Tiger Lady: Sheriff Department's First Female Chief Deputy

  • Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 12:23 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, March 25, 2013 1:40 a.m.
Sara Potts has always like tigers after her personality was described as being similar to one. When Potts came to set up shop as the Executive Director of the Rowan County Housing Authority, she brought this large oil painting of a tiger with her. In a previous career, Potts worked in the Rowan County Sheriff's Office. The painting hung at the Sheriff's Office while she worked there.
Sara Potts has always like tigers after her personality was described as being similar to one. When Potts came to set up shop as the Executive Director of the Rowan County Housing Authority, she brought this large oil painting of a tiger with her. In a previous career, Potts worked in the Rowan County Sheriff's Office. The painting hung at the Sheriff's Office while she worked there.

The spunky Rowan native, 70, serves as the executive director of the Rowan County Housing Authority. It's a post she's held for the past eight years. History, however, will remember her best in uniform, when she became the first female chief deputy for the Rowan County Sheriff's Department, as well as the state of North Carolina.



“Back then, there were very few females in law enforcement. You were in a man's world,” Potts said, recalling the early days of her law enforcement career that started in 1973. “Once you proved yourself, they pretty much accepted you.”


Over the course of her three decades in law enforcement, that acceptance turned into a laundry list of accolades and awards. She collected the North Carolina's Law Enforcement Women's Association's award for being the top female officer in the state, as well as an achievement award from the International Association of Women Police in Vancouver, Canada.

They were achievements made while she raised two sons as a single mother.

“I didn't set out to set the world on fire,” she says matter-of-factly. “There are no exceptions made for females. You meet the same standards as a male.”

Potts is nothing if not direct. It's a trait well paired with her 5'9” frame that adds to her commanding, no-nonsense presence. As the daughter of a career law enforcement officer, her personality is part by-product of the family legacy. Her father, Burchard P. Tutterow, served as a Salisbury police officer, as well as a deputy at the sheriff's office.

Daddy's girl



“I know what my daddy would have wanted me to do and what he wanted me to be,” she said. “He was a big influence on me. Girls always look up to their daddies.”

Potts' path to becoming a top badge bearer in the county, however, was far from direct. In 1961, at the age of 18, she began working for Frances Rufty, the first and only female Clerk of Court in Rowan County. Years later, Rufty left her post to privately practice civil and criminal law with her husband Archibald. Potts eventually followed as well, working as a legal secretary in their firm, and then later for attorney Bob Somers.

In 1973, she was offered a new challenge as a dispatcher at the Rowan County Sheriff's department.

“I was the only female there at that time,” she said. That drum beat continued. When she went to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College for her basic law enforcement training, she was the only female in her class of about 68 male students. She finished first, she recalls proudly.

Over the next dozen years, Potts rose through the ranks, finally gaining the promotion that would sear her place in history in 1985 when she became chief deputy. Her position marked the first time a female had ever held the rank, not only for Rowan County's sheriff department, but in the state, she says.

Looking back now, it was the experience of working in the Clerk of Court's office that really helped prepare her for a career in law enforcement, she said, adding, “I had an advantage.”

Potts' long-held experience in uniform, she would find, helped provide an emotional bulwark when personal tragedy struck. In October 1992, Potts' parents, both in their 70s, were brutally murdered in a home invasion led by an inmate who had been released from the county jail earlier in the day.

In an instant, her role had changed. “For once in my life, I felt out of place,” she told the Salisbury Post in an interview a year after the murders. “I felt like nobody was doing anything. I knew all along they were, but I still felt like that.”

Today, she remembers the influence of her training on her at that time. “You don't show any emotion, you keep them in check,” she said. “You never forget it. It's always in the back of my mind.”

Tiger lady

“As a law enforcement officer, you're trained to handle every type of situation,” she said. “I had a strong will. My daddy always told me that.”

That strong will has given her a reputation for feistiness over the years. Along the way, she's been likened to a tiger. It's imagery that literally saturated her working space at the sheriff's office, with a collection of figurines and a large painting of a huge tiger that she hung in the lobby.

Her forceful, direct nature also drew out brandish sexism. “I think you need a man running it,” Gold Hill sheriff candidate Robert Drew once said of Potts influence over the sheriff's department during the 1982 election. “I think the woman has been running it long enough.”

Now retired from law enforcement, Potts continues to serve the public through her work with the housing authority. “It's a challenge,” she says of the preconceived misconception that public and “Section 8” housing is substandard. Potts oversees the county's 633 Section 8 housing choice voucher program and 194 units of public housing.

She finds there are still threads linking to her past career. “I'm working a lot with the people I had contact with when I was in law enforcement, and their children, and their children's children.”

Potts, whose son Brad is a state trooper, says she continues to love law enforcement. “I miss the people I came in contact with.”

She's also impressed with the role women play in it today. “It's really nice to see that women have been promoted and have the positions that they have today, unlike how it was in the 1970s,” she said.

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