Joan P. Yale, a trailblazer in Nassau policing who in her career became the highest-ranking woman to serve in any Long Island law enforcement agency, died Thursday at an assisted-living facility in Sayville. She was 72.
She had been ailing for four years, battling Lewy body dementia, one of the most common types of dementia, said her husband, Wayne Seay, 82.
Yale, of Oakdale, rose through the ranks during a 37-year career in the Nassau County Police Department, serving as its first female precinct commanding officer, chief of patrol and chief of detectives.
Her efforts paved the way for a generation of women . As of October 2017, there were 238 sworn female officers among 2,463 total in the department, officials said.
“She was dynamic,” said Seay, himself a retired Nassau chief of detectives. “Joan had a spirit that you could not keep up with.”
Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said Yale, his former boss, often worked harder than her male colleagues to prove her worth, but she never wanted to be treated differently because of her gender. Yale, he said, commanded respect with her work ethic and attention to detail.
“Everyone looked up to her,” Ryder said. “She treated everyone fairly. Joan led by example and paved the path for other women.”
Yale was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Middle Village, Queens, the younger of two children. Her mother, Helen Strumpf, worked in a bank and her father, Paul Yale, was a plumber.
A graduate of Newtown High School, Yale earned a degree in economics from City College of New York and a master’s in police science from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, now LIU Post.
At the urging of a female cousin who had joined the White Plains Police Department, Yale applied to the Nassau County Department in 1970. She placed first on the Civil Service test in her recruit class — earning an engraved revolver from the commissioner that now hangs in Nassau’s Police Museum — and became only the 27th woman to join the county’s force.
In 1974, Nassau was the second department in the nation, after New York City, to form a Hostage Negotiations unit, and Yale became the team’s chief negotiator.
Marianne Thompson, a retired deputy chief of detectives, said Yale was one of the first in the department to encourage conversation and dialogue during barricade incidents, rather than storming in to apprehend the suspect.
Yale went on to become a sergeant in 1976 and a captain in 1999. She served as the deputy commanding officer of three detective squads and the Bureau of Special Operations, and commanded the Narcotics Enforcement Team. She was the first woman on the force to serve as a commanding officer, named in 1994 to lead the Seventh Precinct.
Thompson remembered Yale as a big-hearted friend who always remembered her officers’ birthdays and would bring in baby gifts to new moms on her day off.
“Joan was amazing to work for,” Thompson said. “She was the kind of woman who earned everyone’s respect. And she broke the ground for all of us to follow.”
Yale and Seay formed a personal relationship in Buffalo in 1972 when they represented Nassau during the New York State Police Olympics. Seay was in the judo competition and taught the county’s wrestling team, while Yale was on the combat pistol team, which later won an international gold medal.
Although such relationships among officers were discouraged, the couple married in 1974. Under department regulations, they worked in different units.
Department leadership wanted Yale to take Seay’s name, he said, but she successfully argued with the commissioner against that. “She was resolved and not easily deterred,” Seay said. “Joan was so strong-willed.”
The couple had two children, Jessica Soto, 37, of Ronkonkoma, a claims specialist with the Social Security Administration, and Adam Seay, 33, of Shirley, a licensed massage therapist.
When her daughter was growing up, Yale was deeply involved with her Girl Scout troop, running bake sales and organizing a craft fair to send the girls on a Caribbean cruise. The family also traveled often, from Egypt and Turkey to Scotland and China.
“I will miss her sense of adventure and how she was so full of life,” Soto said. “She was the first person I wanted to talk to, whether I had good or bad news and needed advice.”
The final years of Yale’s career saw her break some of the department’s highest glass ceilings. She was named the department’s first female chief of patrol in 2002 and its chief of detectives in 2005.
She retired in 2007, but became restless, her husband said. In 2011, Yale went back to work as an investigator with the Suffolk County district attorney’s office. She left after less than two years when she became ill.
In addition to her husband, daughter and son, she is survived by Soto’s husband, Joseph, and her grandchildren, Hunter, 6, and Kiera, 2. Yale’s brother, Stephen, died in 2012.
A memorial service is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Moloney’s Bohemia Funeral Home in Bohemia, followed by burial in Pinelawn Memorial Park.