Paula Dance oral history interview, September 8, 2020

Sheriff Paula S. Dance

Jennifer Daugherty
North Carolina Collection, Joyner Library

September 8, 2020
WebEx Interview

JD: Okay, today is September the eighth it's 10 o'clock am and we are here by WebEx interviewing Sheriff Paula Dance. My name is Jennifer Daugherty and I am the head of the North Carolina Collection. Alright, Sheriff Dance. I'm going to go ahead and get started with our questions here. Let me find. Okay, um, could you please state your name, birthdate and where you were born?

PD: I am Sheriff Paula Dance. I was born in February of 1964, many years ago. And I was born and raised in Martin County, an area called Farmlife and it's just like it sounds - I lived on a farm. And I live that farm life. So that's where my humble beginning. Beginnings began.

[Interviewer's audio was muted from 1:03-1:17]

PD: I've lost volume. You're muted.

JD: Sorry. Okay. Um, can you share a little bit about your background? You said where you were from, but can you talk about, you know, growing up there, where you went to school?

PD: Yes. So, yes, in the Farmlife community I lived in where the address was like Williamston address, but I went to Bear Grass, which was a very small school, a rural school, graduating class of about 22 - that's about how small it was. And from there, I went to Pitt Community College for a while, and in computer programming, and so left that area I went to Greensboro and worked for a software company for a while, and I kind of got homesick and wanted to come home. And so I moved back from Guilford County to Martin County and, um, obviously I needed a job. And so there was an opening at the Martin County Sheriff's Office. And so I applied for that opening, which was like a clerk/jailer position. We didn't actually have a jail in Martin County. It was a tri-jail that was located in Bertie County. So I was primarily stationed at the sheriff's office there. And it was there when I realized that I had found my niche. You know, I started to see what law enforcement was about. I didn't have any interactions with law enforcement growing up. So I didn't have a feeling one way or the other about this profession and so, as I began to see what law enforcement was about, and as I began to interact with the citizens in Martin County, and being able to help in some small way, um, you know, again, it was a sudden epiphany that this was what made me happy.

PD: I was happy coming to work every day and look forward to going to work and decided that this was what I wanted to do. So I put myself through the Academy, the police academy - which is called the Basic Law Enforcement Training Program, often known as BLET. I went at night, and got through the academy and came back to Martin County with my certification and said, here it is, you know, I'm done and now I want to be an officer. And they gave me a badge and a gun and swore me in, but then turned around and said that they didn't believe in women being on the road. So, you know, they were still expecting me to be an in-office person. Well I've worked really, really hard - you know, and I knew at that point what I wanted to do, and I was not going to be deterred in doing that. And so unfortunately, I left my home county and came over to Pitt County and applied for a position here, and I often say that I was a twofer because I was a woman and. Well I was a double minority: I was a woman and I was African American. And so they, you know, were interested and within a month or so I was working here at Pitt County Sheriff's Office, thus began my career. And so I came in as a patrol officer, and after about three years, I was promoted to the rank of sergeant in a newly formed, domestic violence prevention unit. And we began to recognize during that time, the significance of domestic violence cases that we were losing people, specifically women to this violent act. There used to be a time when I first started in law enforcement where you would go to a domestic violence call and basically it was, you know, don't do it anymore - because oftentimes the victims did not. They were afraid to get the warrants themselves because they were afraid of the retaliation that could occur from that, you know, being left at home with their perpetrator.

PD: And so the domestic violence laws are changing then, chapter 50-B laws were coming into effect, in which the officer was able to - once they saw or had probable cause to believe that an assault had occurred - then it you know, we. It was. The responsibility was put back on the officer to go and get a warrant for the domestic abuse. That took it off from the victim and having to you know, now you could say, well, I didn't go get the warrant. Um, and so anyway, I became the sergeant of that that unit and shortly thereafter, I was promoted to a major crimes investigator. My area of expertise initially was doing physical and sexual child abuse cases. And then it kind of morphed into - I don't know - I became a magnet for when I was on call, I would get called out to some or I got called out to some of the most high profile murder cases here in Pitt County and began to work murder cases. After then, I was promoted to lieutenant of investigations. I was then promoted again to captain of investigations and - which to include the drug unit, that was the difference between the lieutenant of investigations: my primary function was over the Major Crimes Unit, but as Captain I became. Additionally, I was also the drug unit. And then in 2013, I was promoted to major of Pitt County Sheriff's Office and that was a big deal at that time because I became the first female and the first African American to be promoted to such a rank.

PD: And so afterwards my previous Sheriff [Neil] Elks decided that he was not going to run anymore and I looked around me and you know, being the major postured me in being turned in command of the entire agency, the chief deputy at the time was not going to run. And so I, as I looked around me, and I said, well, you know what, there's no one else more qualified than I to run for sheriff, and didn't have a lot of role models, because at that time, there was one sitting female sheriff in. Oh I forgot the name of the county that she was in, it was a relatively small county. And she had been sheriff for some years. And so I did reach out to her because she was the only role model that I had here in North Carolina, to talk about being a woman and being a leader of an entire agency. Carteret County is the county that she was from Susan Johnson. And um, so she was able to mentor me some on through what I may face, being a woman and running for Sheriff and, and so I've struck out on faith and decided to make that run for sheriff. And fortunately, in 2018, the citizens of Pitt County recognized all the work that I had done previously - I had made a lot of, of relationships with my community through working cases or just being involved in community activities. And so they saw fit and elected me as sheriff of Pitt County. That made me the first African American Sheriff ever in Pitt County, the first female Sheriff ever in Pitt County and the first African American female sheriff in the State of North Carolina. And more importantly, when I became sheriff, I was fifth in the country to have become Sheriff as an African American female. I think now there are maybe seven that are sheriffs, some states have their elections and off years and so there I think, was two more that have since become sheriffs.

PD: The important thing is just by my election and getting out and running for sheriff I've had contacts from all over the country from women who read about or saw that I had won my election, and it inspired them to run as well. Some were not as fortunate right, but at least the seed was planted that it could be done as a woman, in a field that is predominantly male. That, you know, we can still get out here and when you work hard, and you do what's right. And you bring that experience to the table, being a leader, then you can be a leader, you can be the leader. So it's been a very interesting career. And I'm just very, very proud to be a woman that hopefully will be you know, I can be the role model to other women need here in the state of North Carolina. In their confidence as they decide to put their skills and experiences out there to lead an agency.

JD: Do you also find that difficult to be in that role? Because you. Because you - So many people are looking up to you and kind of putting that pressure on. And I guess you put a lot of pressure on yourself too, is there difficulty in that?

PD: Well, you know, um, I think it would be. It's a lot of responsibility when you are responsible for the safety and well-being of any community, no matter how big or small, because, yeah, you know, want to make sure that our community is safe. All eyes are on me more specifically, because it's the being, you know, a woman and being the first. So, you know, I definitely dot my i's and cross my t's a little stronger, or a little harder, because I know and recognize that all eyes are on me, I knew that would be. I knew that going in that that would be the case. But you know, really, I don't do anything, anything different or other than doing what's right in having the community, in this county - this county's best interests at heart. And, you know, I felt that I could bring some things to the table, that would be something that moves our county forward, something that keeps us on the map. I mean, we're the 14th largest county, in the state of North Carolina. And when you're talking about on this side of 95, on the east coast, we are an agency that typically people have an expectation that we'll be leaders in this field. And so, you know, I just continue to do those things that that need to be done. I don't need to do anything that you know, I don't attempt to do anything that makes me stand out. I just attempt to do things that's right. That's going to be something that's going to be good for our community and its safety and well-being and just loving the community and loving the people in this community. It gives me the drive and the desire, you know, I live work, eat and play here so I certainly have a vested interest in this community being as safe as possible.

JD: Okay. I think you've actually answered a couple of the questions coming up but we'll - I'll ask them when we can, if you want to add anything else. So the next question was how and or why are you in the position or role you're currently in? So if you have anything you want to add to that, I know you talk kind of about why and.

