A Storied Career for Troup County’s Joy Burnham

Published 10:26 am Friday, February 16, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

After decades in law enforcement of highs and lows, officer, deputy, investigator and executive assistant Joy Burnham has called it quits and has left behind a proud legacy.

Most recently, Burnham has served as secretary for Sheriff James Woodruff helping run the sheriff’s office and jail for 12 years.

Burnham started in law enforcement shortly after graduating from LaGrange College in 1981. 

Email newsletter signup

“I went straight to LaGrange Police Department and asked them for a job. At first, they said they didn’t need anybody, but they did call me back, so I started as a patrolman,” Burnham said.

Early police work was not easy, Burnham indicated, especially in a professional that was then typically for men. However, she persevered and after about nine months, they sent her to the police academy. 

“I had never shot a handgun, but the Lord blessed me. I was the first woman to ever win the shooting trophy,” she said.

There were not a lot of women in law enforcement at the time, but Burnham said she wasn’t alone at LPD. Burnham said early on a female officer pulled her aside and told her that if her partner ever gets into a physical altercation, she better jump in there or when she gets back they would “whip her butt.”

A couple of months later she transitioned to motorcycle traffic control.

“The captain called me and said, ‘I know you ride motorcycles. Do you want to ride a Harley for us? And I responded, ‘You’re going to pay me to ride motorcycles?’ So I did that for about a year and a half, and it was great,” Burnham said.

Burnham later moved on to investigations for a couple of years before taking a job with the Troup County Sheriff’s Office.

“I heard that Troup County was going to start a Federal Task Force. I knew they didn’t have a woman on the road, so I thought I would try. [Then Sheriff] Gene Jones gave me the job, and we taught people the harms of drunk driving and safety seminars and stuff,” she said.

She said working the interstates was a lot different back then. The speed limit was 55 miles per hour, and they didn’t have as many people hauling drugs. It wasn’t any safer though, as Burnham learned one fateful day in 1997.

“I pulled over a guy for speeding. He was doing 91, and he pulled out his wallet but couldn’t find his license,” Burnham said.

The subject then handed her a yellow traffic citation where he had just gotten arrested in Columbus, