NAVAJO COUNTY – Thirty-five years ago, a very young Toni Garver decided to embark on a career in law enforcement, and on July 19, after 29 years with the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office and 6 years with the Show Low Police Department, she retired.
Growing up with six other siblings and a father who was a busy doctor was hard for Garver. Her mom died in 1978 when she was only 10 years old.
“It was a hard time as a child,” said Garver. “I was lost; I did not know where I was going, but mom’s rule, as she called them, always stayed with her.
Being a police officer was not her career choice as a young girl – she wanted to be a bull rider – though, no doubt, she did not know it is one of the world’s most dangerous professions.
“I saw a magazine with a lady who rode bulls – not a profession for women, and said I think I want to do that.”
Obviously, she did not pursue that line of work, and as she got closer to getting out of high school, she said she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She was, in her own words, “a young kid.”
She became a reserve officer in 1984 and 1985 before she graduated from high school in 1985. She dispatched at the Show Low Police Department; went to the police academy; did undercover work for the state with the Tucson DEA in 1986; and became a full time police officer under Show Low Police Chief John Corder in 1987, where she worked for six years before heading to the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff Gary Butler.
She has served under three sheriffs – Butler, KC Clark and current sheriff David Clouse.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, only 7.6% of police officers in 1987 were women.
“I never looked at it like a female or woman’s job,” said Garver. “Through my whole career, I never thought of being in a man’s world. I did not ask for favors or special treatment. I did not want to be treated that way.
“It’s a career that’s been good to me. I am proud to say I am from the White Mountain Community. They have put up with me and helped me. Most folks have been here a long time and they care about the police and the first responders. They do support us. I have enjoyed my career as a public servant.”
Over her 35 years in law enforcement, Garver says she has met a lot of wonderful and some not-so-desirable types, but her compassion for people has earned her respect on both sides of the law.
“When you go into a situation, you control the situation. As you get further into it, you might have to use force, but you treat them with respect. I have taught, trained, supervised and guided that no matter the situation, you treat them as you would your own family,” said Garver.
After her mother died, she said her father sat her on his lap and said, “Dolly, your mother said I had to take care of you because you are the special one.” She said she didn’t know what that meant until she had to handle a death investigation.
“I enjoyed that job and helping people. In the worst time of their lives you have to be very compassionate, and I was passionate about the job. It was my calling and I really grew in that position. I think I gave that 200%. It was not about me.”
She said she thanked a lot of people at her retirement party. The first were parents and family. She remembered her supervisors and her first chief, John Corder, whom she recognized as giving her that first opportunity and teaching her many things; she also remembered his wife, Jan. She thanked Sheriff Butler and said she was like another child in his home; she said former Chief Deputy Jim Molesa was a great mentor who also helped her grow; and Chief Deputy Brian Swanty has kept her going a few more years. She acknowledged a lot of people in different agencies that also helped her.
She didn’t forget Clark. She said he would say to her, “It is not Sheriff Toni Garver or Toni Garver County.”
“I knew I was in the sheriff’s office, my sheriff. I wanted to know his vision and mission, and every day I would say, ‘What do you, the sheriff (Butler, Clark and Clouse) want me to do today?’ What can I do today to make it better for them? I had good KC on my right and bad KC on my left. I told him it is not about what I was trying to accomplish, but I did it for you to move the agency forward.”
Swanty said he started with Garver at SLPD in 1991 and their careers ran side by side for 30 years.
“I was up here as DPS and she was a deputy sheriff in 1993. During her days in death investigation, I was Arizona Highway Patrol and handled fatalities all over this state. There was no other death center investigation unit like the one in Navajo County. Toni treated people like her own family; no short cuts, and no stone was left unturned. She wanted to know what happened so she could give families the full information as to what occurred. Sometimes it was obvious, but she never stated what was obvious. She showed the deceased’s family compassion and was professional.”
Swanty said they never had another office in the state do what Navajo County did. Butler had tapped Garver to put together a better program for death investigations, and she set the bar for that unit, and they are still using it eight and a half years later. From that, she was promoted to sergeant.
Clark put Garver back on patrol, and with Swanty coming on as chief deputy, they have had an opportunity to work together on all types of services in South County. He knew, even before he arrived, if you needed something, contact Garver – she was the face of the Sheriff’s Office and almost the entire community. And she rose to the rank of lieutenant.
Swanty said, “You never heard her say, “I’m off duty.”
She is, however, off duty now. So what will Garver do after 35 years of working every day in law enforcement?
Well, it may be a short retirement. She may be able to come back to the Sheriff’s Office in 60 days.
“Now that I am retired, I will eat breakfast at 7 a.m. rather than 11,” Garver said. “I will learn to see the world like I did long ago. My sister said to me, ‘You are so jaded.’ There’s a lot of hate out there. I want to see the world in a different light. I want to get to know my nieces and nephews and visit my siblings – something I have not been able to do.”
Though she does not do social media, many have shared with her the responses about her retirement on the Navajo County Facebook sites. She said it made her both happy and sad.
Echoing others, Swanty said, “Toni Garver will be greatly missed as a lieutenant as the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office. Her legacy and standards will be in place for many years because she had such a great impact in not only the South County but the entire region.
“We wish her well in her retirement.”