It wasn’t easy being a dispatcher, but Lareesa Whalawitsa loved her job.
The bulk of her career was spent being on the other end of the phone when a person was in crisis. She retired in September of 2018.
She’s most proud of just knowing she could help people, she said. Despite sometimes being treated badly by callers, Whalawitsa didn’t take it personal.
“Your world just got turned around, I know,” she would say.
Whalawitsa joined the Colville Tribal Police Department after high school. Her family has a long-running legacy on the force.
“My grandfather Joe Whalawitsa was one of the first police officers on the reservation,” she said. “I thought I would try it.”
At the time, she may not have been prepared for the job. One tragic event led to her reconsidering it.
“There was a domestic situation and the man killed his woman and then killed himself,” she recalled. “Then there was a couple of things that happened the same day. By that time, I went home and my mom (Delores Whalawitsa), we just prayed about it.
“She said you’re either going to be a helper for the people, pray for them or you can give it up. … I decided then that that’s what I wanted to do, so I just stuck with it.
Along the way, she did pause for college and a stint at the Yakama Nation’s corrections facility in Toppenish, where she held dual roles as a dispatcher and a guard. She eventually transferred back home and finished her career.
She spent time training other dispatchers during her tenure.
“I just told them if it’s 911 or something in progress you gotta be able to hold your cool, because they’re the one in crisis,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to 1) get their name, find out where they are, what’s happening. Get a phone number of all things. If you lose the connection you can call them back.
“If you can remember that in a span of 5-10-15-20 seconds, whatever, than you can do this job. You’ve just got to put yourself in their place and just do the best you can and get that help rollin’ that they need.”
Problems changed over the course of three decades, she noticed.
“By the time I finished working, I was seeing the third generation, the grandkids coming up and having issues with alcohol — more so the drugs in the last probably 10 years. It’s progressing and getting worse. The cycle’s not being broken for some and that’s sad.”
Occasionally, family was on the other end of the line. When her cousin Johnny Whalawitsa passed away, she fielded a call from her elderly uncle.
“He was cryin,’” she said. “When I said my name he says, ‘Oh my god, Johnny’s gone now.’ I said okay uncle, I’ll get people going.’
“Then I call my supervisor and she came in and took over so I could go sit with my uncle because he was by himself.”
She also worked with an officer killed in the line of duty: Sgt. Louis Millard.
“To this day, I clean my dad’s grave and I go visit his grave and put a flower on it. I just tell him, ‘Just rest in peace, we got it now.’ Every year.”
As far as changes go, technology replaced much of the items she was working with in the late 80s.
“Computers,” she said. “When I first started we were using typewriters.”
She encourages more tribal members to consider working as a dispatcher.
“The things that are going on: All the burglaries, car thefts, the drugs,” she said. “If they want to be a part of stopping that, just try to look forward and say, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ You’ll be working for your people.’”
One of the keys is to build rapport with people, Whalawitsa said.
“Some of them when they first start, they're kind of intimidated,” she said. “If you're a people person you're going to be fine…. Pretty soon before you know it, if you're out there on that hot call, there's gonna be people there that's gonna have your back.
“Male or female officer. You've gotta treat people the way you want to be treated. Because they're going to remember: If you're ugly to them, they're going to always see that person with that badge, that's how we all are. And that's not the way to work.”
Whalawitsa thanked her family for the support over the years. Due to her job, she has missed out on some family events.
“My family's always been behind me,” she said. “My mom was my biggest supporter. I had to sacrifice a lot. I missed family funerals down in Yakama Valley and even around here.”
Reflecting on her 31 years, Whalawitsa says: “I miss it. There’s a lot of people I think of that I’ve talked to over the years. … It's just the rapport. Making that person feel like no matter how big or small, that it meant something to me. And I'm going to do what I can to send them help. I miss the people.”