Woman remembers being hired as first female police officer in the state 50 years ago

Adell Grant Harris was hired September 9, 1972 by the Charleston Police Department.
Published: Sep. 9, 2022 at 6:51 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 11, 2022 at 1:44 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Five decades ago, the Charleston Police Department made history, by hiring the first woman police officer in the state of South Carolina. She was a Black woman named Adell Grant Harris. Harris worked for the police department for 36 years before retiring in 2008.

Harris and another Black woman named Marilyn Wallace, along with two white women, Lorraine Sottile and Brenda Newell, were all hired the same day.

After taking a test and passing a background check, Chief John Conroy of the Charleston Police Department hired Harris, along with the three others on September 9, 1972. Harris is the only one of the four to have survived the challenges and made law enforcement a career.

Harris (pictured in the middle) survived the challenges and made law enforcement a career.
Harris (pictured in the middle) survived the challenges and made law enforcement a career.(Charleston Police Department)

Harris says the concept of a woman wearing a police badge was so new in the early 70′s in our state, even the Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia wasn’t prepared for them.

“They didn’t think we were coming. We sat there I think we arrived there like 8 in the morning on a Monday morning and by the time they figured out where they are going to house us, it was 4 o’clock that afternoon.”

She says they ended up housing them in the dorm where the academy instructors lived.

Harris and two other women completed the state training, but when they returned home to Charleston, they didn’t get a warm welcome from some of the male officers.

“The officers felt as though, ‘I don’t want no female backing me up on a call,’ I got a lot of that.”

But Harris says Chief Conroy made sure they received the respect they had earned. She says he told the men, that if they didn’t treat them right, he would fire them.

Harris says even some suspects wanted nothing to do with women police officers.

She remembers her first arrest attracted a lot of attention, and the suspect wasn’t happy about it.

“It created kind of a large crowd and this particular guy was saying ‘ain’t no female, nobody gonna put no cuff on me, especially no female.’ ‘So my sergeant said, well show him what you can do.”

Harris says she got into law enforcement quite by chance. Her mom died shortly after she graduated from Burke High School and she decided not to go off to college.

She was working at a clothing store and taking classes at Palmer Campus (Trident Tech,) when some girlfriends encouraged her to take the police officer test just for fun. They were all supposed to take the exam but her friends backed out.

She says she went ahead and took the test anyway. There were about 75 to 100 women there. She got a call to come back, appear before an Oral Board to answer questions, and then had to pass a background check.

In order to qualify for training at the SC Criminal Justice Academy, recruits had to pass a five-week class put on by the Charleston Police Department. And attendance in that class led to another important life event for Harris.

“The second day when he came in that class my mind said oh I think I’m gonna like this,” Harris laughed.

Among the recruits in the class was a young man named Chevalier “Chevy” Harris. Several years later they got married, and the family law enforcement tradition continued. Their oldest son Craig, is the Public Safety Director for Kiawah Island, after retiring from the Mount Pleasant Police Department.

Harris worked the streets as a ‘beat cop’ for several years. She was assigned to the safer parts of town at first, where she mostly handled reports of stolen bikes or suspicious people. But she fought for the right to handle more active areas.

One of the scariest scenes she was called to was at the Back to Green community, where a mentally ill man had a gun.

“And you could see the unit that he was shooting the gun from and it was quite a few of us out there and I got pushed from one of the officers, I guess to get out of the line of fire, and I remember I twisted my ankle,” Harris said.

Eventually, Conroy assigned her to the juvenile investigation unit, the predecessor to what we now know as the Schoool Resource Officer program.

“I started with C.A. Brown High School because a young man got killed on that campus and that’s why he wanted an officer in that school.”

When Reuben Greenberg took over as police chief, he expanded the program to middle schools. She became the supervisor of the School Liaison and Truancy Unit. She was responsible for the safety and security of more than 10,000 middle and high students, faculty, and staff, attending or employed by the Charleston County School District.

During her 36 year tenure with the City of Charleston Police Department she received countless awards. They include the following: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Award, United States Justice Department of Safe School Award, Crisis Intervention Award, Palmetto State Law Enforcement Officers’ Association (PSLEOA) Charleston County Commendation Award, Georgia Women Law Enforcement Award, and South Carolina Association of School Resource Officers (SRO) Program of the year.

She was involved in various organizations including: National Black Law Enforcement Officers’ Association (NOBLE), South Carolina State Law Enforcement Officers’ Association (SCLEOA), Palmetto State Law Enforcement Officers’ Association (PSLEOA), and a lifelong member of Ebenezer AME Church.

Harris retired with the rank of corporal after working with the Charleston Police Department from 1972 to 2008. Now, 50 years after her hire date, she feels a great sense of pride in being recognized as the first woman police officer in the state of South Carolina.

“I see female officers getting out of a car or handling a wreck, and that’s how it hits me, Harris said.

Her husband, Chevy Harris, retired as a captain from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. They have three sons, Craig, Chevy II, and Carlton, plus five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.