CINCINNATI – It was about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15, when Teresa Theetge got the telephone call she had been waiting more than three decades to receive.
What You Need To Know
- Teresa Theetge is the first female to hold the position of chief – interim or permanent – on a full-time basis in the history of the Cincinnati Police Department
- Theetge, a 31-year veteran of CPD, has a long family history within the department
- A trailblazer, Theetge has worked most aspects of law enforcement during her career
- The City of Cincinnati plans to conduct a national search for its next chief; Theetge hasn't said if she plans to apply
Theetge, a longtime Cincinnati Police Department veteran, was being called by interim City Manager John Curp.
Curp informed Theetge that retiring Police Chief Eliot Isaac planned to step down in three days, and Curp had picked her to serve as interim chief.
Isaac announced he would formally retire March 1, though his last day on the job was set for Feb. 18.
The day after the call, the world would find out what only Curp, Theetge and her husband knew: She would become the first female to lead CPD on a full-time basis.
“When he told me he had selected me, I was extremely honored and pleased,” said Theetge, a West Side native who grew up a part of the Neville family legacy in local law enforcement.
Following the announcement about Isaac, many around the city thought Theetge was the obvious choice to fill in as chief while a search for a permanent replacement took place. Some even thought they should have offered the permanent position to her out of the gate.
After all, Isaac picked her to be his second-in-command, making her the highest-ranked female police officer in CPD history.
“I think I've proven myself throughout my 31 years on this job, and that I am well deserving of this position,” Theetge said. “Yet I also see why being the first female is so significant to some people. I can see that it may mean a lot to women in the public, women in the police department, to see that somebody like them has risen to this level.”
Working her way to the top
During her time with the department, Theetge has held almost every role in the ranks. Her responsibilities as executive assistant chief under Isaac included overseeing the administration bureau, which includes things like internal affairs.
Theetge credits Isaac with helping prepare her for his old job. In 2016, he promoted Theetge to assistant chief, making her the second woman in the department’s history to hold the rank. Two years ago, Isaac promoted her again, making her executive assistant chief.
“One of the biggest things that I'm grateful to him for is watching him on a daily basis,” she said. “Nothing ever rattled Chief Isaac. He was always calm, patient and very methodical about everything that he did.”
Over the years, Theetge hasn’t hidden the fact that she had her eyes on the chief’s job after Isaac retired. She feels she’s put in the work and the time, but she didn’t know if she’d ever get the chance. Despite her extensive resume, there are some who may doubt her abilities based on gender alone, she added.
She’s OK with that.
“Maybe there will be some people out there that will judge me because I'm a woman, wondering if I can succeed in this role as well as a man can,” Theetge said. “If they do, if there are people out there that are watching through that lens, that's fine. I’ll stay focused on the job.”
Theetge’s emphasis will be on key issues like reducing the citywide uptick in gun violence that’s been occurring since 2018. Also, the ongoing update of the department’s groundbreaking Collaborative Agreement will be “very much at the forefront of how I will be approaching things every day,” she said.
Another part of her job will be helping CPD bolster its recruiting efforts. Theetge is focused on ways to make becoming a Cincinnati police officer “appealing” to somebody who may be on the fence about becoming a law enforcement officer.
'Deep roots' in law enforcement
Theetge was destined to become a police officer, her supporters said. She grew up a member of the Neville family – a well-known and decorated family in local law enforcement. She said police work runs deep in her family roots.
“I'm extremely proud when I get an opportunity to talk about our family legacy within the Cincinnati Police Department,” said Theetge, who fondly recalls seeing how proud her father, Capt. Gary Neville, was to put on his uniform every day.
Her father’s two brothers, Theetge’s uncles, also rose through the ranks of CPD to become lieutenants.
Ultimately, Theetge and four of her seven siblings chose careers in law enforcement. Three joined her as part of the Cincinnati Police Department and one went rogue by joining the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
“We all have the sense that we are public servants. We all share this vision of making the City of Cincinnati the safest place for people to work and to raise their families,” she said. “It's very important to us; we were born and raised in Cincinnati.”
But Theetge was the last to sign up to put on a uniform. After graduating from Walnut Hills High School, Theetge decided she wanted to get married and start a family. She and her husband, Bob, raised four children before she signed up for the CPD entrance exam at 29 years old.
Theetge credits her “extremely supportive husband” with helping her get to where she is today.
Of the five crime-fighting siblings, just Theetge and her sister, Joyce, an officer in District Five, remain on the police force. The others have all retired or moved on to other careers. They all live in Cincinnati, though.
“It's kind of nice to be able to tell them, ‘I made it, guys. I did exactly what I set out to do 30-plus years ago,’” she said. “They’re all extremely, extremely proud and extremely supportive of whatever this next chapter brings for me.”
Theetge hopes to be an example – not just for women and police officers, but really anyone who has a professional goal they want to accomplish.
“I hope that I can help people recognize that any opportunity they hope to attain is achievable if they just work hard and go for it,” she said.
Today, Theetge’s children are all grown. In fact, one of her sons went into the family line of business; Tony Theetge is a sergeant with the Boone County Sheriff’s Office in Northern Kentucky. Theetge’s nephew, Luke, is a sergeant under her command at CPD.
Now a grandmother of eight, Theetge said she feels “extremely fortunate” that all of her children and grandchildren still live close by in the greater Cincinnati region.
“Cincinnati is home,” she said. “This is where our roots are and this is where my family lives.”
What's next for Theetge and CPD?
Before he took office in early January, Mayor Aftab Pureval spoke about the importance of conducting a national search for Cincinnati’s next police chief. It is crucial to the city’s growth that it has the “best person for the job,” regardless of where they’re from, the mayor said.
The city plans to move quickly with the search process, including hiring a recruiting firm by early March.
The city will spend the spring gathering feedback from residents and community stakeholders on the qualities they want in the next permanent chief. Curp said Isaac and Iris Roley, a longtime community activist with roots in the Collaborative Agreement process, would be involved and help advise the city manager.
In June, the city plans to start the recruitment process, then interview preferred candidates in July and August.
Both Curp and Pureval said there’s no preferred candidate at this point and that they want the best candidate for the job. The city is also looking to onboard a permanent city manager, who is responsible for selecting the police chief.
While she didn’t want to comment on whether she plans to apply, Theetge said she sees value in having leadership that has walked in the shoes of the people they’re leading.
Theetge often tells anyone who will listen that the Cincinnati Police Department is an “extremely unique department” in part because of the experiences they’ve gone through over the past 20-plus years. Those experiences have set the department up to be “very innovative, very groundbreaking” in how law enforcement agencies should police their communities, she said.
“I've experienced that for the last 20 years, from the civil unrest in ‘01, the (Department of Justice) monitoring, the Collaborative Agreement – I've been a part of all of that,” Theetge said.
“The rank-and-file know that whatever I am asking them to do, that I’ve been asked to do the same thing throughout my career,” she added. “I'm not bringing a mindset or anything from some other city. I'm bringing the mindset of what this department has been through and how I hope to keep moving it forward.”
For Theetge, the “interim” title is something she’s cognizant of in terms of what that may mean administratively. But from an operational perspective, she has to make decisions as if that title isn’t there.
“When things go right, people aren't going to say ‘well, it went right because she's an interim’ or if something happens that doesn't go right, nobody's going to say, ‘well, it's okay because she's an interim.’ They're just gonna say she's the chief and she should respond to an incident or something in the same way that a chief without ‘interim’ in their title would.”