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As a teenager new to her neighborhood, Thelma Gaitor Freeman Harris was enthralled in two passions: going to the library and participating in amateur shows with her sisters at the Harlem Square hotspot in Overtown.
A chance meeting with seaman Walter Freeman in 1945 while she studied at Florida A&M University altered her future. The two married. But his sailor duties called him away from home often so, Harris, a young mother to their daughter Brenda, had to work.
All of which meant more schooling. Harris, who died at 88 on July 4, made local history when she tied all of her studies together. She earned an associate of arts in police science and criminology from Miami-Dade Community College, a bachelor’s in continuing studies at the University of Miami, and a master’s of science in human resources from Biscayne College, now known as St. Thomas University.
In June 1962, Harris became the first black female officer in Florida and would spend the next 20 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department. Miami Times columnist James Sawyer dubbed her “Lady Behind the Badge” in his columns, praising her for her work with children in the community.
Her favorite job: working undercover. But don’t tell anybody.
“She was a great mom and I was the obedient child because when I was small and she was undercover, when she first started, she told me I best not say anything to anybody,” Brenda Freeman said, chuckling. Naturally, friends would ask her why they always saw her mother at the shopping malls.
“I said, ‘She just liked to shop a lot,’” Freeman said.
Harris was “busted,” so to speak, when one of the programs she helped initiate, the “Officer Friendly” program, caught national attention with a news report in California.
“Someone read about that Officer Friendly and that’s how it came out she was undercover. She was so angry about that because she loved being undercover,” Freeman said.
Harris, later remarried to the late Edward Harris, embodied the “Officer Friendly” persona, working as a police-school liaison officer for junior high schools in the North District and Hialeah to help improve the image of police officers and their careers.
Outside of policing, Harris was a pioneer member of Mount Hermon AME Church and a soprano soloist with the Miami Oratorio Society. Her efforts impressed others.
“Being the first black female cop on the force, I can imagine Officer Harris had to put up with a ton of crap from folks, both black and white. And for that I salute her,” wrote Jeff Fechter-Kelley on Facebook.
Harris is survived by her daughter Brenda Freeman, granddaughter Sheri Dillard Rusley and great-grandchildren Briyanna, Jayce and Jairam Rusley. Services were held.