When Diane Custis was a little girl, she didn’t pretend to be a police officer or talk about a career in law enforcement.
But after she graduated from Wicomico High School, she trained at a police academy and was hired by the Salisbury Police Department, where she worked from 1978 to 1980, as the first female, African-American officer in the history of the force.
“She said she never had to draw her gun. That’s because she showed them who she was and she never had a problem. She demanded respect, that’s for sure,” said her sister, Della Horsey, who is grieving her sister’s sudden death on Aug. 16.
Horsey raised Custis from the time she was 3 and Horsey was a new high school graduate, after their mother died in her 40s. It was Horsey who Custis called the evening of her death, saying she had a feeling she had never before experienced . Horsey and her husband, Franklin, rushed to Custis’ home where emergency personnel had to break down the door to get to her and rush her to the hospital.
“She said she didn’t feel right, that something was wrong with her legs. That was the last time I talked to her,” Horsey said.
One of 15 children, nine who survived, Horsey also raised a younger brother, a daunting job for a young woman.
“There was me and my father. I knew I had to do it so I never even thought about it. I have been cooking for my family since I was 10 years old,” said Horsey, who added her family often worried about Custis on the streets, keeping peace as a police officer, whose name during that time was Officer Diane Johnson.
“Everyone gave her respect. She never had to pull a gun. She never had to shoot, because of the person she was,” said her son, Sidney Johnson, a Florida resident who has a son and granddaughter, Khloe, who the family called the apple of Custis’ eye.
“She loved her family,” her sister said. Her husband, the Rev. Lovelet Custis, who was with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's Department of Public Safety for 21 years, died in 2012.
“She was very involved with the church and she loved singing. She used to sing at funerals. She sang solos. She had a beautiful voice,” Horsey said.
At Custis’ funeral, Salisbury Police presented Johnson with a plaque in her honor, the words “In Memory Of Police Officer Diane Lee Johnson” and a photograph of her.
It states, “Officer Johnson, a trailblazer, as she was the first African-American female police officer in the Salisbury Police Department, shall be remembered as a dedicated law enforcement officer who proudly served the community of Salisbury, Maryland. Officer Johnson served from March 2, 1978 to March 14, 1980.”
“The family was extremely grateful for the honor of her being memorialized. It was very well received,” Sgt. Mike Loring of the Salisbury Police Department, who created the plaque, told the Salisbury Independent this week.
Her son said there had been talk about a mural-sized picture of his mother being painted on a Salisbury building, to honor her.
“She would be proud that I want her to be recognized,” he said, calling Custis “a good mother” who, while raising him as a single parent, always offered good advice and tried to give him everything he desired.
Loring said if additional murals are painted on city buildings, Custis will certainly be considered.
Custis left Salisbury Police after two years and from 1980 to 1995 worked as an officer for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and was well respected there, too, her sister said. “This was a personal accomplishment she and her family were proud of,” her obituary states.
“Subsequently, Diane went to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to work on the Police Force. Upon her retirement from the University, she was promoted to Corporal. This was another significant accomplishment she and her family were proud of. Shortly after retirement, Diane decided to utilize her knowledge and skills and entered the work force at the Department of Social Services in Cambridge. Lastly, she was employed at Wicomico County Board of Transportation as a van driver. She had a dedicated and committed work ethic, which permeated every task she undertook. She was a capable woman who excelled in her professional life,” her obituary states.
In the obituary, her family wrote that she had a “loving, kind and jovial spirit” and was “a devoted, loving and caring mother, sister, aunt, cousin, sister-in-law, and friend.”
“Her first devotion and dedication have always been to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, then to her family. Diane exemplified her love and commitment by daily phone calls to her family. In her leisure time, Diane enjoyed watching her favorite television shows, The Young and the Restless and Chicago PD. When she became bored, she would jump in her car and cruise around town. More than anything Diane loved to sing. After receiving Christ in her life, she loved nothing more than praising God and lifting his name in song,” it states.
Also on the obituary page is a message written by the family, as though Custis penned it.
“Kindly be advised that I have moved. I now have a new Landlord, where I can dine at the Master’s table and I can sing in the Heavenly Choir. Please take a little time to note my new address in your Rolodex organizer, e- mail address and personal phone books. I could go and on about my new home, but instead I’m going to pray for you to move here yourself one day,” it states.
On the Jolley Memorial Chapel Website there’s a video accompanying the obituary with soothing scenes of the ocean and other natural spots of respite. As music plays, a black and white photograph of Custis as a little girl appears, as well as photographs of her as an adult and at a family reunion, followed by the words, “Good friends are hard to find, harder to leave and impossible to forget.”