“I didn’t run to be the first African American female sheriff. I ran because I wanted to be sheriff of Pitt County. I wanted to serve the community I love and help move it in the right direction,” says Sheriff Paula Dance.
Sheriff Dance made history in 2018 when she became Pitt County’s first African American sheriff and the first African American female sheriff in North Carolina. She began her 30-year career in law enforcement when she took a job as a clerk at her local sheriff’s office in Martin County and rose through the ranks to become Major in the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office, serving third in command of the office for four years.
With so few women sheriffs to look to, Sheriff Dance didn’t expect to run for office until the opportunity presented itself. Her commitment to protecting the people of Pitt County was not the only catalyst that moved Sheriff Dance to announce her candidacy. Her strong qualifications also inspired her to run. Sheriff Dance emphasizes the distinct functions a sheriff’s office is responsible for, such as maintaining order in the courts, approving concealed carry permits, registering sex offenders, and preserving the well-being of inmates in the detention centers. As Sheriff Dance puts it, no one can learn how to be a sheriff overnight. She says, “the building blocks that helped me get to where I am today started 30 years ago when I wore my first uniform and dedicated my profession to helping others.” After serving the public for three decades, it is clear that Sheriff Dance didn’t have to learn how to be a sheriff. She hit the ground running on day one.
In the first year since Sheriff Dance was elected, she spearheaded several initiatives that proved to be foundational for Pitt County and its residents. To address the number of repeat inmates at detention centers, which she explains is mainly due to poverty and substance abuse, Sheriff Dance established the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery (SHARP) and the Women’s Empowerment Addiction Recovery (WEAR) programs, the first of their kind in North Carolina. Through these initiatives, inmates are connected to educators, support specialists, faith-based groups, and a host of other resources to support them on their journeys to recovery and keep them from entering through what Sheriff Dance describes as a “revolving door” at detention centers.
Serving a unique position in North Carolina politics, Sheriff Dance often forgets that she holds the title of first African American female sheriff in the state, yet she carries it with honor and grace. Sheriff Dance says, “It feels good to know that women can now see a female serving as chief law enforcement officer of their county. I hope that other women will come behind me.”