When Helen T. Swanson joined the Minneapolis Police Department in 1951, female officers were scarce, and those who existed were not allowed to work on the street. Their working garb consisted of a dress, pillbox hat, nylon hose and shoes with heels. Oh, and a purse to hold their makeup, guns and handcuffs.
Swanson, 94, of Big Lake, Minn., died Tuesday in a Buffalo nursing home. She was one of the first women on the Minneapolis force, recalled Sgt. Bill Chaplin, who started policing in 1967.
Swanson and other early female officers "were definitely pioneers," said First Precinct Inspector Kris Arneson, who wrote a college paper on those women.
Swanson, born in Hillsboro, N.D., earned a nursing degree at the University of Minnesota. She worked as a nurse at the former Swedish and General Hospitals in Minneapolis and then as a supervisor at the Sister Kenny Institute during the polio epidemic.
In 1949, her husband, Lawrence Walton, a police officer, died of a heart attack, leaving her with two sons to support.
"She figured she could make more money as an officer to support her kids," said her stepdaughter, Yvonne Eck, of Minnetonka. "She was a strong lady. She didn't take guff from anybody," including male officers.
Swanson joined the Minneapolis department in 1951 and two years later married Eck's father, Iver Swanson, another Minneapolis officer. She worked in juvenile crimes for about a decade. News clippings noted that she and three other female officers won an efficiency award in 1954 for investigating and arresting two girls who had stolen food and craft items from Sheridan Junior High.
In 1961, Swanson and another officer, Dorothy Lia Braaten, passed written and marksmanship tests to become detectives. But the police promotions board refused to let them become detectives, said Arneson, who interviewed Swanson and Braaten about their experiences in 1997.
The pair sued the city and won to become the department's first female detectives, Arneson said. They were assigned to the homicide and sex crimes unit and handled mostly sex crimes. Swanson retired in 1975.
With two parents as officers, there were many dinner table conversations about cop work, recalled Swanson's older son, Lawrence Walton, of Deming, Wash. He said his mother handled a call in the early 1960s that underage girls were in the hotel room of the Beatles, who were in town for a concert. He said his mom and a partner found the Fab Four but no girls in the room.
"They told the Beatles they were not welcome in Minneapolis," Walton said. "They told them to get out of town."
He said his mother, who always wore stylish clothes and jewelry to work, drew her gun once during a robbery in Minneapolis, but never fired it.
In addition to Eck and Walton, Swanson is survived by another son, Steven, of Naples, Idaho; 18 grandchildren; 25 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Saron Lutheran Church in Big Lake, with visitation an hour before the service.