PD: Well, yeah, I mean, I just think that, you know. As years. You know, when you continue to put the same thing in, the results are usually the same and you know, when it comes out. And I want to put something different in - into the mix, trying to figure out how we keep our communities safe.

PD: [Audio distortion from interviewee begins at 15:00] And so some of the things that I have done I think has been certainly outside of the box we fought a war on drugs for many, many years and, you know, unfortunately [unclear at 15:12] that war. I started to think about looking at it from a different angle and saying let's concentrate on the people who are affected or become addicted or succumbed to the effects of drugs. And I did do some things with sorting through programs into - in our detention center. This is why people continue to come into our detention center and I recognized that there were three main reasons that I found that people continue to come into the detention center: one is mental illness. I am definitely a firm believer that mental illness does not belong in the detention center. I think that there are some other services that should be focused on that area. Another area that I found was poverty, when people were in need of a way to make money or income, that was something that needed to be focused on. And then the third thing was those who were substance abusers and trying to find those resources that will get them off to recovery and bringing those resources. And so, you know, let me first give this disclaimer you know, as sheriff, yes, it is my duty and mission to detect, you know, those or find those who broke the law and it is my job to make sure we investigate those cases and arrest those people.

PD: And also as sheriff one of my biggest responsibilities is to the detention center including those who are awaiting trial, in that detention center and making sure that they are getting all the necessary human basic, you know, human basic needs and rights afforded to them. So, those are things that I still continue to do, as you know - and it is a little untraditional that sheriffs are focused on this area of how we keep crime down, by addressing the reasons why people commit those crimes. And so, of that - from that we developed a program called the Sheriff's Heroin Addiction and Recovery Program (SHARP) program and since the jail is mostly populated by men, the program focused on the men. And then but then again, I started to realize that you know, that there is this other smaller population in our detention center that involved women. And so from that, the WEAR program was born - the Women's Empowerment And Recovery program and so we are able through those two programs to bring in outside sources for, you know, to be able to share with those who are incarcerated for those reasons, and those resources are sometimes in the form of the spiritual community. It's in the form of counselors, people - peer support people who actually are people who have recovered themselves and have been on the road to recovery and success. And so, you know, these were. there are a few community people that are. were really well known in the community that comes into these programs and in counsel with people and given them - changing their mindset and giving them hope. When you tell people, you know, or I often say, um, you know, a lot of people will believe who they are, or believe themselves to be who they. they are told that they are. And so I wanted to tell people or give them a different message: This is not who you were, it is who you can be. And it's in the form of hope.

PD: [Audio effect from interviewee clears up at 19:37] And it's in the form of bringing in these resources who have not given up on them. I've had several graduates thus far from this program who were still in recovery, who are still employed, who's now found housing. So it pretty much connected with the Reentry Council, in a sense on the backend. So now when. Well, let me go back, one of the things that I did do is bring in Pitt Community College and partner with them to come in and to assess those inmates who may need GEDs, or who were interested in vocational skills, um, to make that connection with Pitt Community College. So now when the doors open at our detention center, there are people who are leaving now with tools in their toolbox. Now it's going to be up to them to use the tools, but we have given them some tools that could help them be successful once they leave the detention center. So now when the doors open, those outside resources are there to pull them the rest of the way. And that's something that had not done, you know, had not been done before. We can't expect people to just miraculously figure it all out. And so we did. We do offer those tools for those who choose to use them - it's completely voluntary. But it's been pretty successful thus far. Unfortunately, COVID came in nobody told me that as sheriff, I'd have to deal with that. But we've managed, we continue to do what it is that we do as we manage the detention center, as we manage crimes in our community, as we manage prevention in our community. Those things, you know, did not change and we'll continue to move forward. And hopefully, these programs will bring about some more successful community members who will become taxpayers who will have you know, have their own housing, and will find a new way in life or the skills that they need to be successful. So it's a win-win for the community. It's a win on our side because crime goes down. And it's a win for members of our community who have found themselves through mistakes inside of our detention center.

JD: Okay, and then how do you exercise your leadership skills in your role?

