COUNCIL BLUFFS - Catherine “Cathy” Russell has done a lot for local law enforcement, including buying her own gold watch for her retirement party.
On Thursday afternoon at the Council Bluff Public Library, friends, family members and colleagues celebrated Russell’s 43 years in law enforcement. The last 17 of which were as a Council Bluffs police officer.
Former Council Bluffs Police Chief Ralph O’Donnell worked with Russell as far back as 1976. In 2001, O’Donnell and Russell were part of a critical incident stress management team that went to sites of the 9/11 attacks in New York.
“Cathy is probably one of the best police officers I know,” O’Donnell said. “She’s compassionate. She takes her job seriously and she does an excellent job. She’s just a good person.”
Russell started out as a 19-year-old dispatcher for the Council Bluffs Police Department. She worked for dispatch until she admittedly got burned out at age 25. As she tried other careers, public service kept calling her back, she said.
In 1994, at age 41, she completed all necessary tests and became a police officer for the Webster City Police Department in Webster City, Iowa. She worked for Webster City for two years before coming back to Pottawattamie County to take care of her dying mother. After her mother’s death from brain cancer, Russell stayed home.
She was hired by the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office in 1996 and joined the Council Bluffs Police Department in 1998 at age 45.
“Even with just the short glimpse of time I have worked with Cathy I can tell she’s an amazing person,” said Council Bluffs Police Chief Tim Carmody. “She has 43 years in law enforcement and public safety.
“Cathy made the commitment at age 41 to try out and become a police officer,” Carmody added. “That is a huge commitment for anyone at that age, especially a woman. It’s pretty good to see that kind of thing.”
During Russell’s time as a Council Bluffs police officer, she worked in many departments, including narcotics and sexual abuse. Russell’s younger sister, Carol Curts, who also works for the Council Bluffs Police Department, said she did worry sometimes about her sister’s safety.
“We worry about all of them,” she said. “I’ve been with the PD (Council Bluffs Police Department) for a long time and they are all my family. I tried not to worry excessively because I knew she (Russell) had a lot of training. I wished that she would be careful and I left the rest to God.”
Russell said she felt safe regardless if she was working a drug or sex crime. O’Donnell said no matter what job Russell accepted, she excelled at it.
“I think the reason she took the tough jobs, I think the reason she became a critical incident stress debriefer, I think the reason she became a sex crime investigator was her passion to assist people,” O’Donnell said. “She was making a difference. A lot of police officers, a lot of people can’t handle the stress that comes from those position, but she not only handled the stress, she excelled in it. She was wonderful at it.”
Russell said being a female police officer was never that big of a deal, and she always felt like an equal with her male counterparts. As one of the older female officers, she did reach out to the female newcomers on the force.
“I don’t know about being a role model, but I always tried to support them and welcome them and make she they knew if they needed something or had question. I would help them with just about anything. I was always there to help them out,” she said.
Right before Russell retired she spoke often with Hilleary Schrage, who joined the police department on Jan. 5.
“Hilleary and I talked several times, and I encouraged her to pursue what she wanted to do. This is good career. It’s good pay,” Russell said. “I would always tell her to stay in shape, get your education. That’s key. You could be a street cop, and that is good place to be. If you want to be a FBI or Secret Service, the police department is a good place to start, but you need to set your goals a lot higher.”
While Russell retired, she has not slowed down. By mid-2016, she will have visited San Antonio, Texas; the Pearl Harbor Memorial Sites in Honolulu, Hawaii and attended a family reunion in Wyoming. A frequent traveler, Russell owns an RV and loves to take off with her four dogs and pet cockatiel Wayne and hit the road.
To pass the time in Council Bluffs, Russell accepted a position with the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office to help with courthouse security.
“Cathy’s just always busy. She has to stay busy, and this opportunity at the courthouse came up and she had to take it,” Curts said. “Now, she can work and still see all of the people she has spent a lot of time with.”
Carmody wasn’t surprised to see that Russell’s retirement would include hours at the courthouse.
“When you have public service in your heart, it doesn’t stop when you leave a department. It’s remarkable to see someone like that,” the police chief said. “We’re sad to see her go, but we’re excited for her future.”