Barbee reflects on Salisbury Police career
By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — After graduating high school in 1975, Karen Barbee was working third shift for Cannon Mills and trying to find what she wanted to do.
She was interested in emergency services, but after taking an EMT class in 1979, she quickly found that was a “man’s world.”
Kannapolis Police and the Salisbury Fire Department were not hiring women.
But a friend told her the Salisbury Police Department was hiring female officers. She jumped in and worked there until retiring May 31 after 32 years with the department.
Barbee said her law enforcement training in 1979 was very different than the training today’s officers are required to take.
“It was exciting to me,” she said. “But at that time, you had little to no training. They basically just gave you the keys to your car and your gun.”
On her first day, Barbee said, the radio didn’t work in her patrol car and she got lost.
“They sent you to (basic law enforcement training) after you had been working for a while,” Barbee said.
She was one of three female officers at the Salisbury Police Department in 1979. She was the fifth female officer hired by the department, but two had left before her arrival.
She became the first sworn female officer to retire from the department.
Many things changed for women during her career, including equipment such as bullet-proof vests. When she first began, women were expected to wear the standard Kevlar vest, which is designed for men.
“It made us look like the Michelin man,” she said, laughing.
According to Barbee, there were pros and cons to being a gender pioneer in the law enforcement world.
“You had to prove yourself. They had to make sure that you were going to back them up,” Barbee said. “They liked it in some ways and didn’t like it in others. They liked it when you had a kid or female victim.”
Hard on family
Through the ’80s, Barbee dealt with the difficulties of being a female law enforcement officer.
One of the most difficult aspects she faced was her family life.
“I sacrificed my marriage for my job,” she said. “Law enforcement is hard on your family.”
Demanding hours and the pressures of work make it difficult to sustain marriages for members of the law enforcement community, Barbee said.
According to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office website, the divorce rate among law enforcement officers is 86 percent. And Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingle said it’s especially difficult for female officers to maintain marriages.
“The divorce rate is off the charts for a female officer,” Lingle said.
Lingle is married and has never divorced, but she said it takes a unique situation for the marriage to work.
“It takes an understanding husband,” Lingle said. “It’s a work in progress, and it’s an everyday thing to try to balance it.”
Lingle said law enforcement is unlike other jobs because the stress of work is often brought home with officers.
It’s difficult, she said, “because of the hours and the pressure that you face with the job,” Lingle said. “When you come home, you try to leave it at work, but this job follows you home.”
Ups and downs
Rowan County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Lt. Deborah Yokley said female officers experience a unique isolation within the department which creates added pressure for women.
“It’s very lonely,” Yokley said. “No matter how well you fit in, you’re never one of the guys.”
Yokley is retiring Aug. 31 after 20 years at the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s had its ups and downs,” Yokley said. “More ups than downs. I’ve always been treated with respect by the male officers.”
Yokley said the stress of the job is something she’ll be glad to get away from. But called the pending retirement “bittersweet.”
“Emotionally, I’m not dealing as well with it as I used to,” she said.
Emotional situations are part of the job. Barbee said she recalled seeing a tragic accident on Interstate 85 early in her career.
The accident happened after a drunk driver drove the wrong way on the interstate, hitting a couple’s car as they traveled to a family member’s home during the holiday season.
Barbee said the man’s wife died instantly and he was left in critical condition. “I can still see the car,” she said. “It’s all the bad things that you see that’s hard on your family.”
Love for community
Barbee was born and raised in Rowan County and is a graduate of South Rowan High School.
She said she’s always had a love for her community. It’s a feeling that led to her transfer into the community services division.
In 1987, Barbee began working with community watch programs and doing work with elderly programs.
She received the North Carolina Law Enforcement Woman of the Year award in 1989 and started DARE officer training in 1991.
For the next 16 years, Barbee worked with fifth- and sixth-grade students, teaching them about the consequences of drug abuse.
In 1992, Barbee also returned to a patrol officer position with a canine police dog.
“Nobody in Rowan County had a drug dog, so I got to go everywhere,” Barbee said, laughing. “It was very exciting.”
Barbee had three in her career: Opie, Andy and Rockett.
“We’d always had dogs at my house growing up and I was interested in seeing what the dogs could do,” she said.
After retiring from the Police Department on May 31, Barbee says she stayed retired for about eight hours.
Then she became the new executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Rowan.
Barbee has always had a passion for helping children. She served on the Prevent Child Abuse Rowan board for almost 10 years before taking over the executive director position. But Barbee said she misses her “family,” as she calls them, at the department. She said she also misses the adrenaline an investigation provides.
“I still get excited when I see police cars.”
Contact reporter Nathan Harden at 704-797-4246.
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