PD: So, I'm more of a transformational leader. You know, a transformational leader and then there's a transitional leader - the transitional leader, let me start with that first, as the leader becomes anyone who just does the ABCs and the one two threes of what the expectation of their duties are. I am more of the transformational leader because I had a vision. I had ideas that that were a little bit outside of the box and as a transformational leader, then you must be able to have others to buy in to what your vision is. And so that was there were two things that I had to have buy in on. One is the fact that in a male dominated field, there was a woman who was a leader. I, you know, you just don't get the respect of your people without being out there in the trenches with them without having done what it took to get me here in the first place. And so it was a matter of not just gaining but gaining the trust of those who are important by me. But owning that trust in my leadership skills and my ability to continue as in a forward moving pattern of law enforcement because law enforcement is ever evolving and we have to keep up with those times. And, you know, just to add to that, you know, one of the things we've been here for many years with no [unclear at 24:04] one of the largest agencies without body cameras. And so as I was running for sheriff that was one of the things that I talked about, now we need to be leaders in our. in the state, especially on the eastern part of the state. And that was one of the things that I said that I'd do is to get us body cameras - had to fight for it, but we fought and it was successful in getting them and should be rolling them out really soon.

PD: But that was just a. an example of doing the things that needed to be done and getting those things accomplished. So that earned me some respect from some of the men in our. that are employed with me and knowing that, you know, I wouldn't. I would never ask them to do anything that I would not do myself. So it's about having that buy in as a transformational leader to say this is my vision and. how can we accomplish it and giving them some ownership in it as well. Um, and so it's, uh, you know, it's not a me thing. It's a team thing. We're all in it. I am not Pitt County Sheriff's Office; I am the Pitt County Sheriff. I just happened to be the one leading this agency, but there are many men and women who I recognize and community should recognize also makes this happen. That you know, they're the ones that's out there in the trenches that are continuing to propel this office to where it should be and to where we are viewed as one of the best in the state. So I you know, giving ownership to all of those who are employed here, as we move forward has been very significant for me, as a leader because it's not I-I-I it is, we as a team, and I just happen to be the one at the, at the top of the ladder there, you know, I always say that the wag of the dog's tail begins at the head of the dog. And so as the head of this agency, you know, in recognizing that we are, it's just not me - it's a whole bunch of us, I have 350 plus employees who all have an interest and a stake in seeing that this office continues to be the best that it can be, and given them that ownership, in decisions, or in some of the decisions that are made has been very important for the buy in to make this office the best that it can be.

JD: Okay. What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career or in your public service?

PD: Well, becoming sheriff. Is one of the greatest accomplishment that, you know - that's one accomplishment. You know, being able to show other women that they too can be leaders is very important to me. Again, if there are not many of us that are in this area to be role models, especially in the law enforcement profession, a profession that is so historically male dominated. Um, but again, just moving, you know, I'm very proud of the programs that I've put in place, I'm proud of the you know, things like equipment, such as the body cams that are bringing us back towards the 21st century in law enforcement. You know, I'm just proud to be the leader of such a great, great organization, a very noble profession. Yes, do we have some issues going on in the world today? Absolutely. But I look at it as being a part of being a part of a solution to those issues and bridging those gaps that needs to be bridged with our community I always say that, that the road to redemption and the relationship between our community and law enforcement is a two-way street, and we need to meet in the middle. And so, you know, so those are just some of the things that I'm very proud of in accomplishing and, and I look forward to doing many, many more things - Stay tuned on some other initiatives that we will have going on, that will further propel Pitt County Sheriff's Office back to it, you know, where we should be as a leader in the eastern part of the state.

JD: Why do you think it's important to see females in leadership roles?

