A few years ago, police Sergeant Brenda Shelton found herself in crisis mode, a dark night of the soul. A thirty-two plus year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, she had been with the Child Abuse Squad since 2006, and had seen and heard things no sane and compassionate person could witness and then easily discard from their memory.
Shelton says that there were many times “when I’d stand outside for hours at night, looking to heaven for an answer”, too exhausted to imagine how she could continue her work protecting the city’s abused and neglected children. But then the phone would ring and she’d have to go back out onto the streets because her supervision and calm wisdom were needed to intervene in a child abuse situation.
In her seventh year as a police officer, the last three and half as a supervisor—she began her career in 1982—she transferred to the Youth Division as an Operations Unit Supervisor, and then four years later moved into the Missing Persons Squad, a part of the Youth Division. She served in that squad for thirteen and a half years. Later she was appointed to the Child Abuse Squad, leading to her work protecting the city’s most vulnerable.
When asked if men and women handled the stresses of the job differently, she said that the situations encountered eventually put a tremendous strain on every officer she’d ever worked with. She recounted the story of a fellow officer in the division, a young man who was well respected by fellow officers and jurists alike, attentive to detail, conscientious and meticulous in his follow-up to the cases assigned to him. On one of his cases, two little girls who were sisters went missing, along with their parents. It wasn’t discovered until a few years later that the girls had been murdered by their parents. When the gruesome details surrounding their deaths finally came to light, Sergeant Shelton found the young officer crying inconsolably, literally brought to his knees by the news. He told her, then and there, that he had had enough. He couldn’t do the job anymore. Shelton says that, inevitably, the job created a Pandora’s Box of complex and powerful emotions, and that if these emotions weren’t released in healthy ways, they were going to come out in potentially self-destructive ways; self-destructive to the officer, and to their colleagues, friends and family.
Sergeant Shelton had to search back in her memory to find some lighter moments on the job. But in response to a question about the importance of women’s calming influence in law enforcement, she recounted an episode when she and her patrol partner at the time were called to assist another officer with a drunk driver, passed out in his car, which was crashed against a street curb, the driver’s foot still on the gas pedal. A passerby—a man Shelton describes as being over seven feet tall—tried to intervene in the arrest. The lumbering giant kept muttering threateningly, “You don’t need to be treating him that a way.” Shelton’s male partner and the passerby nearly came to blows until she risked her own safety by squeezing in between the two men standing toe to toe. She calmly reassured the Good Samaritan by saying, “It’s okay. We’re not going to hurt him. We’re just going to help him.” She kept talking to him until he stepped away, but not before grumbling to her partner, “Okay. But he shouldn’t be treating him that a way.” The other officer later admitted to Shelton that, without her intervention, the situation would have escalated, possibly to a lethal degree.
After almost eight years working with physically and sexually abused children, many of them murdered, and close to an emotional shutdown, Shelton says she prayed for a sign to either stay with the job, or leave it behind and go on with her life. Shortly afterward, she got a call from a man who had been a long-time mentor, a retired Colonel in his eighties whom she had known from her time at University of Southern Mississippi. They hadn’t seen each other in a long while, but they had stayed in touch. She told him of her anguished dilemma, and he told her, “You have dedicated over thirty-two years of your life to this career. It’s time for you to go home.”
A short time later, she took her paperwork to personnel, announcing her intention to retire, which she did in 2015.
When asked what success looked like as a law enforcement officer in the DPD Child Abuse Squad, Sergeant Brenda Shelton answered that each day when they went to work, they went with the knowledge that they would save the life of at least one child that day. There could be no greater calling. . .