Savvy detective was role model as a mother

CorrespondentJune 30, 2013 

  • Priscilla “Pris” Jean Betterton

    Born Nov. 2, 1942, in Durham

    1961 Graduates from Person High School in Roxboro, marries John Howard Betterton from Halifax, Va.

    1962 Gives birth to twin daughters, Deana Gaye and Donna Kaye

    1971 Begins work as a meter maid for the Roxboro Police Department

    1974 Becomes first female patrol officer for the Roxboro Police Department

    1978 Earns associate’s degree in criminal justice from Piedmont Technical Institute

    1979 Earns the intermediate law enforcement certificate from the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission

    1980 Earns the advanced law enforcement certificate from the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission

    1997 Retires from the Roxboro Police Department after 27 years of service as a detective, the only female officer throughout her career

    2012 Widowed

    Dies June 12, 2013, at her home in Timberlake

When Priscilla Betterton worked her first shifts as a police officer, her husband listened to the scanner at home and often met her on the scene when he knew she’d be responding to a call.

She was the first female patrol officer for the Roxboro Police Department. And it took a few weeks – and some scolding from his wife – for husband John to get used to the idea that she would be handling potentially dangerous situations.

In the 27 years Betterton worked for the police department, she was the city’s only female patrol officer, Roxboro police Chief Todd Boycher said. She never fired her gun, but she was a good shot and pursued as much training as was offered, becoming one of the go-to officers on the force. She rose to detective and specialized in cases involving women and children.

“Pris,” as she was called, started out as a meter maid, simply looking for a job that allowed her to be outside, said her daughter, Deana Betterton-Lewis. When the city phased out its parking meters, she and another meter maid were offered the opportunity to train as patrol officers. Only Betterton made it through the training.

Betterton died last month at age 70. Her twin daughters are proud of their mother’s legacy, even though she occasionally gave their friends speeding tickets.

Butcher, meter maid, officer

Betterton was born in Durham and grew up in Roxboro. She was 5 years old when her mother died, and her grandmother and an elderly aunt raised her.

She met her husband the summer she graduated from high school, and they were wed within a few months. The next year she gave birth to twin girls.

Betterton stayed at home while the children were young, and eventually worked at a butcher shop before becoming a meter maid. She had not aspired to be in law enforcement, but once she got started her natural talents made it clear the career was a good fit.

“She could talk to anybody about anything. She just truly could come into a tense situation and just by her presence and a few words calm things down considerably,” Boycher said.

“She would often help break cases.”

Betterton-Lewis said the television character from “The Closer” reminded her of her mother, someone who could call upon her Southern charm one minute, but get down to business the next. She seemed to have a knack for unraveling mysteries.

As the only female officer, Betterton was called in to handle female suspects, doing the body searches and interrogations even if she was off duty. Before she was on the force, a female employee from the Person County jail was often called upon instead, Boycher said.

Middle-of-the-night phone calls were commonplace at the Betterton household, for she was also one of the few officers who completed additional training on breathalyzers, mug shots, composite sketching and fingerprinting.

As a detective, she specialized in crimes against women and children. She had a case closure rate three to four times higher than some of her male counterparts, said daughter Donna Edwards.

“She was fantastic with kids that had been assaulted or sexually abused,” said Jack Britt, a former RPD colleague and longtime friend. She had a way of making them feel safe to talk about their experiences in a way few others did.

‘Definitely an example’

At home, Betterton was less traditional than many of her contemporaries. When it was her turn to bake something for her daughters’ classes, store-bought cookies showed up instead.

“She was independent and ahead of her time in this regard. She was definitely an example to me of a woman being able to juggle a successful and meaningful career and motherhood at the same time,” Betterton-Lewis said.

But mainly she enjoyed her family. Though she was raised an only child, her husband was one of nine children and his family quickly became hers. She let her grandson’s heavy metal band perform in her backyard and store his gear in her garage. When Betterton-Lewis gave birth to twin girls three years ago, they became the new center of her world.

But it was definitely difficult at times, especially when handling domestic violence calls.

This made the cause Safe Haven of Person County all the more dear to Betterton.

Throughout her career she volunteered with this nonprofit that assists battered women. She also played a regular role in Santa’s Helpers, a group that provided holiday essentials such as a tree, clothes and dinner for underprivileged families.

“When Pris retired the police department was certainly diminished,” Boycher said. Shortly after Betterton left, more women joined the force. Since Betteron left, the staff has always had multiple female officers – currently there are four.

“She was certainly a groundbreaker,” Boycher said.

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