PD: Well, it's very important because we all have something each and every one of us to contribute and to leave one gender out, to think that all the contributions should be from one gender and not the other. Um, it's just not the way it should be, I think that, you know, as we move forward, there are many, many more women who have taken the leap of faith and in leadership roles and understanding that we too have something to bring to the table that we too have something to offer, that we too can be leaders. Um, you know, I've probably got a little sign back there - I don't know if you can see it back here on my shelves that says, you know, pretty much if you want something done, right, get a woman to do it. So, but I just think, you know, we, even the things that we have, such as our. For many of us, our maternalistic instincts, affords us an ability to, to give things that extra 30 seconds to make sure that the decisions that we're making at that moment is the right decision to make because not to say that men don't care, I'm just saying the maternal listing instinct with me, especially being a mother. And I'm recognizing and understanding that, you know, things may not always be what they seem or what the appearance is and to give it that extra 30 seconds just to make sure that it is before we make decisions. I think we were not our rash decision makers as women, because we think about the decision and then what lies ahead of that decision. of every decision that we make the good and the bad, and, and recognizing which one of those are more important, and in which one will make it better for the world. For the community, for my agency, but women, I think have a lot to offer believe that the world is finding that out now. And I think give us a shot and let's see what we can do with it.

JD: Okay, um, how do you think traditional gender roles have helped or hindered you?

PD: Oh, definitely hindered. Um, again, you know, you've probably heard me mentioned here several times, that this particular profession is historically a male-dominated profession and it certainly hindered me in the sense that, you know, all leaders have to earn or should be earning the respect of the people who work for them. But I find that especially in this profession, I found that it was a little harder to reform - there were a few more hurdles to jump through before that respect is earned as a woman, but it can be earned. So, it definitely was a hindrance, but I think people were again, at least people are paying county have come around and recognized the value that women can bring. You know, I tend to think that I'm at. Especially when I ran for sheriff, I sometimes ask people to forget that I'm a woman, forget that - No African - you know, that an African American had never won this position. But to look at what I bring to the table, to look at my experience, to look at my qualifications, to look at the things that I've done to make our community better. Um, and judge me based on that, and that alone, take away the gender, take away the race. Just look at the qualifications and experience. And so people did just that. And the county is still standing and our deputies are still rolling. So I figure I can't be doing so bad of a job. So, but yeah, I'm very excited about the direction that we're moving in. And I'm excited about the buy in from those who are employed with me. And I think that if, you know, if they were asked, many of the people who work for me will tell you that I'm about fairness. It's about putting the right people in the right places, doesn't matter what they look like or you know what gender they are, what race they are. It's about putting the right people in the right place because it's very important for me to have those right people in the right places, and so I've created an atmosphere here at the Pitt County Sheriff's Office, that whether you're a woman or a man or you're black or you're white, get out and do your job, do it well, be a standout and those are the things that will get you where you're going a whole lot quicker.

JD: Okay, how has your experience with leadership. How is your experience with leadership been helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic?

PD: Oh, I'll tell you this is something that no one has. was prepared for, or had experience in. There was no one that I can call and say, Hey, what did you do when this happened? Because it's never happened before, not to this extent. But again, it's it was about making sure that even when especially when COVID came in that we were prepared, and we started preparing, you couldn't prepare beforehand, again, because no one knew that this would happen. But we, you know, as soon as we heard about it and start, you know, getting reports on what was happening, we prepared and one of the ways we prepare is specifically our detention center. Back in February. Back in February of this year, you know, as COVID was being talked about our detention center began a preparation of - or putting some things into place that was going to address this issue. And we stuck with those things and it kept us for a long time on the right path, but we were doing things such as when people came into the detention center, they went through - we put them through our 14-day quarantine, so that we were making sure we were not bringing COVID into the detention center. We began to do things with employees with the recommendation of wearing a mask that was in line with the governor's executive orders, which mostly recommendation itself of wearing masks. And you know, on that courses we moved on, and as things got more serious, it was more of a "okay, you got to wear a mask when you come into this building where you've got to do these certain things." And it's not a choice anymore. But we've, you know, we're just doing the best that we can, but we're always making sure that we're prepared. We're learning along the way. We've done well thus far.

