Soft-spoken and undeniably sweet, Cheryl Valle was unsure she had enough grit for a career as a police dispatcher — a public safety post she said seems more fitting for assertive, outspoken types.
In her 26 years with the Westminster Police Department, Valle learned she did.
The dispatcher last week closed out her career with an Honor Walk Tuesday, May 10, before signing off from her final shift Thursday, May 12. (Listen to her retirement sign off below.)
Colleagues lined the front steps of the department Tuesday night to bid farewell to Valle, 49, and celebrate her contributions to the department.
“The department will miss her calm voice during critical incidents, but I will miss her friendship and reminiscing about all the crazy and funny calls we’ve worked together,” said WPD Communications Supervisor Sonia Kelly. “And I’ll miss her chocolate malts. She makes the best chocolate malts.”
The daughter of an accountant and a school teacher, Valle said she didn’t dream of any certain career as a kid.
The Hacienda Heights native did well in school, but never took up any hobbies until she hit her 20s when a friend introduced her to poker.
“I used to play poker before it was legal for me to play poker,” Valle laughed. “I used to sneak in to the Bicycle Casino and would play at least once a week.”
She was hooked to Texas Hold ‘Em and quickly learned she could run a table pretty easily.
Valle competed at the Bicycle Casino often and also had showings at two major events: a World Series of Poker tournament and a Ladies World Poker Tour tournament.
“There was a time when I was pretty good,” she said. “I would walk in and people would assume because I was a girl, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The genial demeanor that served her well at the poker table also would be an asset in the police communications room, Valle would find.
It was Valle’s husband, Ted Valle, a sergeant with Fountain Valley PD, who suggested she explore a career as a police dispatcher.
She joined the department in March 1990.
“I don’t know that I was necessarily cut out to do the job, but I did fall in love with it,” she said. “I think this job either comes to you naturally or you have to work really hard at it.
“I was somebody who had to work really hard at it.”
Valle fielded all kind of calls and situations in her nearly three decades with Westminster PD, becoming an expert multi-tasker and broadening her threshold for handling the frustrating.
Patience, Valle said, is the No. 1 attribute needed to sustain a career in dispatch.
“The majority of 9-1-1 calls are not emergency calls,” she said. “People call for all kinds of things.”
People call to ask what time it is or to ask what temperature to set their oven at to roast a turkey.
She remembered one woman who called screaming that her baby was trapped underneath an RV.
“A baby? Your baby?” Valle clarified multiple times.
“Yes, my baby!” the woman insisted.
Officers arrived to find the woman’s cat hiding under the RV.
These calls make for good fodder among police dispatchers — funny later, but infuriating in the moment.
Then there are those calls that stay with you throughout the career and likely beyond, Valle said.
The worst she experienced was running communications during a traffic stop that turned into a pursuit.
The driver, who had warrants out for his arrest, blew a stop sign and crashed into another vehicle, killing a 12-year-old.
“It was so heartbreaking,” Valle said. “There are certain calls that will always be a part of you. You don’t dwell on it, but it’s the reality of the job.”
Every time officers engaged in a pursuit on her shift from that day on, Valle prayed.
But for every terrible call that ends in tragedy, there are dozens that have better outcomes.
One of Valle’s most memorable calls was helping a distraught bride-to-be.
“I know this might sound pretty stupid, but in terms of feeling like I really did something or made a difference, this was one of those calls,” she said.
Someone forgot to pick up the bride’s wedding dress from the dry cleaner before they closed, so the woman turned to the police department for help.
“She was frantic and came to us as a last resort,” Valle said. “We used every possible resource we could think of to track down the owner and get her dress.
“We just felt so good. We saved somebody’s wedding.”
Valle has hundreds of memories that paint a colorful narrative of her career, but she hopes to leave behind something greater than entertaining anecdotes.
“The one legacy, if I could pass something down, would be to tell (dispatchers) if there is something that interests you in law enforcement, I believe you have to go for it,” she said. “I think you make opportunities for yourself.”
Valle lived this philosophy when she helped found the department’s trauma support team more than 20 years ago, which she served on until retirement, and when she earned a spot on the department’s crisis negotiation team — the first dispatcher to do so.
“I feel like I’ve had such a full career, and I’m ready for the next chapter in my life,” she said.
Part of that next chapter will include house hunting in Hawaii with her husband, who retires in August.
“I just want to live in paradise, and Hawaii is the closest thing we have to that,” she said. “We think we’ll spend about half the year there.”
Hawaii is also halfway between her children. Her 21-year-old daughter, who is a black belt in karate, goes to school at Cal State Long Beach, and her 28-year-old son lives in Japan where he works as a translator.
Valle also will continue to grow her photography business, Surf City Photography, which she started five years ago. (Her portrait of WPD’s K9 handler Travis Hartman and K9 Pako took second place at last year’s Orange County Fair.)
While she loves to photograph families and events, Valle hopes to continue photographing the men and women she’s served alongside for half her life.
“It’s very important for me to show police officers in a positive light, so I like to do that when I can,” she said.
As she sets her sights on white-sand beaches and an unobstructed ocean view, she questioned whether she will truly miss the communications room.
“When I’m sitting on a beach in Hawaii somewhere drinking a margarita I don’t think I’ll be saying, ‘God I wish I was on a 9-1-1 call’,” Valle said laughing. “Maybe there are some aspects of the job I’ll miss.”
But she knows there is part of her job that is not easy to walk away from: “The people. I will miss the people, for sure.”