The way Patrolman Charlene Diggs sees it, being the first woman of color to serve as a Beckley Police Department officer is a big deal.

Then again, it's not.

"I personally don't feel like it's a big deal," said Diggs, who grew up in Beckley and joined BPD earlier this year. "But to other people on the outside, looking in, it is a big deal.

"For Beckley to be so integrated and ... for there to be no other black female, ever, on the police department, I guess it is a big deal, in some aspects," Diggs said. "To me, it's not a big deal.

"I just put on a uniform and start my day, just like any other police officer does in this city."

Diggs' hometown hasn't left her or any other young woman of color deprived of public role models. Currently, Janine Bullock fills a seat on Beckley Common Council, and former Common Council member Madrith Chambers, founder of the Kids Classic celebration, was presented a Key to the City in April 2016.

The late Elsie McCray served as the nursing director at Jackie Withrow Hospital and led the Raleigh County NAACP. Drema Robertson, the late evangelist, and wife of the first black BPD detective chief, former Common Councilman Cedric Robertson, was pastor of an addictions ministry at Heart of God Ministries in Beckley, years before state officials had identified substance abuse disorder as an epidemic.

Despite the town history of African-American women holding leadership positions, Diggs is the first African-American woman in the history of Beckley to serve on the police department.

When she puts on the BPD uniform and badge, she's not just celebrating the success of reaching a personal career goal.

The 25-year-old is bringing a black woman's voice to the local police department and advancing BPD Police Chief Lonnie Christian's goals for a qualified, diverse police force.

"As far as the other officers, it really doesn't have an impact, internally," the chief said. "We see one color, which is blue.

"They're trained, they're working side by side. It doesn't matter — male, female, race, whatever.

"But in the community, it does make a big difference," Christian explained. "We have a very diverse community in Beckley. For a lot of people, whether it be that they feel they can trust certain people more because they're female or because of a race factor, whatever it is, sometimes, just, those things help with the trust aspect in law enforcement."

In 2016, the website urbanstats.com reported that the African-American community makes up 21 percent of the Beckley population, at 3,735 residents in the city of 17,614. Whites account for 72 percent of residents, with mixed-race residents making up 3 percent, Asians comprising 2 percent and Hispanic residents making up 1 percent.

There are currently three women on the BPD force and five African-American officers, including Diggs, Chief Christian reported. Statistically, a small number of women and minority men apply for law enforcement jobs. All applicants must pass background checks, a written test and a physical agility test, under state guidelines. The agility test tends to disqualify a majority of the small pool of female applicants each cycle, he explained.

"With a female, those applicants are very difficult to come by, so Charlene was a very good pick-up," he said. "I really believe ladies bring in a different perspective to policing and being able to do the job, and it's something you really need in law enforcement.

"We really want to diversify our department," Christian said. "We feel that diversity in the department is very important, whether that be sex or race."

Christian said his agency stepped up recruitment efforts in minority communities, and he credits the recruitment work of Lt. Jake Corey with recent success in convincing minorities to apply for the positions.

Beckley Police Department has 53 police officers including the chief.

A Beckley Fire Department representative reported that there are no African-Americans currently serving as firefighters in the city.

A BFD spokesperson said the department is actively trying to recruit minority applicants, and minority applicants are encouraged to contact the station to apply for positions.

BFD has 38 firefighters now, but the department plans to hire three more in June.

• • •

Diggs said her goal is to uphold the oath she took when she joined BPD.

"That's that," she said. "If something would happen around here, they want the police. They don't look to you, 'You're black, come help. You're a woman. Come help.'

"I am the police," Diggs said. "You know I am a black woman. I'm proud to be a black woman; I don't try to hide it. I am black, my parents are black, my siblings and nieces and nephews are black.

"But I am a police officer, and I am going to do my job and uphold the oath I've taken."

Like Diggs, retired BPD Chief of Detectives Cedric Robertson, a lifelong Beckley resident, was also a trailblazer. He wasn't the first black man to be hired on the force, but he was the first black chief of detectives at BPD. Like Diggs, he also applied as an officer as the result of minority recruiting by the department.

It was the 1970s, and Robertson was the second or third African-American to join the force, as he recalled.

He remembers some prejudice against African-Americans when he first joined the force.

"There was, at times when I first started, prejudice within the police department," said Robertson. "But as the fellow officers began to know me and to know who I was and what I stood for, I didn't encounter that much.

"It changed over the years, because there was other police officers that was hired, when I went to school that I knew, as far as in the community, playing sports," he said. "So we started to become one as a police department, trying to reach that one goal of serving and protecting.

"After, oh, a short period of time I didn't encounter prejudice within the police department," said Robertson.

He added that minorities bring a necessary dimension to police departments, especially when they have grown up in the community.

"People gave me information that they would not normally give a white police officer, because they knew me and trusted me," he explained, adding of Diggs: "She has ties in the community. She can find out things that, normally, a white officer could not find out. The trust is there, with being a minority, especially in the African-American community."

• • •

Diggs, a high school athlete who played basketball for Woodrow Wilson High School, had wanted to work in law enforcement since childhood. She studied criminal justice in college. In 2016, she passed the BPD exam and graduated from the State Police officer training academy.