PD: We've had recently a few cases of COVID in our detention center, but that was no way that it wasn't a matter of if it was a matter. it was always a matter of when, you know, as you have - when we started the courts back and then you've had our inmates as having to go to court, or having to go to doctor's appointments, or having our staff coming in and not knowing, you know, if there's been an exposure there. So it's kind of hard to contact trace on the beginnings of how we got into the detention center, but I can tell you this, we were one of the last ones to get it and we went for a good six month run with no cases in our detention center. So we're doing things that's going to be proactive in the prevention of the spread. And so we were learning and but we're first still standing. I've had officers who. I've got officers with the coronavirus, and because we're in a field that we were not able to close our doors. We were not able to work from home, we are not able to, to not answer calls. But we've put things in place: questions that we asked when people call for service about, hey, is there any indication that there's anyone in your home that's been affected by coronavirus so that we know how to prepare before we hit there are some calls we can take from phones. by the phone, instead of responding. For instance, if a bicycle is stolen, we can take that information by phone. Of course there are things that we cannot take my phone and so we do have to be prepared for that potential of exposure in that way. But again, we learn along the way there's there was no textbook how to do this kind of thing. And, and maybe there. maybe there is now I mean years from now will call me and say how did you handle this pandemic? Because now, you know, we've I've gone through it, many other sheriffs in the state has gone through it or all have gone through it and be in a fairly large county, there was an expectation that our numbers would be a little higher.

JD: [Audio effect distorted interviewer's voice from 40:20-30] I think you said, well, things you could write a ticket for or something instead of having to bring them in to keep numbers down.

PD: Yes, that's another initiative that we put in place. We contacted all of the municipalities to, and including ourselves, to start writing citations for low level misdemeanors. Say trespassing could be something that instead of arresting the person and taking them to jail, we simply write them a citation, which is essentially the same thing and that person will still have to show up in court and that we don't have to bring them into the detention center. Most of them in the municipalities have gotten on board with that and are writing those citations. Thereby alleviating overcrowding or the potential of spread in the detention center. So yeah, that's one of the things that we've gone to kind of to keep these numbers down, to lessen the exposure, and to lessen the exposure to others.

JD: [Audio effect continues to distort interviewer's voice from 41:31- 41:41] Okay. Are there other ways COVID-19 has impacted your life personally, that you'd like to elaborate on?

PD: Well, yeah, I miss hugging. I miss hugging I tell people all the time. You never know, you know, you never miss your water until your well runs dry. So I miss hugging my family. I miss - I haven't. I haven't had a vacation since I've started as sheriff and there was an expectation I was going to take one this year and may still take one it just will not be in crowds. Because, you know, I'm very attuned to making sure that I'm as safe as possible as well. But, you know, family gatherings are very, very limited. Oftentimes, you know, they're. I excused myself from even the smallest ones, because I recognize that I got a lot - there's a lot expected, you know, as sheriff and there's a lot of things I have to do. I'm too busy to get sick, in other words, and so yes, it's absolutely affected my life. There are, you know, many things that I'd like to get done. You know, personally and professionally with COVID you know coming in, things like on the SHARP program and having to not allow those people into the detention center or coming in to volunteer and having to make other preparations in making - still to make those things happen even with our court system, we're I was able to get a utilize something that I've already used at the detention center for video visitation.

PD: Now we allow the judges to use that video visitation to do first appearances, to do bond hearings and those kinds of things. Which is, it's all good at the end of the day and moving forward and moving our community forward. We just didn't have any expectations can be a forced movement, but you know, many other bigger cities have been doing that already for years doing the bond hearings and things like that by video. So now we just. our hand was forced. So it's a bad thing, it's a good thing, at the end of the day. Bad thing was just the amount of timing that we have to get it done. And the good thing is, we'll be able to utilize this and we've grown to the point where this is just a great thing to do in moving our community ahead, so it's a, it's been an experience. Again, it's an experience that you just have to live through and work around and just continue to move forward in hopes that this too shall pass

JD: [Audio effect continues to distort interviewer's voice from 44:45-44:56] Do you think it's important to use your leadership skills to further positive social change. If so, can you talk about some of the examples of in your own life?

