2013: Women to Watch

Published 8:16 am Monday, February 25, 2013

It all started with Northampton County Sheriff’s Captain Brenda Burnette being a little nosy.

Nearly 30 years later that curiosity has led Burnette to a successful career in law enforcement and breaking the gender barrier by becoming the first female captain at the Sheriff’s Office.

As a captain, Burnette is in charge of investigations, assigning out cases and work cases herself.

“I’m learning something everyday that is new,” she said. “It’s fun and I love it. I love helping people.”

In high school the Jackson native wanted to be a Highway Patrol Trooper, but those she knew deterred her from that dream by telling her she was too small for the job.

“I was really small at that time and I let family members and friends talk me out of that,” she said. “I’ve learned from that if there is something you want to do, follow your dreams. …I got the opportunity to become a dispatcher and I figured that would be my foot in the door into law enforcement.”

In 1984, Burnette was first hired as a dispatcher under then Northampton Sherriff Bob Corey. As a high school graduate, Burnette split her time between taking classes at Halifax Community College during the day and her dispatch duties at night.

“While being a dispatcher I became nosy,” she said. “Once I dispatched an officer out to the scene I would be wondering what’s going on, what they are doing?”

Her first step into law enforcement was being sworn in as a Special Deputy and in 1990 Burnette was one of the first students to take Basic Law Enforcement Training at Halifax Community College.

Once receiving her certification, Burnette still worked as a dispatcher, but took on a part time job as a police officer in Conway.

Sheriff John Wood started Burnette on patrol soon after she gained some experience.

“I loved being on the road, answering calls, I’m a people person,” she said.

Burnette said she did spend sometime away from the Sheriff’s Office, particularly when her son Marcel was young. Her work would eventually inspire her son to begin his own career at the Sheriff’s Office.

“He’s made me so proud today because I feel like he’s following in my footsteps,” she said.

Burnette worked as a campus police officer for then Chowan College in Murfreesboro and from there she went to Weldon Police Department where she was a Lieutenant.

“I missed home and then I got the opportunity to come back (to Northampton) as a school resource officer at both high schools though the majority of my time was at what was then Northampton County High School-East,” she said.

A promotion to Detective Sergeant in 2004 brought Burnette back into the nitty-gritty work of law enforcement. Burnette’s mom joked when she got the promotion that “they had the right one because you’re a nosy somebody.”

Burnette said when she first came to the Sheriff’s Office she was well received by her colleagues, who often showed a protective nature toward her.

“I think once that they realized I could handle my own (they stepped off a bit) and we had a great bond together,” she said. “As a female you have your challenges because you have some people who don’t think you can do the job. As I always said, in anything that I’ve ever done, just give me the chance to show you that I can do what I’ve said I can do.”

Even with years of experience under her belt, Burnette said she still gets nervous from time to time.

“I was always told that if you go up and you’re never nervous then that is when something is going to go wrong,” she said. “Still to this day I still get butterflies when I’m testifying in court, when I’m on a call, even when I’m interviewing someone.”

While Burnette is tried and true on being tough when the need arises, she also believes in the notion of treating someone as she wants to be treated.

“If you show a person that you care,” she said, “all they want is for you to hear their side of the story because there are always two sides of the story.”

Approaching people with understanding can also lead to trust and creating a rapport with an individual and the general public, a staple for law enforcement officers.

“If you go toward someone with an attitude, then they’re not going to cooperate at all,” she said. “You can’t do it by yourself. The public is our ears and eyes.”

That perceptive side is also helpful when dealing with the crimes themselves and the victims’ families.

“I’ve had to hold back tears many times when I go to a crime scene so that family members won’t see me break down,” she said.

Burnette said when she first got into law enforcement it was very stressful.

“You worry because you’re human. You can’t solve every problem. You wish you could solve every issue, every problem, but you can’t, but knowing that I’ve done the best that I can it helps me,” she said. “I have a wonderful husband who I turn to when I need an ear, and it helps that he’s in law enforcement too.”

She said the most rewarding aspect of her job is giving families closure, especially if it is concerning the death of their loved one.

“You can’t bring the person back, but you give them some sense of closure,” Burnette said. “Or if it’s a break in you find out who it was that broke into their home and possibly getting back what was taken. …When you see the smile on their face, that’s what’s rewarding.”

Since her time as a Detective Sergeant, Burnette has worked her way up the ranks to Lieutenant of Investigations and then Captain, which came in November.

Those two positions had Burnette trailblazing as the first female to hold that rank.

“I feel that I’m a role model and I’m setting the standards high for other females who want to succeed in whatever field they’re in,” she said.

She advised young females heading into a law enforcement career to be patient and to be ambitious.

“If it’s something that you want, go for it. It may be something that will take time, but continue at what you’re doing and show that you can do it,” she said. “It will pay off in the long run.”