HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside now has its first female black police captain.
Hillside acting Chief of Police Louis Panarese appointed Lashonda Burgess, the first black female in the department, to the position of captain on April 3, securing her place as both the first female and first black police captain in Hillside’s history.
Burgess grew up in Hillside and graduated from Hillside High School in 1991. She earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Union County College and has taken advanced courses at Kean University. She joined Hillside’s Auxiliary Police in 1998 and, in 2002, was sworn in as a Hillside officer. In 2007, Burgess became Hillside’s first female police sergeant, and later became the township’s first black female police lieutenant.
During her career, Burgess has received three Excellent Police Duty Awards, as well as a Community Service Award. Burgess also served as a D.A.R.E officer, as well as a resource officer at Hillside High School.
Burgess told LocalSource that she was inspired to go into law enforcement when she was a child.
“I was inspired by a female police officer,” Burgess said in a recent in-person interview. “She was a police officer in Newark. I don’t know her name but I remember she was dealing with some kind of a disturbance. I saw this tough woman and she handled the situation. She really looked like a woman but she handled her business. I said to my dad, ‘I didn’t know women could be police officers.’”
Burgess said that her father told her that she could be whatever she wanted to be.
“And that’s when I decided to be a police officer,” she said.
Burgess said that although she is in a male-dominated profession, she feels very comfortable.
“It’s important to me to just maintain my femininity,” Burgess said. “You can get lost in the blue, lost in the uniform.”
While there are challenges that come with the job, said Burgess, she said that maintaining her professionalism comes first.
“You have to stay professional,” she said. “You have to just go for it and not allow anyone to limit your ability. I’ve grown; I’ve become emotionally intelligent as I’ve gotten older. People have to respect you. It’s all about how you carry yourself. People eventually get in line.”
Panarese told LocalSource that he has watched Burgess grow through the ranks at the police department.
“I remember doing her pre-academy training at the police department when I was a lieutenant, and now I have the pleasure of promoting her to captain,” Panarese said in an April 12 email. “It’s such a great feeling watching someone grow and progress like that. I find Lashonda to be extremely intelligent and competent. There is really nothing she can’t do once she puts her mind to it.”
It was not an easy road to get to where she is today, Burgess said. A single mother, she recalled many long shifts in order to make ends meet for herself and her daughter.
“As a single mom, I didn’t have help,” she said. “I worked every shift and made tons of sacrifices. There are times I worked on holidays and on my daughter’s birthday, but my daughter has said that I’ve inspired her and that I’m her biggest role model. I had to be an example for her. I just want to make her proud.”
Burgess’ daughter is currently serving in the U.S. Air Force Security Forces.
“She’s following in my footsteps,” Burgess said of her daughter.
Burgess said that she believes she was born to serve.
“I truly enjoy serving and I know that’s why I was created,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a police officer but I didn’t imagine this for myself. Sometimes you have a plan for yourself, but God has a bigger plan for you, something better.”
Burgess said that she wants to serve as an inspiration for girls everywhere.
“I want every girl — not just every black girl — to follow their dreams,” she said. “So many of us are told what we can and can’t do. I am living my dream. I feel so blessed. God has been good to me. We really just don’t dream big enough for ourselves. I really hope people will be inspired by my story.”