Margaret York, an L.A.P.D. Model for ‘Cagney & Lacey,’ Dies at 80

She became the police force’s highest ranking woman after she and a detective partner inspired a TV series fighting crime in the streets and sexism in the ranks.,

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Margaret York, a homicide detective who helped inspire the 1980s Emmy-winning police drama “Cagney & Lacey,” and who rose to become the highest-ranking woman in the Los Angeles Police Department, died on Oct. 17 at a hospital in Los Angeles. She was 80.

The cause was a series of illnesses and finally multiple organ failure, said her husband, Judge Lance Ito, who gained national prominence presiding over the O.J. Simpson criminal trial and is now retired.

In almost four decades with the L.A.P.D., Ms. York broke numerous glass ceilings and in 2000 was the first woman to be named deputy chief, making her the highest-ranking woman on the force. She retired in 2002.

While working homicide in the 1970s, she was paired with Detective Helen Kidder — mainly, both said, because the men in the department didn’t want to work with a woman. This left them partners by default and inadvertently created a groundbreaking team of an all-female homicide unit.

By 1980 they were attracting attention for their crime-solving skills, which included helping to find the perpetrators of a notorious series of murders on the Sunset Strip.

All this proved irresistible to television producers, who took the rare combination of two female detective partners in Los Angeles, transplanted them to the New York Police Department, glammed them up and made a fast-paced series called “Cagney & Lacey.” In the show, just as in real life, the women battled sexism on the force as much as they fought crime on the street.

The series — in which Tyne Daly portrayed Mary Beth Lacey, the character based on Ms. York, and Sharon Gless played her partner, Christine Cagney, based on Ms. Kidder — ran from 1981 to 1988 on CBS and won multiple Emmy Awards.

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Tyne Daly, left, and Sharon Gless starred in the 1980’s TV police drama “Cagney & Lacey.” The series was inspired by the groundbreaking work of Ms. York and Helen Kidder, homicide detectives in the L.A.P.D.Credit…CBS

“We were big news because nowhere else in L.A. County were women working homicide,” Ms. Kidder, now retired from the force, said in a phone interview. For a time the two were known for having the department’s highest rate of solving crimes and extracting confessions.

“These people either look at us as a mother figure,” Ms. York told The Los Angeles Times in 1993, “or they think we are too stupid to know what to do with the information.”

Ms. Kidder said she thought the pair obtained so many confessions because they had actually listened to people. “We didn’t start putting words in their mouths,” she said in the interview. “We gave them a chance to tell their stories.”

Because of the energy of the women’s movement, Ms. Kidder said, “The timing was just right for ‘Cagney & Lacey.'” She herself didn’t care for the series, thinking it unrealistic and “too New York,” by which she meant “brusque,” but she was glad that it showed women in professional roles other than teacher or secretary.

Ms. York wasn’t thrilled with it, either, telling The Los Angeles Times in 1982 that in its earliest iteration “Cagney & Lacey” depicted “two women trying to do exactly what men do,” rather than showing the special skills and attributes that women could bring to the job.

But the show contributed to a national conversation, fueled by sex discrimination suits and consent decrees, about whether women could and should be police officers.

Even after the show was overhauled and started winning awards, Ms. York rarely watched it. “She was a mother and a busy professional,” Judge Ito said in a phone interview. “I don’t think watching it was at the top of her to-do list.”

Margaret Ann Mandley was born on Aug. 4, 1941, in Canton, in northeast Ohio. Her parents, Ralph and Hazel (Moore) Mandley, were florists. They raised their family in the nearby village of Minerva until they moved to the Los Angeles area for better economic opportunities when Peggy, as she was known, was 13.

Her first marriage, to Donald York, ended in divorce. She found work with the Los Angeles Police Department as a single mother of three looking to support her family, starting as a civilian radio telephone operator in 1965. After attending the police academy, she became a policewoman in 1968.

“She joined policing at a time when policewomen were faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” Michel Moore, the current chief of the L.A.P.D., said in a statement.

Back then, women on the police force could work only desk jobs or in jails. They were assigned the lowest-level detective work, could not be promoted beyond the rank of sergeant and could supervise only other women. Ms. York helped change the culture. Women are now eligible for all ranks and assignments. Today they make up 18 percent of officers on the force, a figure higher than the national average of less than 13 percent.

Ms. York met Judge Ito in late 1980, when he was a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles. Both had been called to the scene of a homicide at 3 in the morning. They met “over a dead body,” he said, recalling that he had been impressed with her but that she hadn’t paid him any attention.

They crossed paths a couple of months later, in 1981, and within less than a year of their first meeting they were married. Judge Ito went on to fame in 1995 as the Superior Court judge presiding over the Simpson trial, one of the most sensational of the last century.

In addition to him, Ms. York is survived by two sons, David and Dennis York, and a daughter, Cynthia York Shadian, all from her first marriage; two brothers, Gregory and Jeff Mandley; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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Superior Court Judge Lance Ito and Ms. York in 1992. They were married in 1981. Less than a year before, they had met at a crime scene at 3 in the morning. Credit…Reuters

Having received only a high school education, Ms. York went to college after marrying Judge Ito. While continuing her police work, she earned a bachelor’s degree in management in 1985 from the University of Redlands, east of Los Angeles. She then earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California.

A year after retiring from the L.A.P.D., she was appointed chief of the Los Angeles County Office of Public Safety, which provided law enforcement and security services for all Los Angeles County hospitals, parks and buildings. (It has since been absorbed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.)

Ms. York later founded a consulting and investigations firm, the Margaret York Company, in Pasadena. She founded a Salvation Army women’s shelter in Baja, Calif., and served on the board of Women Against Gun Violence.

She also mentored women on the police force. “She was always one to reach back and encourage women to climb the hills she once climbed alone,” Commander Ruby Flores of the L.A.P. D. said in an interview.

Despite the strides that women have made, Commander Flores added, the L.A.P.D. has yet to name a woman chief. “When we see that happen,” she said, “that will be Peggy’s legacy.”

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