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Thursday, June 17, 2004 05:32 pm

The Joy of retirement

The police department’s first black female police officer exits as she entered—honestly

A "straight shooter"
Ginny Lee

Last Friday, half an hour before she was due to report for work at the Springfield Police Department, Lt. Lea Joy was on the phone trying to find an officer to cover her shift. Even though she had used all her vacation time, Joy still wanted another day off. When she found out no other lieutenant was available, she reluctantly got in her squad car and headed downtown. And as she drove, she suddenly realized something had changed.

"I really didn't want to be there," she says. "It's the best job in the world, but it's no longer the job for me."

She handed in her formal notice of retirement that afternoon.

As word circulated around the station and to other agencies, even her closest friends were stunned. Anybody who knows Joy knows she has always been passionate about her profession. What gave the announcement a ring of truth was that there is no retirement party planned.

"They would ask me to have some last words," Joy says, pointing out the obvious problem with such a soirée. "I wouldn't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but I wouldn't want to lie to them either."

If she manages to leave without a party (she had to give two-weeks notice, which means her official last day is June 25), her exit will be quieter than her entrance. Her hiring two decades ago marked the first time a black woman pinned on an SPD badge.

"Isn't that a helluva way to start?" she laughs, sympathizing with the city for unwittingly hiring someone so outspoken. "I think a lot of officers are conservative and traditional, and I'm not conservative or traditional."

Joy has a reputation for telling the truth, unvarnished by either sweetness or bitterness. Says one officer who admires Joy, though he prefers to remain anonymous: "Right, wrong, or indifferent, she tells it like it is."

Master Sgt. Tammie Byers, an Illinois State Police officer who has known Joy ever since they went through academy together, has always valued Joy's penchant for honesty. "She never candy-coated anything. A lot of people don't like that, but I prefer to deal with people like that," Byers says. "She's a straight-shooter. Anything she says, if she's saying it, it's true."

The public got a glimpse of her kind of candor in November 2002, at a special meeting of the City Council concerning the Renatta Frazier case. Frazier, who was the third black female officer hired by SPD, had been forced to resign and flee the state after scores of media reports implied she had failed to prevent the rape of a fellow officer's daughter. The special meeting was called in response to an Illinois Times story proving that Frazier could not have prevented the rape.

Joy, who had been assigned to mentor Frazier while the younger officer was still in academy, sat in this meeting and watched then-chief John Harris tell council members that he had no idea the media reports about Frazier were false. Finally, Joy approached the podium herself, and told the council she would like to speak. But first, she said, as an SPD employee, she needed permission from Chief Harris. When he nodded, Joy proceeded to tell the council that everything Harris had just said was a lie.

Harris later resigned. Frazier recently received an $829,000 settlement from the city.

Joy has also spoken out about racism in the police department. She is one of seven plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit charging SPD and the city with racial discrimination. Her complaint claims white officers nicknamed her "African c---," often refused to ride with her or provide back-up when she was working patrol, that she was issued inferior or incomplete equipment, and that she was denied positions even when she was the only officer to apply.

And that's just the stuff she recollects. "There's so many things, I don't remember them all," she shrugs. "I was so used to things like that happening."

But she was never one to dwell on negative experiences. "I went into it knowing I wouldn't be accepted, and I really didn't care. That was my job. My joke is that if they'd been nice to me, I'd have probably left. I like a good fight," she says.

Joy joined the force at a time when there were few women in law enforcement, and even fewer black women. Plus, at 35, she was pushing the age limits. Byers remembers recognizing in academy that Joy would have a tougher time than the rest of the women.

"You look back in 1983 and times we came on, none of us were very welcome," Byers says. "Lea did not go in there to open arms. None of us did. And she had a couple of other strikes against her, but she didn't moan and complain. I have nothing but respect for her."

SPD Sgt. George Judd, assigned to be her field training officer, remembers being handed this new recruit with some "special instructions," as though a black female required strategic handling.

"She had to put up with more challenges than most people," Judd says. "But she was the most determined woman. Just an amazing person. I love her to death."

He remembers the first time she took the car by herself, and ended up lost, somewhere close to Athens. But he also can't forget the time early in her field training when she waded into a barroom brawl with him. As one of the larger, stronger customers started "swinging me around like a rag doll," Joy jumped into the middle of the melee. "She figured: If you're getting your butt whipped, I'm gonna get mine whipped too," Judd recalls.

One trait that irritated her colleagues was her rigorous insistence on standing up for what's right. "People always told me you should pick your battles. Well, I didn't see where you could pick 'em," she says.

Over the years, as Joy moved up the ranks, she found herself supervising or investigating officers who didn't necessarily respect her. She did her best to overlook their attitudes.

"Guys challenged her and irritated her, and she could've written them up, but Lea did not. She chose to weather it," Judd says.

An officer who requested anonymity agrees. "She always had the officers' best interests at heart. I really believe that," he says.

That's one thing Joy swears won't change with her retirement -- her support for other police officers. "I'll always be a cop," she says. "Even though I was never accepted as a cop, I'll always be a cop. And I'll always be standing by supporting police officers."

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