanced training available to discern how to handle those situations, Warfield said.
“Officers couldn’t always determine who to arrest,” she said. “It wasn’t because officers didn’t care about domestic violence.”
Warfield and others, such as Alternative Horizons and Sexual Assault Services Organization, worked to bring more progressive training to Southwest Colorado about how to better handle these calls.
Slowly but surely, things improved, Warfield said.
“Twenty years ago, it was a lot different, and fortunately that’s not the case now,” she said. “There was a lot more focus on it because women were dying from domestic violence incidents. (Training) really needed to happen.”
Warfield in the early 2000s became a detective, with domestic violence and sexual assault becoming her specialty.
Several cases stick out over the years – Nicole Redhorse, who was sexually assaulted at a local motel and died from her injuries; and Lori Sutherland, who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend while in a shop downtown.
“A lot of the cases I worked I’ll never forget,” Warfield said.
Looking back, Warfield’s most cherished moments are out on the streets, working directly with people looking for ways to resolve issues.
In her tenure, Warfield championed the internet crime against children effort, and also has been DPD’s lead hostage negotiator, as well as the head investigator for outlaw motorcycle gang investigations.
Warfield has also pushed for more women on the force. Over the years, she sometimes was the only woman at DPD. In the early years, she even had to make a point for the department to offer women’s uniforms.
“I wore men’s uniforms for years,” she said.
Nationwide, women account for about 8% to 10% of the police force. At DPD, there are about five women in the 57-member department, right around the national average.
“One of my goals as a recruiting commander has been to try to get more women on the force, but that’s easier said than done,” Warfield said. “Not a lot of women apply, for one, locally.”
Another driving factor is the national discourse around the role of police departments, which was put in the spotlight this past summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“We’re certainly not immune to it,” she said. “You can’t help but be affected by it, and it does cause some concern. Families talk about it a lot. They’re worried about some of it. But we just try to keep positive and move forward.”
Even in Durango, tensions started to reach a fever pitch in the summer for a number of reasons – the Black Lives Matter rallies in response to Floyd’s killing, counterprotesters, the COVID-19 pandemic and the contentious 2020 election.
“It seemed like one thing was piling on top of the other,” she said. “It was hard to stay positive through all that. But we just had to work through it, and we’re all hopeful we’re on the way out of this dark hole.”
Warfield had been considering retiring over the past few months. And eventually, it felt like the right time. Her last day will be March 26.
“I know I’m going to miss it a lot,” she said.
As for the future, she’s going to take some time to decide next steps, though a good amount of camping and hiking is due.
“It’s too soon to say,” Warfield said. “It’s an open slate. It’s like starting over again. It’ll be a big change, but it’ll be good.”