PD: Yeah, so yeah, absolutely. So we are talking about things that involve what's going on in the world today as it relates to communities and the relationship between law enforcement and the communities. There absolutely are things that that we're putting in place in recognizing that those are - those issues are valid, valid issues. As an African American woman, and as an officer, an officer, I wear two hats. I wear one that's when I'm in this uniform as a leader. And wear one when I'm out of the uniform, as a part of my community, and in the experiences that are felt by some. Um, you know, I would be remiss to say if I haven't. that I haven't, you know, I've felt some of those things that have happened when I have been out of the uniform, personally have been in effect to me. Um, but you know being in this position, and being a part of the solution has afforded me the opportunity to make some changes in our policies. Such as, one of the biggest changes that I've made is that as a law enforcement officer and you see a another law enforcement officer do something that is unethical or illegal, or egregious - an egregious use of force or an unnecessary use of force, that you have a duty to report those things to the appropriate. to your appropriate chain of command. And that's one of the things that I've put in place, there are some things that I've put in places that - that there should never be a time that a person should have a knee on a neck or restrict an airway of a person that they are trying to incarcerate or to arrest, the only time that it should ever, ever even be considered as if it was a life or death situation.

PD: It was the only way the I mean, in other words, if you could use if - if it rises to the level of using deadly force, if the situation arises to that, then that may be a reason that someone would do something like that. But this merely in effect of arrest is just not, I just can't see a time that those techniques should ever be used. So there are, there are some things that we're learning along the way that you know, that we're making the changes in as far as our policies and how we react to our community and even moving forward. Implicit biases that we all may have in how we deal with those implicit biases and how those implicit biases causes us to react in the way that we react. And so, you know, you can't change a person's heart and he can teach it out at home but I tell you what, you certainly can find those who ones who probably should not be in this profession if they cannot control those things. You know, I think I've made a comment one time that if you thought that what happened to George Ford was okay, I'll need you to turn in your turn in your badge and your gun and that's just the way I feel about that situation. There are some situations that have been justified but there's some that haven't and we cannot stick our heads in the sand and say that that never happens. Enforcement are people just like everybody else. You know, we're not perfect, we're not angels. And no one should ever, ever put us on a pedestal.

PD: The pedestal that we've been put on to say, or to imply that we don't make mistakes. And when we start to realize that we make mistakes too, you know, every decision we make doesn't necessarily mean that it was a perfect decision. But we can start to realize that and I think it would make our community a little better in the relationship that we have with our community. We can admit our mistakes so we can put policies and procedures in place to make sure that those mistakes never happen again. You know, there are certain things that I personally feel law enforcement shouldn't be involved in, for instance, our mental health calls. We get 40 hours a week of training, and CIT training that really teaches us to recognize when we're dealing with a mental health issue, but that's all it teaches us. We are no way - excuse me - in no way shape or form prepared or qualified to deal with those issues even after we recognize them. So it's my hope, and it's my position, that we should be having qualified mental health workers out there on those scenes with us, especially when we know that we're dealing with a mental health issue and in many ways we know already because we have a historical database of information of responding to calls to a particular resident, or residents that we already know is, is going to be a mental health issue so why not have that mental health professional, meet us at the scene, let them be take control the same car, we keep this maintain the security and safety of the. of the scene.

PD: It's another example that I feel that law enforcement should not be a part of, or that we've assumed responsibility for is, you know, for instance, we've had many calls where a parent will call and say, my kid won't get up and go to school. And who they call they don't have anybody else to call them when you don't have anybody else to call - they call police. And so we have to respond to these things. And really, that's an area that should be probably addressed by a social worker who apparently needs to do some intervention with parenting skills or, or things that will address the behavior of the child. Law enforcement officers have. we've had so much dumped in our laps that we shouldn't even be responding to, but you know what we do - we respond because when people call they have an expectation that law enforcement is going to come. And, and that's what we do. We can't just say no, we have to do those things, but I just think it could be better served with the appropriate people on those things, who are doing what it is that they do. That they are trained in, and that they are prepared for. And I think a lot of the issues that goes on out there could be some alleviation or the or a reconciliation of with our community by not being so deeply, heavily involved in things that we are ill-prepared or ill-trained to do.

JD: [Audio effect continues to distort interviewer's voice from 53:14-53:26] And I know that you've mentioned another initiative that you did at the jail before about women and that when they were giving birth that they were shackled, I believe that you changed that?

[Crosstalk at 53:26-53:31]

JD: Can you hear me now?

