There’s a new sheriff in town: During last week’s election in Pitt County, North Carolina, Paula Dance made history when she became the county’s first African-American sheriff and the first African-American female sheriff in the state. When Dance took her oath, her grandson and granddaughter held the Bible while she solemnly swore to uphold all of her campaign promises.
Dance’s law-enforcement career spans over 20 years. The Martin County, North Carolina, native grew up in Farmlife and inadvertently got into law enforcement when she took a job as a clerk/jailer at her local sheriff’s office shortly after attending community college.
“I knew at some point, not long after getting in, that that was my niche. I started interacting with the public and being a public servant … and that’s when I knew that was the career that I had been looking for,” Dance told ESSENCE in an interview.
But as a Black woman in law enforcement, Dance has had a few obstacles to overcome. Shortly after she graduated from the police academy, she ended up at the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. And although she was sworn in, she says, she was pretty much relegated to working in the office. But as a married woman juggling a career and three children, Dance was determined not to let anything hold her back. And with jobs since then ranging from patrol officer to major-crime investigator, and the expertise she’s developed in dealing with domestic abuse and child sexual-abuse cases, Dance’s public-service career has flourished.
As one of only a few African-American female sheriffs in the country, Dance knows all too well the perception that comes with being in law enforcement, especially as it pertains to the Black community. And as a mother of three children, Dance acknowledges that she’s had to have “the talk” with them.
“I have two African-American sons. One lives in Miami and the other one plays professional basketball overseas. But when he’s here in the States, I do worry about them because I understand. … And I have had to have the talk,” Dance said. “When we as a community, as a Black community, have to do things differently with our sons and daughters just to make them safe, then there is a problem.”
With so many local law-enforcement departments being put under the microscope, particularly over issues of implicit racial bias, Dance understands the importance of diversity training and community policing. First and foremost, she expects her officers not just to know the areas they’re policing, but also to interact with the people in the community.
“Under my leadership, it is an expectation that these officers will know who is in the communities that they are patrolling, and the people in that community know who their officers are for that area, so that they can start to build or have a common respect for each other once they get to know those officers,” she said. “It is certainly my expectation that officers get to know their community and that the community gets to know who they are as well. I think that goes a long way when you know somebody on a personal level, versus just somebody you see and you make assumptions about from both sides.”
And it’s these assumptions that plague many police departments across the country. Implicit racial bias is not only based on assumptions; it’s pretty much the new sugarcoated word for “racism.” Of course, there are always going to be those rotten apples, or bad cops, that exist within a police department, and it’s those officers who make the decent ones look bad. But Dance is also of the view that if there’s a good cop who refuses to cross the thin blue line to report his or her fellow officers’ wrongdoing, then can that officer really be considered good?
“That’s not a good cop. You can’t use a good cop not reporting bad cops in the same sentence and say it’s a good cop. We have to police each other. It will be an expectation—it should be an expectation—that we police each other. Because when we don’t call out those officers who are bad, then we are just as guilty or complicit in their behavior,” Dance said.
One of Dance’s priorities is to make sure police officers are held accountable for their actions, by implementing body cameras. “The Pitt County Sheriff’s Office does not have bodycams. Some of our municipalities—the larger ones and some of the smaller ones—have them,” she explained. “Bodycams will be a tool that our officers should be able to use. It protects them; it protects the citizens. It lets us know what’s happening out there on the streets and how our officers are interacting with people, and how people are interacting with our officers, so we can make a determination as to whether that officer acted appropriately or not. It keeps the officers honest.”
In addition to her community-policing efforts and expanded training, Dance also wants to help those in the community who are in need, especially when it comes to the opioid and heroin crisis. In Pitt County alone, Dance notes, it’s not uncommon for there to be three or four overdose calls a day, which is one of the reasons her officers are equipped with the drug Narcan, or naloxone, to help revive overdose victims. Dance wants to make sure that once a suspect with a heroin or other opioid problem enters the jail system, there’s a support system available for that person.
“I want to implement a program where we can identify people who are in jail as a result of a heroin addiction or an opioid addiction. So once we identify those people, and if they only have low-level crimes, I hope to be able to bring together a collaborative community, which will include our spiritual community, several people who have been in recovery for many years from an addiction, as well as our mental-health community, to get people back on their feet,” she said.
The current detention center is a short-term facility, Dance says, so once people get out on bond, no one is there to discuss their addictions with them and to help them start the recovery process.
“So when they leave our jail, what do they do? They go right back out and they do the same thing again and partake in drugs, and it’s a never-ending cycle. They end up having to feed that habit and they end up doing something to come right back in,” she said.
With her new position as sheriff, Dance sees a ton of changes happening in Pitt County. She encourages people, particularly Black people, to look into careers in law enforcement.
“I am the sheriff of Pitt County and I am a Black woman in the Deep South. And if I can do it, anybody can do it. And I encourage people of color to go into law enforcement,” she said. “We can’t change things until we become a part of it, and you can’t complain without being a part of the solution.”