When Janice Blackwell went to college, she had plans of becoming a physical therapist, but in 1988 she found another way to help people: She became an officer with the Birmingham Police Department, where she quickly rose through the ranks as Sergeant and Lieutenant, and in 2012 she was promoted to Captain. Today, Captain Janice Blackwell works with the department’s Special Victims Unit and has a passion for helping victims of domestic abuse and child sex trafficking. We are honored to welcome this week’s FACE of Birmingham, Captain Janice Blackwell of the Birmingham Police Department.
Why did you decide to become a police officer?
In college, I wanted to be a physical therapist. Then I got pregnant and had a daughter. I was a single mom and I thought, “I need a job! I needed some benefits!” My brother worked at the jail, and he told me they were giving the police test. I went down and signed up. They called me and I took the test, and here I am 30 years later. And I’ve enjoyed it. I just prayed about it, and I said, “Lord, this has to be for me, because initially I’d never thought about being a police officer. You’ve given me this direction, so you have to lead me throughout.” It’s been a good career. Thanks to God I’ve not had any bad situations. I got promoted to Sergeant six years in, and I’ve been a supervisor for most of my career.
Have you ever encountered any problems with people not respecting you or your position because you’re a woman?
Yes, but the situation always changes. People sometimes react to the way you treat them, and I’ve always wanted to treat people right. If you talk to people respectfully, I think that regardless of the situation they’re in, they’ll calm down.
Have you had any trouble with the people you manage?
Sometimes people will attempt to do things more with a female supervisor rather than with a male supervisor. An example would be in the way that people talk to you. But I just think that in your job you have to maintain professionalism, and you have to let them know when they’re crossing that line. As a black female in a supervisory position and working around men, sometimes you have to stand your ground. But I’m a praying woman. I asked God for discernment about people, so I try to look at it and not get angry about what’s going on. I’ve been on my job for 30 years, and I can honestly say I’ve done well, but it’s by the grace of God.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Working with domestic violence victims and children has become a passion. I work with the Special Victims Unit, and we’re responsible for the investigation of domestic violence, sex crimes and juvenile crimes. It’s become my passion to educate the community on what is really happening, because I don’t think people really know. For example, in April, we did a child abuse awareness luncheon on child sex trafficking. My unit also has been responsible for training the Birmingham Police Department on the recognition of child sex trafficking. We go out into the community and talk to different organizations about domestic violence. We’ve come in contact with a lot of women who, first of all, don’t realize they’re in a domestic violence situation. They’re just thinking, “He got mad this time. It will be OK.” But it continues to happen. So we work very closely with One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center (which provides coordinated, free services to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault). I was on the first board, and now I’m a member of the advisory council.
What have you been doing to help ensure that there is a positive relationship between Birmingham Police Department and the community?
One thing we do is listening sessions. We’ll bring in victims of domestic violence and get them to talk about their experience with the police department. Did patrol say what you wanted them to say? Did they do what you wanted them to do? When you got to the detective bureau, how did the detective treat you? What we found out in some of the listening sessions is that patrol did not know about the resources that are available for the victims. For example, the YWCA has many programs available for victims of domestic violence. So the YWCA created a pamphlet for us, and we have some for the Family Justice Center. Now when the officer goes to the scene, they’re able to let the victim know about the services.
Also, we apologize for the wrongs of the police department. We get women who come from surrounding areas, and we still apologize because that was the action of law enforcement. We’re not necessarily saying that the officer was wrong, but we’re apologizing for what you experienced. Once we find out what’s out in the community, what people are saying and what we’re not doing, we come back to the department and try to make the changes to make that police-community connection. The mayor is about putting people first. That’s his theme, and so that’s what we’re focusing on, and I always talk to the detectives about how you speak to people. It’s about communication, and it’s about training.
Tell us more about your membership with the Birmingham chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club.
It’s a national organization. When it started out, it was more about law enforcement and military personnel, and it was put together to educate the community on the 9th and 10th Cavalry (the all-black regiments of the United States Army). A lot of people didn’t know that there were black soldiers in the 1800s. They rode horses, so instead of horses, we ride motorcycles. We educate the community on the Buffalo Soldiers. I’m the chairperson for the scholarship committee, and I also work on the committee for community service. We’ve been working with Children’s Village. We try to make donations to them, and we take the motorcycles out and we do bicycle safety training for the kids and let them look at the motorcycles and have ice cream.
What are some of your other hobbies?
I like to shop. I love spending time with my grandkids. Every now and then, I’ll get out with some friends. I do things with my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
I enjoy working in the church. I attend Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City. I’m a member of the usher board, and I’m trying to get into teaching Sunday School.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
One of my Sunday School teachers told me to always ask the Lord for discernment about people and situations, and I’ve always done that, and I think that’s key, because that helps you to understand what’s going on when you really don’t understand why something is happening. Also, treat people the way that you want to be treated. My mom used to always say that if you do halfway right, the Lord will bless you.
Other than faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Television, my cell phone, and I cannot live without desserts — cookies, cake, candy. I’m addicted to them all.
Thank you Captain Janice for your service and for sharing with us today. And thanks to Charity Ponter for the gorgeous photos!
For more inspiring women in Birmingham, check out our FACES archive, and prepare to be amazed!