PD: [unclear, but interviewee seems to address interviewer's audio issues]

JD: Sorry about that. Is this any better? Can you hear me? [Audio distortion is cleared at 53:46]

PD: I hear you perfectly now.

JD: Okay, I don't. I don't know what it was doing, probably the connection. But I was just asking about, I know you had mentioned before the program with women, giving birth that you had changed how - they were shackled before I believe?

PD: Yeah, absolutely. So yes, prior to me coming in there. one of the policies or procedures in place at the detention center was that if. that anytime a person leaves our detention center going to a doctor's visit or going to, you know, wherever, as long as they're still in our custody that they are generally shackled with the waist - with the waist chain and handcuffed and shackled at the legs and um, yeah, we changed. There were. we had a couple of pregnant women that I just think that was the most inappropriate thing to put a waistband or waist chain and handcuffs and shackles on their feet when they're in birth, or in labor. I mean, like really, really where are they going to go? They would want to go to the hospital, you know, with having a baby. So that was one of the things that I changed that that needed to be changed. You know, there are certain, you certainly would not be appropriate to have a waist chain and handcuffs and leg shackles on someone who's about to give birth. And that was a really big change that needed to be changed and being a woman I certainly and being a woman who is a mother, I certainly have a better fundamental understanding of you know, why that should not be.

JD: Okay. Um, do you, um, is there any advice you have for other females about how they can enact leadership in their own lives?

PD: Um, I'll just say that you know, what you do today affects your tomorrows. And we must always make sure what we're doing is the right thing. We have to make sure that we know what we're talking about when we're talking about things. And that comes through experience; that comes through hard work; that comes through learning as much as you can; learn about what it is or whatever your passion is; having that fundamental understanding of, you know, everything that you know, you can learn about what it is that you want to do. Um, but the most important thing is to know that you can. Being a woman should not exclude a woman. Being a woman should not exclude a woman being a leader. Because we all have something of value to add just because we're a woman - that value should not be lessened it should be given the opportunity to bring those things to that table, to present those things, to enact those things and to make to make it successful in whatever you're doing, but never, ever be afraid. Or never let your gender be what stops you from bringing whatever it is that you want to bring to the table, bring it, take your seat at the table. And when it becomes available, take the head of the seat at the table and know that you can that you have something of value to add as well.

JD: Is there anything else you want to talk about that we haven't already covered or anything you want to add?

PD: Um, no. I'm just, again, just very, very proud to be a woman; to be a woman in a, you know, in a leadership role and to be a woman that leads an agency that's male dominated to know that we can. That we can do it. It was my passion and there's not another place that I could think of right now that I'd rather be than to be here and doing what I'm doing. Not just because I'm a woman, again, not just because I'm African American. I just happened to be a leader who is a woman, and African American. So women go forward, you know, we. we've waited a long time and I just say, bring it - bring it.

JD: Okay. Well that is all my questions. So I'm going to go ahead and turn off the recording here.

Paula Dance oral history interview, September 8, 2020
Oral history interview with Pitt County Sherriff Paula Dance created as part of a 2020 Library Services and Technology Act Community Connections grant received by ECU Academic Library Services. Dance discusses her background and her career in law enforcement, particularly her experience as the first female African American sheriff in Pitt County and one of only a few nationwide. Dance also shares her perspective on leadership and gender. Interviewer: Jennifer Daugherty.
September 08, 2020
Original Format
oral histories video recordings
Local Identifier
Location of Original
East Carolina Manuscript Collection
This item has been made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Researchers are responsible for using these materials in accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code and any other applicable statutes. If you are the creator or copyright holder of this item and would like it removed, please contact us at
Preferred Citation
Cite this item
Materials on this site may include offensive content, which does not reflect the opinions, values, or beliefs of ECU Libraries. Public access is provided to these resources to preserve the historical record.

Contact Digital Collections

If you know something about this item or would like to request additional information, click here.

Comment on This Item

Complete the fields below to post a public comment about the material featured on this page. The email address you submit will not be displayed and would only be used to contact you with additional questions or comments.

Comment Policy