Rising through the ranks of a police department is a demanding process that consumes one’s entire career. Imagine being the first African-American female in a workplace formerly dominated by males.
Meet Jennifer Smith-Backman, a woman who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. She’s the first African-American woman in Mount Pleasant Police Department’s (MPPD) history to rise through the ranks of several supervisor roles.
After moving to the Lowcountry in the early 90s, Backman began applying to several area law enforcement agencies. She received offers from all of them, but none made her feel at home quite like MPPD.
Just 22-years-old with an associate’s degree to her name, Backman credited former MPPD Chief Tommy Sexton for helping her focus on a continued education. She said the department’s priority on education was a deciding factor for accepting the job.
In March 1994, Backman was sworn in and started her career as a patrol officer. She recalled instances where people would question if she was really an officer or asked to speak to a white police officer instead.
“I didn’t let it break me because in reality I knew that they were just ignorant,” she said. “There were so many more examples of people who did not care what the color of my skin was.”
Backman never experienced any derogatory comments from officers within the department. This still stands true after serving MPPD for the past 26 years.
After patrolling the roadways for three years, Backman transitioned into school duty. This was before school resource officers were a position. Currently, MPPD has nearly 20 school resource officers on personnel staff.
She split her 40 hours between Laing Middle School and Moultrie Middle School. Her job was to speak to students about topics such as drugs, violence and gangs. Although Mount Pleasant wasn’t notorious for gang-related activity, she immersed herself with knowledge by joining federal programs like GREAT (Gang Resistance Education And Training) to be prepared.
As far as the drug scene goes, Backman said that marijuana was used the most recreationally by teens in the area in the 90s. Backman said the shift to today’s opioid usage has posed many challenges that simply weren’t on the radar previously. Most notably the frequency of overdoes, which weren’t as common when she started with MPPD.
In 1997 Backman was promoted to detective in the Family Crisis Unit to safeguard child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse. This is where she would encounter one of the most memorable cases to date.
According to Backman, MPPD was investigating an incident where a young girl was allegedly being abused by her step-father. The girl refused to tell anybody. First her grades began to suffer, then her hygiene.
When Backman initially sat down with the girl she wouldn’t talk. Then, Backman made a promise. One that is the hardest for any officer, especially a young one, to keep. Guaranteed safety.
The girl said she would only tell if Backman could promise that her step-father would never hurt her again, according to Backman.
Backman upheld her end of the promise and MPPD was able to prosecute the girl’s step-father, remove him from the home and incarcerate him.
“That’s the stuff I think that really makes my career,” Backman said. “That I was able to save someone from being harmed.”
In 2000, another promotion was in the works and Backman would become a corporal officer while in the Investigations Unit. Five years later she would be made a sergeant for MPPD, where she oversaw a road unit.
Five more years of working Internal Affairs would pass before being promoted to lieutenant, which she’s held for the past nine years. Now, she’s serves as the watch commander of all teams working on the road and is in control of the entire precinct of every shift.
“I realized I’m the only female watch commander, but I never thought of it as being the only black female to get to this rank,” Backman said. “I guess I didn’t focus on that. It’s always been do the very best job I can do every day.”
Colleagues describe Backman as having a calm, even-keeled demeanor if the situation warrants it; a real people’s person.
“Honesty, integrity and dedication are huge qualities that I have instilled in me from others and I plan to instill in new officers that come through,” Backman added.
However, she is said to also has a vigorous personality that’s fit to control the situation regardless of the circumstances. A characteristic she inherited from her parents Kenneth and Ethel Smith.
Backman’s parents were a product of the Civil Rights Era, when police were not viewed in a positive light by African-Americans. The Smiths inspired and enlightened Backman about the importance of being a righteous person and having confidence in people. These two qualities were instilled in Backman from a young age and is the reason members of the public recognize and trust her.
“It’s always been my goal that I wanted people to feel comfortable talking to the police,” Backman said. “In our culture and our nation, we know that is a huge feat.”
Backman persisted that she wants the public to know her by name and hopefully her face. She laughed and said sometimes residents in town mispronounce her last name as ‘Batman.’
Another role model that came to mind was retired Cpl. Adell Harris of Charleston Police Department. The first African-American female trained police officer in the state, according to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Hall of Fame.
The two first met at a training course conference with hundreds of personnel from various area police departments. Harris approached Backman and commented on their commonality as African-American women in law enforcement.
Harris gave Backman her phone number and told her to reach out for future advice. She couldn’t count how many times she’s called Harris throughout her career. Whether it’s for training advice or just to chat.
Harris’ husband Chevalier Harris, retired captain of Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, shared field expertise with Backman. Chevalier’s expertise was armed robbery and assaults while Backman’s was family crisis.
Coincidentally, the Harris’ son Craig Harris, is now a lieutenant for MPPD. Backman oversees Craig and he comes to her for advice. It wasn’t until years later that Backman realized they were all related.
“I think it’s fair to say we (Craig) molded each other,” Backman said.
After nearly three decades of service to Mount Pleasant, Backman’s veteran experience has afforded her the wisdom that makes the job a tad bit easier day-to-day. The type of rationale that can’t be learned overnight, but only after years of patience and relationship building in the community.
“Everything in the job is not going to always be roses. There’s times where you have to take people to jail. There’s times that you have to put corrective measures in place to prevent others from being harmed,” Backman said. “But in the end, if I’ve done my job correct, I can look at that same person that I put to jail and they’ll still respect me. Why? Because I did it the right way.”
Backman did not specify on how many more years she’ll devote to the force before retirement. However, she said as long as her work ethic is there, she will be too.