Des Toninato made history in 1992 when she became the first woman officer hired by the Coon Rapids Police Department.
She retired from the department May 29 after 22 years on the job, six years as a police officer and the past 16 years as a community policing officer.
“The reason I wanted to be police officer for as long as I can remember was to help people,” Toninato said. “I found my niche when I was assigned to be a community policing officer.”
Born in Wallace, Idaho, her family moved when she was very young to Warroad in northern Minnesota, which is where her father was from, then a few years later to International Falls, from where she graduated from high school.
According to Toninato, her children were born before she was 20, but she went back to school at the age of 25, attending Rainy River Community College and earning her bachelor’s degree from Bemidji State University.
She had a variety of jobs during that time, including working in a paper mill, cooking, catering and housekeeping, but her career goal remained to become a police officer.
Toninato came to the Twin Cities in 1991 and a year later got her first and as it turned out her only police department job. “I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, hopefully positive,” she said.
That was not always possible as a patrol officer, work she sometimes found boring because 95 percent of it was paperwork, Toninato said.
But that has certainly not been the case as a community policing officer, working with vulnerable adults, including those with mental health issues, as well as missing children and landlords and tenants at 1,700 rentals in Coon Rapids apartment complexes, according to Toninato.
“I have been able to positively affect lots of people’s lives,” Toninato said.
In addition, Toninato found she was doing something different each day and was always busy, she said. “My desk was never empty,” Toninato said.
According to Toninato, she would be called in when officers responded to mental health cases and would work with families and social services to resolve situations. “Sometimes, it was a case of the person being off their medications,” Toninato said.
“My goal has always been to try and make sure things don’t become worse,” she said.
She credits Anoka County Social Services Department with being “second to none” in helping people with mental health issues, Toninato said.
Toninato has also done criminal investigations, for example for incidents at rental properties to which she has been assigned, she said.
For many years, Toninato was advisor to the Coon Rapids Police Explorer Program, which is designed for high school and college kids, ages 14 to 21, interested in law enforcement. “I enjoyed my kids,” she said. “It was very rewarding.”
Toninato has also been involved in organizations at the local and state levels, including the North Suburban Counseling Center Board of Directors, a state board working with people who have a mental illness and for many years as secretary of the Coon Rapids Police Association.
“I have loved my job,” Toninato said. “It has been a lot of fun and I consider I have never worked a day in my life here.”
As Coon Rapids’ first woman police officer, Toninato has never been treated any differently by her male colleagues, she said.
She credits Kirsten Small and Loni Payne of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office with helping her when she began her career in law enforcement, Toninato said.
In her first few years with the department when it was located at the old Coon Rapids City Hall (now District 11’s Crossroads Alternative High School on Coon Rapids Boulevard), she shared a locker room with male police officers because there no quarters available for her.
That did not bother her because she was able to bond with her colleagues, talking with them about what they had done on their days off before going on duty and sharing what had occurred on patrol at the end of the shift, Toninato said.
In fact, when the Coon Rapids City Center opened in the mid 1990s with a women’s locker room, Toninato found it a bit lonely, she said.
The people in the police department have been really great, according to Toninato. “We have got some characters working in the police department,” Toninato said.
Leaving the department is “bittersweet,” she said. “But it is time to do something different,” Toninato said.
Toninato plans to move, along with her daughter Megan, grandson Corbin, who is two months old, and mother Ingeborg to eastern Washington State, either Liberty Lake or Otis Orchard, which are suburbs of Spokane, to be near her brother, who lives in Coeur d’Alene in western Idaho, by the spring of next year.
She does not rule out getting a job “helping people” in the state of Washington, possibly at a human services agency, Toninato said.
In the meantime, she plans to spend a lot of time with her two grandsons; her son, Jeremiah, who lives in Coon Rapids, has a son, Aaron.
She describes herself as a “gamer” and also enjoys reading, yard work and taking long walks.
Taking her place as community policing officer will be Tanya Harmoning. “She is a go-getter and will do a good job,” Toninato said.
With Toninato’s departure, there are now eight women police officers in the Coon Rapids department.
Toninato does not consider herself a pioneer as a female police officer.
But Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise certainly does. “She was a definite pioneer,” he said.
“Some people start work with an organization and adapt to the culture, but Des came to the department and changed it forever, making it a better place to be.”
It was a male-dominated work place, “yet her personality made it easy to make the transition for the police department,” Wise said.
Toninato did that through her strength of character and the community has greatly benefited from the department’s women police officers, he said.
According to Wise, Toninato’s ability to build relationships as a community policing officer made her the most widely known police officer in Anoka County. She has been passionate about her work and has been willing to become involved in the community, Wise said.
And in working with vulnerable adults with mental health issues, she did everything she could to make sure they received the services they needed, he said.
“Des will be missed,” Wise said. “She has made a difference in what she did and the community is safer.”
“Through her humor, charisma, and ability to laugh at herself and with others, Des will not soon be forgotten.”