A Black female police officer leans over the door of her police car and smiles.
Category: Georgetown Faces, Spirit of Georgetown

Title: The Lieutenant Who Wants to Change the Way Students See Police

This story is part of Georgetown Faces, a storytelling series that celebrates the beloved figures, unsung heroes and dedicated Hoyas who make our campus special.

A Black female police officer smiles in a navy polo.
Joyce Pearson is a lieutenant in the Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD).

When Lieutenant Joyce Pearson was 15, she visited Washington, DC, for the first time. Her world spun.

“It was my first time seeing homeless people,” the Florida native said. “I was like, I’m going to change this place. I don’t know how, but I’m going to change it. And life laughed at me like ‘no you’re not.’” 

Pearson’s aspiration was to become a lawyer in DC, but her path led her into the field of law enforcement.

She worked as a corrections officer in a state prison and as a patrol officer with the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority. In 2020, she found her way to the Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD), returning to the city where she had always longed to be. 

“To come full circle and raise my two daughters here in Arlington, Virginia, collaborate with policymakers and meet presidents — it feels surreal,” she said. “Although my journey didn’t unfold as I envisioned, I’m here, making a meaningful impact.”

Today, Pearson leads GUPD’s community engagement unit, partnering with the DC government on events like commencement and local stakeholders and businesses, as well as attending monthly public safety meetings with students. She also collaborates with the Metropolitan Police Department and community members on initiatives like coat drives, National Night Out, and faith-based events. And she juggles managing GUPD’s event scheduling, budgeting expenses and invoices, overseeing the coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), and supervising the manager of GUPD’s Student Guard program, among others.

But her most important role is working directly with the public, she says, giving students a different picture of law enforcement. She regularly hands out her card to students, maps out safety plans for students, sits with students in crisis in the hospital.

“When you do things like that, it 100% changes the perspectives and the perception between the students and law enforcement,” she said. “I just have a heart for kids and the community as a whole.” 

Pearson said in the end, she’s grateful for her roundabout way back to DC. For the deeper understanding she’s gained of the criminal justice system and the law. And for the work she’s doing today serving students.

Learn more about the former saxophone-player-turned-lieutenant, how her skills in a maximum-security prison and on patrol translate to her work today, and why she’s on a mission to change relationships between students and law enforcement.

A Black female police officer opens the door of her police car.
Pearson pictured with a police car outside GUPD’s office. She specifically wears a more casual uniform when interacting with students at community events, which, she says, helps reinforce officers’ accessibility and approachability.

I began my career in an unexpected place: A Florida prison, where I served as a corrections officer. This detour wasn’t part of my original plan, yet it stemmed from my ambition to take care of my family and become an attorney. At 18, I envisioned a bright future, expecting to attend Florida State University with hopes of earning a band scholarship and eventually attending law school. However, when I became a mother, my path took a different turn. Still determined to pursue law, I saw corrections and law enforcement as potential stepping stones. For nearly five years, I worked within the confines of a state prison, witnessing firsthand the complex dynamics within those walls, which pushed me forward.

Working in a maximum-security prison was like: The sound of the gate closing behind me served as an absolute reminder of where I was, a sound you never forget. I had multiple assignments, from transporting inmates to the hospital to running the kitchen. I had to chain all the equipment down in the kitchen. It’s one of the most dangerous parts of the prison to run, because only one officer is allowed in, which meant it was just me. Maintaining boundaries was crucial, as even small gestures could be misinterpreted. You may have inmates who feel like they did such a great job today, they should get extra food. You must be careful with that because they may think, ‘Oh, because you gave me extra food, we’re friends.’ Your intuition grows extremely strong when you work in a maximum-security prison. This environment taught me invaluable lessons about manipulation and sharpened my intuition to an extraordinary degree.

How my law enforcement skills relate to my job now: I learned effective communication skills. In Seminole County, where I lived, the sheriff’s department wouldn’t allow you to be a patrol officer unless you had spent time either in a state prison or at the county jail, because that is where you learn interpersonal skills. You had to learn ways to effectively communicate with people rather than draw weapons, because you don’t have any in prison. Bringing that [experience] on patrol gave me a lot of empathy as to how I addressed folks and situational awareness during a traffic stop or things like that.

Now spilling over to the college campus and being able to talk to the students — when they’re not having a good day or thinking about dropping out or feel out of place — it’s making sure that they feel accepted. It’s been a full journey … So having that compassion and empathy, because I’ve seen what the alternative looks like, and I don’t want that for any of the students.

A police officer does push-ups with students.
Pearson (bottom left) faces off with students in a push-up challenge in 2022 as part of Safety Week.

Why I do push-ups with students: We had a push-up challenge during Safety Week. These kinds of activities help build a relationship with students so that when things happen, it’s not the first time they’ve seen my face. They see that the officers are approachable.

If I’m doing something with GERMS or a presentation for active shooter training, it changes the thought process of how students interact with us. I pass my card around every time I interact with a student. I’m like, if you’re having an issue, here’s my card. I don’t care what it is; reach out.

The girls from the rowing team, specifically our freshman girls, were walking to practice. With the [daylight savings] time change, they had to go to the boathouse when it was dark. So one morning, I did the walk myself. I took photos of all the places where the traffic cameras were located and built a safety plan for them. They also downloaded our LiveSafe app, and the student would text me in the morning and be like, ‘Sarge, I’m at the front gate, and we’re going to start walking to practice.’ I could see them walking all the way to practice. When you do things like that, it completely changes the perspectives and perceptions of the students and law enforcement. 


A Black female police officer stands outside her police car and smiles at a student as they talk.

My favorite part of the job: is 100% the interaction. I find the most fulfillment in engaging with the public and practicing what we teach about community policing in the academy, rather than just talking and checking boxes. That’s not who I am.

I recognize that actively participating in the community is the most effective approach to community policing. Each community has its own unique culture, so it’s crucial to focus on what the community itself identifies as its needs rather than simply following protocols. It’s essential to go out and ask, ‘What can I do for you? When do you feel safe? What are your safety concerns? How comfortable are you with approaching the police? How do you feel when you call for help, and how long does it take for help to arrive?’ These are the questions we must ask.

I’m not a box-checker. If we’re not changing lives and truly serving the people, then this isn’t the job for me. When someone calls and needs help, I’m going to help them. I sleep well at night when I know that community concerns are addressed, and lives are changed.

A Black female police officer wearing a navy shirt smiles as she talks with a student in front of Georgetown's athletic field.

Whether I watch detective shows: Absolutely! My new favorite is FBI. I love watching Chicago PD, Station 19, and The Rookie — those are my go-to shows. I enjoy comparing what they depict with what really happens.

But I also like action movies: Before COVID-19, I went to the movies every Tuesday as a self-care ritual. It was my thing; the people at the theater even knew me by name. 

I have two favorite movies: Pretty Woman and The Bodyguard. When I needed to make a tough decision at work, I watched The Bodyguard. If I wasn’t in a happy mood, I watched Pretty Woman. After a tough day at the prison, I’d sometimes go to my mom’s house. She would have the room set up and The Bodyguard ready to play. Somehow, life always felt better after watching it.

A police officer smiles out the window of her police car.