Tenita Huffman has been working with the law even before she was wearing a police badge.
She grew up around a lot of deputies in Catawba County, but she said Coy Reid — the man who would go on to become Catawba County sheriff at one point — was like a father figure to her.
She started learning martial arts from Reid at the age of 12 and enjoyed his guidance for 13 years; she calls him a major influence in her decision to become a police officer.
Today, Huffman is the first woman to hold the rank of captain in the Statesville Police Department. She also knows the promotion is a little late in her career.
Not that she minds; her time in law enforcement began with a late start.
Huffman didn’t start working as an officer until she joined the SPD in 2001 at the age of 38. She decided to give the job a year just to feel it out and see if it was worth pursuing. It was her first time really being in Statesville and one tough thing was just learning the city. She recalled getting asked to pick up a suspect at Walmart and having to ask her field training officer for directions.
“Of course when you start your own patrol you really don’t know the ins and out of everything, your main job is just learning how to do patrol,” she said.
One thing Huffman speaks with a passion about is her time working in narcotics investigations. She spent more than 13 years in that division, doing everything from undercover investigations, working with Homeland Security Investigations and acting as a liaison to the sheriff’s office.
She described the drug scene in Statesville when she first started as essentially an open market, with people even coming down from Alexander County to buy drugs.
“Basically you could just take a car and go south of Garner Bagnal (Boulevard) to numerous areas, and I’m not saying just Southside — there was a lot of areas — and you could just tap your brakes,” she said. “I remember going down there … and you just bought from whoever sold to you. You could stop the car and you’d have 10 to 15 people around your car with crack in their pockets trying to sell you crack.”
For her first big drug
case, Huffman said she nabbed a guy in Statesville with half a kilogram of cocaine and three stolen handguns; he also happened to be on federal probation. The suspect ended up passing information about his dealer to law enforcement.
“I ended up getting 5 1/2 kilos (approximately 12 pounds) of cocaine and $218,000 and 50% of that coming back to the PD,” she said. “It was fantastic. I don’t think I slept for about 36 to 40 hours (and) neither did anyone else in the division. We were so excited when it went down. “
Once Huffman made the rank of sergeant, she was the commander of the narcotics unit. In 2018, Huffman moved again into overseeing the Violent Crime Unit, a special unit created in response to a series of violent and deadly incidents occurring earlier that year.
She said one main role she had was bringing in her previous experiences from narcotics and utilizing her connections with other law enforcement agencies, as well as learning from other seasoned investigators in the unit. But there was also an anxious feeling some officers were having at the time.
After a young girl was hit by a stray bullet late one night in her own home in January 2018, one thing Huffman heard was people in Southside saying they’d huddle in the kitchen, cook dinner as quickly as possible and sit on the floor of rooms in the middle of the house so they didn’t have to worry about something similar happening to them.
“At that point you know something’s got to happen,” she said. “Our 9-year-old that got hit over there on Caldwell Street, she sat straight up in the bed and that round came through the wall. She wasn’t even supposed to be in the house; they (the gunmen) were looking for someone else. And that’s when anyone who’s a police officer knows when this has got to stop as soon as possible.”
In her new job, Huffman will oversee the criminal investigations division of the department, which includes narcotics and the Violent Crime Unit. She said the last few days have been full of administrative duties and paperwork, but she still makes sure if the people under her are responding to a call, she’s there too.
She said it’s only fair if they have to be up at 2 a.m., she’s up at 2 a.m.
When asked why she thinks it took until 2020 for Statesville to get its first woman captain, Huffman said she didn’t have a good answer. It wasn’t for lack of talent, she said, some just either stay in investigations or move on to another department.
“I know we don’t have a lot of females that work here or that stay here,” she said. “I think an officer with one year of experience in this city is equivalent to some years a four- or five-year officer. There’s a lot to learn here and it makes a different kind of officer and some people just don’t want to stay that long.”
Police Chief David Addison, the city’s first black chief of police, said even though diversity in hiring is a goal of his, the department isn’t making any concessions and is hiring people it thinks are capable for the job.
On Huffman’s new role, Addison explained how he reorganized the promotions process to be more transparent. The chief can no longer just pick whoever he or she may want, and it’s now left up to a three-part assessment that examines the officer’s institutional knowledge, test of judgement and case portfolio.
“It was very competitive, but she ranked number one,” Addison said. “When she got pinned, she earned that rank.”
As for Huffman, she’s ready to take on more of a teaching role, kind of like the master-apprentice role she had under Reid in martial arts class.
“After 19 years and the experience that I gained in narcotics, I think I have a lot to share,” she said. “I think that staying in that (sergeant) position and not passing on what I know and these connections that I’ve made through the years in narcotics, just like coming into VCU, I think it’s selfish. All these officers here need the knowledge that us older officers have, and it needs to be passed on.”