By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Shelia Finney remembers her father encouraging her to always reach for the next rung of the employment ladder.
“He just always instilled in [my siblings and me a desire] to go as far as we can anywhere and make the best of any career,” she said of her late father, Billy Frazier Sr. “He said, ‘Don’t ever just stop. Go as high in an organization as you can. That’s always been my goal.’”
Finney is a Birmingham Police Department (BPD) captain. That’s not unusual. Several other women have risen through the ranks of the department, including Annetta Nunn, the first woman to serve as chief of police in Birmingham in 2003. Nonetheless, Finney is part of history.
The Dec. 18, 2020, promotion of Anja Doyle brought to five the number of female captains in the BPD. Finney and Doyle, along with Janice Blackwell, Michelle Pruitt, and Julie Quigley-Vining, are the first five female captains to serve at the same time in the BPD.
“I thought I could achieve it because there were other women who preceded us,” said Pruitt. “Just looking at a female along the way in every rank, I knew it was possible. Of course, we had Chief Annetta Nunn. To see that she made it to chief, I knew it was possible.”
BPD Chief Patrick Smith expressed pride in the talent in the department, “who, in this case, happen to be a group of exceptional women.”
“This talented group of women will bring different leadership styles, various experiences, and the ability to get the job done,” he continued. “This is progress, and I want to continue to move the department in the direction of inclusion. This will, in the long run, connect with all communities to reduce crime and increase the quality of services we can provide in the communities we serve.”
Like Old Times
At 44, Pruitt is the youngest of the five female captains. She grew up in the Enon Ridge neighborhood, which is part of the North Precinct she commands.
“It brought back old memories,” said Pruitt, a product of Tuggle Elementary and Wilkerson Middle schools and a 1995 grad of A.H. Parker High School. “The community, of course, is not the same as it was when I was raised. At the same time, just knowing that I’m the commander of a precinct where I went to elementary school, middle school, and high school is very surreal.”
Pruitt, who was promoted to captain on July 4, 2020, added, “A young girl from Birmingham is now the commander of a community in which she grew up. I don’t think many people actually get the chance to do that. It’s one thing to say I work for the city, but it’s another to say I’m actually the commander of the neighborhood where I grew up.”
Serving in a community where she was raised shows others that they can achieve what she has.
“If you put forth the work and effort, it can happen,” Pruitt said. “It happened to me. It can happen to other young girls, as well.”
Like Pruitt, Doyle graduated from Parker High. The 1983 grad was a member of the color guard who marched with the Thundering Herd band. Her early years were spent in the Woodlawn community before her family moved to the Loveman Village public housing community across from Elmwood Cemetery in North Titusville.
As a youngster, Doyle was told that the west side of town was dangerous.
“We considered the west side the worst side,” said the 55-year-old who until recently was in charge of the BPD’s Special Victims Unit.
Doyle now commands the West Precinct—coincidentally, the only precinct in which she had not worked extensively.
“I worked that precinct for two days in my entire career,” she said, recalling the 2004 incident in which three police officers were shot and killed. “That was when I was a sergeant. I worked West Precinct for two days to relieve the sergeants who were assigned to West so they could attend the homegoing ceremonies and memorial services.”
After having worked in North and East precincts, West “was a totally different experience for me,” Doyle said.
“I felt like I was working in a different city, but I look forward to working and experiencing it. I’ve been told by other people who’ve work there in all ranks, every rank, that it is a great place to work,” she said. “Everyone who’s worked there tells me West is best. They love it.”
Doyle assumed command of the West Precinct on Jan. 4, 2021.
Inspired by Grandmother
Quigley-Vining, 48, was promoted to captain on Nov. 9, 2019. She didn’t have the calling of becoming a police officer until later in life, but the motivation was apparent from her youth.
“I always was inspired by my grandmother, who was a police officer,” said the captain of East Precinct, a West Virginia native who grew up in New Jersey. “I used to go to work with her. Later, in my mid-20s when I decided that I needed to seek the challenge and answer the calling of becoming a police officer, it then entered my mind that I wanted to not only serve the citizens but also become a leader in the department.
“That meant climbing the rank structure, climbing the ladder,” said Quigley-Vining, who worked in security before joining the police department. “In my younger years, I never pictured myself as a police captain.”
Sixty-year-old Blackwell, who finished Glenn High School in 1978, grew up in a College Hills neighborhood with diverse families.
“There were wealthy and middle class people, and there were those that struggled,” she recalled. “I saw it from a different perspective. I come from a large family.”
Blackwell is the sixth of nine children in her family. They didn’t always have what they wanted, but they rarely lacked what they needed.
“My father truly believed in providing what we needed,” she said. “We never got what we wanted. We got what we needed.”
Fulfilling needs is what Blackwell does in commanding the Community Outreach and Public Education Division. Recently, her division directed food, toy, coat, and shoe giveaways.
“People are calling because they’re in need,” said Blackwell, who was promoted to captain on Aug. 24, 2013. “Although we’ve maxed out on the number of people we’re serving, people are still calling because they need service, and we’re trying to assist them as best we can.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made Blackwell’s Community Outreach division essential for the survival of many households.
“There are a lot of people who are out of work and just don’t have funds to provide for their children, and they want to make them happy,” she said. “I feel kind of obligated to do so, as well, because I know how it is to want something and see something that your friends have and you don’t have it.”
“My Role Model”
Finney grew up as a fan of “Get Christie Love!” the ABC television drama starring Teresa Graves as an undercover African-American female detective; the program ran from January 1974 until April 1975.
“She used to do karate and all that stuff,” the 53-year-old West End High School alumnus said. “I remember being fond of her, seeing her walk into her office carrying a briefcase, looking professional. She was my idol when I was a child.”
Finney added, “I always wanted to be undercover. Fortunately, through my career I had the opportunity to become an undercover detective, based on that show.”
Finney is no longer undercover—she was promoted to captain with Quigley-Vining on Nov. 9, 2019, and is now out front as the commanding officer for the Community Safety Partnership program, a partnership between the Housing Authority Birmingham District (HABD) and the BPD. The unit, based on the second floor of the East Precinct headquarters, is comprised of an officer for each of the city’s 14 public housing developments.
“Our job is basically to keep [the public housing developments] safe for the residents,” Finney said. “On top of that, we’re supposed to bridge gaps … between the housing community and the police department. We’re trying to build that trust.”
Not Defined by Gender
Each of the five female captains is a mother. Doyle has two daughters, ages 36 and 28; she lost her 32-year-old son in December 2017 due to complications from diabetes. Blackwell has one daughter, 38. Quigley-Vining is “one and done,” she said, with a 14-year-old son. Finney has one son, 31, and is the guardian of a nephew, 21. Pruitt has a son and a daughter; she declined to give their ages.
“We’re natural nurturers,” Doyle said. “We have that, and [we’re] just the smarter species. It makes us better leaders. Being nurturers, raising kids, makes us leaders, naturally.”
Quigley-Vining said the five female captains never approach their jobs as, “That’s male work. That’s female work.”
“Work is work. We’re able-bodied. We can do anything as good as, if not better than, anyone else,” she said.
Pruitt said the five female captains are not defined by their gender and having them ranked as captains shows that the BPD is keeping up with changes in the world.
“Women are going to school more,” she said. “I wouldn’t see why the police department wouldn’t progress toward having female leaders in law enforcement unless they were not willing to progress. The BPD is … picking talent, and they’re not looking at so much male or female. They’re choosing the best candidates, and the best candidates just happened to be female.”
Updated on 1/25/21 at 12:12 p.m. to include the date of former Chief Nunn’s appointment.