In the mid 1980s, when Capt. Sherri Benson’s career with the Delaware State Police (DSP) began, women still weren’t common applicants. In fact, she was only one of three in her class that year. But there was really never any question that she would become a police officer, only how long it would take and what she would overcome to succeed.
“I knew when I was in the 8th Grade that I wanted to be a Trooper,” she said.
Her grandfather, Harry Howard, had been a police officer in Laurel in the 1950s and 1960s and bore the scars of a gunfight. He’d sustained a shotgun blast while on duty, she said she didn’t know how, but the marks fascinated her; that and the fact that the day he was shot was far from his last day on the job. Seeing the injuries was something that drove home both the importance and the gravity of professional policing and set her mind to it.
Benson graduated from Laurel High School and went to work to fund her schooling. Troopers have always been among the elite and in the ‘80s, even though it wasn’t required, it was tough to get into the academy without at least an associate’s degree. So Benson went at it full time as well, taking a full load of courses for two years while working full time at DuPont.
“When I told my grandfather I was going to be a state trooper, that was the first time I saw a tear in his eye,” she said. “He passed away in May. I graduated that September.”
She finished her associates in two years and entered the police academy at age 20. She celebrated her 21st birthday in the academy. Benson was in shape (she still is, in fact, and has devoted one of the rooms in her home as an impressive workout area) when she went into the academy, but in those situations it isn’t strictly about physical ability or even mental acuity. Instead, the academy is, as with bootcamp, about being remade into someone who can handle the stresses of being a police officer in the long term.
“They want to see if you’re going to be able to handle it,” she said of her academy training.
As a kind of preparation for police work, Benson also took a summer job as extra help in Rehoboth Beach. She didn’t carry a gun or undertake investigations. Mostly she wrote tickets and worked crowds, but the crowd work was particularly helpful and Benson said she learned pretty quickly how to talk to people and diffuse tense situations. She was on duty there when she was hired as a Delaware State Trooper.
During her field training, she was under the tutelage of, she said, excellent men who accepted her as a Trooper without question. Among them was John Owens, with whom she rode in Camden.
“He always called me, ‘Pard,’” she said, giving the impression that it was a moniker he applied broadly. “He really took the time to teach me everything I needed to know.”
The first three years, she said, are as much acclimatizing to using your training as they are policing. It takes some time to get used to riding on your own, providing backup and asking for it. Throughout her entire career she relied upon not only other troopers, but municipal police who Benson said were always ready and willing to pitch in.
Early on Benson arrived at her first fatal accident. A man had gone off the road and was crushed beneath his car. It was important for her to handle it well and properly, and she was concerned that she not come across as too green.
“I didn’t want to get on the radio and sound like an idiot,” she said.
Before she had too much time to think about it a colleague rolled up and just his presence reassured her.
As she moved up the ranks, that is what stayed with her, the notion of pitching in and of helping other troopers become better troopers.
“I knew I could be a good supervisor for them, that I could respect them and I knew that I could treat them right,” she said of her decision eventually to take on more administrative roles and leave the day to day patrolling behind. Mostly, anyway.
Three years ago, after returning from her honeymoon, Benson was headed to Dover. She was dressed in a suit when a call came in that a Trooper had come upon a tractor trailer in which a couple was having a dispute. Less than a few miles out, she responded as backup. Not long after arriving she was trying to restrain a very large woman who was not interested in working things out quietly. The two tumbled off the side of the road into the mud.
“Here I just got back from my honeymoon and now I’m rolling into a ditch with a lady who doesn’t know how to act,” she thought as they went down.
Benson has had her share of close calls during her 30-year career in the Delaware State Police, but the close call that induced her to call it a career wasn’t her own. Benson’s husband of three years, Richard Haney, had a close call with cancer. More than a close call, really, but they got through it together and that, of all the things she has experienced, rung her mortality bell.
“I waited for such a long time to find such a great person,” she said. “And now it’s time to spend some time with him.”