Her parents are supportive of her career choice. Her dad tells her to remember to pray. Her mom tells her to take care of herself first in any situation she encounters.

"When I was thinking of being a police officer, I thought about riding in a police car, pulling people over, writing tickets or chasing people.

"That doesn't happen every day. That's just not something you want to do ... go out and chase people today," she said with a laugh. "Every day's different.

"You do pull over cars, and there's more to it than just writing a ticket. There's so much more to it than that."

When she gets behind the wheel of her cruiser and begins patrolling Beckley, Diggs said, she encounters a culture in her hometown that most people – black or white, male or female – haven't seen.

Some have an active disrespect or distrust for a police uniform. In addition to the large amount of paperwork officers must complete, the disrespect surprised her more than anything else on her new job.

"Most people we deal with have zero respect," she said. "People have no respect for law enforcement."

Prior to putting on the uniform, Diggs said she had not understood the responsibilities that come with her dream job. The uniform binds her to her fellow officers — mostly white, mostly male — and sets her up for experiences that only another officer could fully appreciate.

When she pulls over a motorist, even for a minor traffic violation, she can assume nothing.

"You make that personal contact," she said. "You have about a split second to get to know someone or get to judge that person in a short period of time, to know their intentions.

"To judge someone, their intentions, and doing that all day long for eight hours or a 10-hour shift, people in the community or on the other side don't know that you have split seconds to make that decision.

"That's not something everyday people can do, but we do that every day."

Her race and gender are unimportant at BPD, she said.

"It doesn't matter," Diggs said. "I wear the uniform just like they do, and it doesn't bother them one bit that it's a black chick in the room.

"I don't think they see it as the big elephant in the room, at all."

Race relations between the community and law enforcement are more complex.

"Black people, absolutely, feel a divide or a tension with the police force," she said. "I'm still trying to figure out this, from personal experience and just being on the other side. Why are black people afraid of the police?"

Diggs believes part of the tension is caused by television programs and media reports.

"I guess it's just from all the tension they see on TV and the media, how they perceive police officers going after the black community, locking up the black community," she said.

"We don't specifically go after black people.

"That's not what we do. We try to just go after what's wrong and what's right."

So far in her career, Diggs said, she's realized it's not just those in the black community who fear officers.

"I've had white people say on calls, 'I didn't know what I could do, because I could get shot by the police.'

"I'm trying to figure out why are people, in general, afraid of the police when our intentions aren't to be bad. Our intentions are to help.

"What I've encountered, people who are of lower socioeconomic status are more threatened, I guess, to being hurt by the police or mistreated by the police, and people of a higher socioeconomic status feel more entitled, like, 'There's other people you could be pulling over besides me,'" she reported. "I've dealt with both."

Diggs said she has respect for all of her fellow officers, including Patrolman N.J. Cook, a female officer who was on the force when Diggs joined.

"She has a lot of courage; she has children," she said. "Her strength alone shows how empowered women can be once they set their mind to something."

Raleigh County Magistrate Tomi Peck, the second female officer to join BPD, was hired in 1981. Like Diggs, Peck said she did not encounter prejudice while on the force.

"As long as I did my job, and I always tried to work hard and do the right thing, I got treated the same as the guys did, and I totally enjoyed it," said Peck. "I did learn as long as you did your job, the guys would treat you as an equal."

Peck said when she started, she and another female officer were the only women at BPD. Being a woman sometimes helped when dealing with domestic violence victims and with being able to "talk down" an irate male suspect, she reported.

She's always wanted to see more women on the police force.

"A lot of times, they'd call me out to pat down female prisoners or females that were arrested," she added. "You just got wore out from doing that all the time.

"It was like, 'Man, I wish there was another female that could do this.'"

Peck said she was happy to hear of Diggs' hiring at BPD.

"I am really happy that they have hired more females in law enforcement, because women can do just as good a job as a male officer," she said. "Especially if they're not going to be lazy and they're not going to depend on anybody.

"You've got to take care of yourself."

Peck said earning a reputation is the best way for any officer to avoid physical situations with suspects.

"As long as you did your job and did the best you could and had the respect for people, once you're there for so many years and people know who you are, they respect you so much that you don't have to fight as much," she said. "But, if worst comes to worst, and you have to fight, you just have to fight."

• • •

When asked about the physical strength required for the job, Diggs pointed out it's no secret that most men are physically stronger than most women. She said the key is to work with male officers and to cuff a male suspect who is getting out of control before the incident turns physical.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I don't feel comfortable or confident to go into a situation with just me and a man," she said. "And if a man does make the move to try to fight, that I could handle myself in that situation."

Diggs said she hopes she can inspire more in the black community to become officers.

"More minorities have got to test if they want the city police force to be more integrated," she said. "You've got to test and at least try to get involved."

Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold said Diggs' performance has been exemplary.

"We were just really pleased for Charlene to excel as she did, both in the testing phase and the physical agility stage of her training," said Rappold. "She's been an exemplary officer and brings a nice dimension to the force, a highly respected officer by her fellow officers and the community."

— Email: jfarrish@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @JessicaFarrish

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