Margaret York, police officer who helped to inspire the detective series Cagney & Lacey – obituary

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Margaret York and her husband Lance Ito in 2007 - Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty Images
Margaret York and her husband Lance Ito in 2007 - Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty Images

Margaret York, who has died aged 80, became the first female deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department after a career in which, as one half of a female homicide investigation team, she inspired the popular 1980s television series Cagney & Lacey.

She was appointed to the LAPD in 1965 as a civilian radio telephone operator, then after training at a police academy joined the force in 1968.

It seemed unlikely at the time that she had much of a future in the police. Not only was she a divorced mother of three, struggling to bring up her children while holding down a demanding job, but policewomen in the 1960s were mainly confined to desk jobs or assigned to low-level detective work. They could not be promoted beyond the rank of sergeant and were banned from supervising male officers.

Nonetheless, by the 1970s Margaret York was working as a detective in the LAPD homicide department alongside her fellow woman detective Helen Kidder – a partnership established almost by default as no men wanted to work alongside a woman. They were soon winning high marks for solving crimes and extracting confessions.

Sharon Gless, left, as Christine Cagney, and Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey, the character based on Margaret York - UPPA/Photoshot
Sharon Gless, left, as Christine Cagney, and Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey, the character based on Margaret York - UPPA/Photoshot

Margaret York felt that part of the reason for their success was that suspects often seemed to regard them as mother figures with whom they could relax and talk more easily – “or they think we are too stupid to know what to do with the information”.

She did not wholly approve of the way the women detectives were portrayed in Cagney & Lacey (Tyne Daly played Mary Beth Lacey, the character based on her, and the action was transposed to the New York Police Department), observing that the series was “too New York” and depicted “two women trying to do exactly what men do” rather than showing the particular skills and advantages that women could bring to the role.

But she acknowledged that the series went far in showing how women in the force had to combat sexism from their colleagues as determinedly as they fought crime on the streets.

She was born Margaret Ann Mandley on August 4 1941 in Canton, Ohio. Her parents were florists, and the family moved to the Los Angeles area when Margaret was 13.

It was after her first marriage, to Donald York, ended in divorce that she joined the LAPD, and in 1981 she married Lance Ito, then a young prosecuting attorney, after meeting him the previous year at three o’clock in the morning “over a dead body”. As Judge Ito, he would preside in 1995 over the trial for murder of O J Simpson.

Margaret York progressed through the LAPD ranks, her career culminating in her promotion to the first female deputy chief of the department. She retired from the force in 2002. During her time as a policewoman she had taken a degree in management from the University of Redlands, near Los Angeles, and a Master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California.

She went on to serve as head of the Los Angeles County Office of Public Safety, responsible for law enforcement and security services for hospitals, parks and buildings in the county. She worked as a consultant for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, founded her own consulting and investigations firm and mentored many younger women on the LAPD.

She did much philanthropic work for the Salvation Army, the American Cancer Society and other good causes, including helping to set up a shelter for battered women in Mexico, where she often went on holiday.

Margaret York is survived by her husband and by two sons and a daughter from her first marriage.

Margaret York, born August 4 1941, died October 17 2021

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