Karen E. Shelton, the first female African American police officer hired by the Baltimore County Police Department in the 1970s, who later worked in internal affairs for the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Department, died Oct. 2 of complications from dementia and diabetes at her Towson home.
She was 68.
“Karen was ahead of her time. It’s just breathtaking what she had to endure being the first female African American Baltimore County police officer," said Anthony L. Russell Sr., a Baltimore County Police sergeant who is president of the Blue Guardians. “She was a pioneer, a trailblazer, and to this day, that is her legacy.”
Former Baltimore County Police officer Rodney Davis was a colleague and friend of Ms. Shelton’s.
“Karen never pranced around saying, ‘I’m the first, I’m the first.' She was just a cop. She was a police officer who just happened to be the first female African American Baltimore County police officer,” Mr. Davis said. "She was a police officer who just happened to be black. She never wore it like a badge and was always very humble.”
The former Karen Evetta Turner, the daughter of the Rev. Stuart Carleton Turner, founder of the All People’s Baptist Church in Westport, and his wife, Evetta Ballard Turner, an Army secretary at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was born in Baltimore and raised near Poplar Grove Street and later on West Rogers Avenue near Pimlico Race Course.
After graduating in 1970 from Western High School, she attended what was then Coppin State College for several years before joining the Baltimore Police Department in 1973, “where she enjoyed her time as a motorcycle officer,” according to a biographical profile written by a daughter, Shara Khon Duncan of Baltimore.
“Following in her father’s footsteps of fighting for social justice issues, she joined the Baltimore police strike in 1974 to protest unfair wages,” her daughter wrote. “Unfortunately, because of her probationary status as a police officer, she was one of the officers fired, but this did not keep her down for long.”
Ms. Shelton made history in 1975 when she became the first African American woman appointed to the Baltimore County police force, even though women had been on the police force since 1913, when Eva Aldridge and Ruth Jones joined the department.
According to history of the department, “Baltimore County Police 1874-1999,” Armond Elliott, Francis Jackson and James Johnson were the first three black officers to join the force in 1954.
Ms. Shelton, who began her career as a detective, went on to hold positions in narcotics, employment and affirmative action. At the time of her retirement in 1993, she was working at the police training academy.
“She revealed how difficult it was when she first came on the job in 1975,” Sergeant Russell said. “I can’t imagine what she went through as the first African American female police officer in Baltimore County, when the atmosphere was not so embracing.”
To address the issue of unfair hiring practices, promotions, numbers of minorities and treatment of black officers, Ms. Shelton and eight other African American officers, Herb James, Johnny Whitehead, Richard Flichman, Warren Cooper, Stanley Harmon, Gwen Parrish, Eric Harris and Martha Franklin, established the Blue Guardians, whose mission statement was “Blue because we are police. We wear blue no matter what our race, ethnic background, or personal feelings, we are one. Guardians because we look out for one another at all times.”
“She remained very much interested in Blue Guardian issues even though she had retired. She had been a pioneering member of the organization,” Sergeant Russell said. “We’re still striving for equity in hiring. She was concerned about minority hiring and the number of African American females that were in the department.”
He described Ms. Shelton as a “natural-born leader who always maintained a passion for the status of the Blue Guardians and what it was trying to do.”
Carolyn Y. Jenkins, who had been a Baltimore County Police officer and was the second African American to become a deputy sheriff in the Baltimore County Sheriff’s Office, was recruited by Ms. Shelton in 1978.
“She was my training officer, and if it wasn’t for her, I would never have become a police officer,” said Ms. Jenkins, who retired from the sheriff’s department in 1996.
“I failed my physical training when it came to running. You had to run fast, and I had just had two babies and weighed 200 pounds. She got me to lose 50 pounds and when it came to the running exam, which was my final exam, she ran alongside of me at the track in Essex. After that, we became close friends, and her two daughters call me auntie,” she said.
She said Ms. Shelton often spoke of the racism and taunts she suffered from fellow officers and how she combated it with her innate sense of humor.
“They really didn’t want us there, and they played tricks on her like putting a watermelon or fried chicken in her car, and she’d say, ‘Next time you put a watermelon in my car, can it be cold, and can the chicken be hot?' And when I was facing racism, she said, ‘Don’t let it get you down.’ "
Ms. Jenkins said her friend always saw goodness in people.
“Karen saw the beauty in people. She saw their goodness,” she said. “You simply couldn’t hurt her feelings.”
Ms. Jenkins later became a traffic officer and a neighborhood liaison before going to the sheriff’s department.
“It was Karen who suggested that I become a neighborhood liaison. I’d park my patrol car and walk through the neighborhood talking to people,” she said. “Being a police officer was the best job I ever had.”
“I recall how funny she was and how good it was to be around her. She was always very positive and fun to work with because when she got mad, someone was going to jail,” Mr. Davis said, with a laugh. “That being said, Karen was always very even and fair.”
After retiring from the county police force in 1993, Ms. Shelton worked as an events planner for Forum Caterers, as a private investigator, as a day care provider and at the Bank of America before joining the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office as an investigator in internal affairs in 2007. She retired a second time in 2011.
Maj. Sabrina K. Tapp-Harper, the public affairs officer for the city sheriff’s office, was a close friend.
“Karen had a lot of historical information about policing in general,” Major Tapp-Harper said. “She was able to share lots of historical data and things that happened along the way. Even though some of her stories could be sad, she told them in a way that made you laugh.”
Major Tapp-Harper praised Ms. Shelton’s investigative skills.
“Her police background allowed her to look into backgrounds of people we were going to hire and also department members who had allegations made against them,” she said. “Karen was always a fair-minded person.”
“She was very intelligent and was very good at blending emotion and intellect,” Sergeant Russell said.
“To her fellow police officers and friends, she was known as ‘The Queen.’ She was strong-willed and always wanted to prove that she was strong, if not stronger, than the boys,” her daughter wrote. “She was fearless.”
Ms. Shelton was an avid fisherwoman.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Moses Church, 400 E. 31st. St., Waverly.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Shelton is survived by a son, Brandon Shelton of San Diego; another daughter, Feryal Shelton of Towson; and six grandchildren. Marriages to Maurice Anderson and Darryl Shelton ended in divorce.