- Associated Press - Saturday, August 20, 2016

BURLINGTON, N.C. (AP) - More than 40 years after she made history in the Burlington Police Department, Jackie Sheffield is still there.

The retired captain - who only left for about six months when she officially wrapped up her career in 2005 - now works as a victim and witness assistant, spending much of her time reaching out to the victims whose names are listed on the reports from domestic violence calls and other crimes.

Sheffield, the first woman to be hired by Burlington as an officer, doesn’t deny that she’s a believer in tough love. All that she saw during her career as an officer helped form that quality. It also allowed her to be the first responder who showed up to intervene, as the officers she works with now do.

“I know how scared victims can be,” Sheffield said.

As she sits in her cubicle in the police department’s criminal investigation division, her toenails painted blue, Sheffield recalls what drew her into policing at a time when it was not only barely socially acceptable for a woman to be a police officer, but it hadn’t been done in many places, including Burlington.

“My whole life, I have been somebody who went out and did stuff,” Sheffield said.

The stuff she’s referring to were activities that challenged the norms in her younger years.

She was a bat girl for a baseball team, “and girls did not do that.”

She tried to take the auto mechanic class in high school, only to be told she had to first round up 10 female students to form an all-girls class. It didn’t happen.

She and her best friend were the first girls to try to graduate from her high school in Johnston County without taking home economics.

“My father always told us there’s nothing you can’t do,” Sheffield said. “If you want it, you work for it.”

When she went to college at East Carolina, advisers tried to steer Sheffield to a career in social work, the female alternative to law enforcement.

Despite seeing a need for social work, Sheffield said she couldn’t get past the first paragraph of her social work textbook without disagreeing with the approach being taught. Her social work professor agreed it wasn’t the right field for Sheffield, and she decided to enroll in criminal justice.

When it was time to complete her internship, the Burlington Police Department, led by Chief Alfred Garner, was the closest place to Greenville that would take her.

“I don’t know what to do with her, but bring her on,” Sheffield recalled Garner saying at the time.

IN AUGUST 1975, Sheffield was wrapping up her final two internship classes and was offered a spot in Burlington’s rookie school the night before it started. She joined just six others at the department who had college degrees then.

A lot of her fellow officers were skeptical at first, thinking Sheffield had been sent by the federal government following a lawsuit brought by two female parking attendants who had worked for the city.

When she first hit the road, few people gave her any trouble, at least. Sheffield remembers that one man - who notoriously fought every cop who tried to arrest him - was excited to be taken into custody by her, for whom he gladly put on his shoes and walked out to her patrol car to be transported to jail.

“I was a novelty,” Sheffield said. “The police department and the community was good to me.”

On her first traffic stop, she saw two Burlington and two county patrol cars watching from a block away.

Suspects would apologize for cursing in front of her.

She made the police wives nervous. They would invite her over for dinner to get to know the only woman working with their husbands.

“I knew I was in a man’s world,” she said.

Assistant Chief Eric Kearns, who worked for Sheffield in the department’s then-existent youth division, described Sheffield and Vickie Saunders, the first other female officer and later supervisor at Burlington, as employees who helped shape a “family atmosphere” within the police department.

As many other female officers have had to do, Sheffield used her communication abilities to talk people out of resisting arrest instead of fighting them, but those types of encounters probably happen more frequently now than they did then, she suspects.

“I feel sorry for the females coming out today,” Sheffield said. “I had it easy.”

Sheffield hasn’t decided when she is going to leave the police department for good. Her position is part-time, “but she easily works a full-time job,” said Lt. Chris Gaddis, who today works with her in CID, but with whom she was previously a driving instructor, among other duties.

For now, her plan is to continue working “until it’s not fun.”

She hasn’t reached that point yet.


Information from: Times-News, https://www.thetimesnews.com

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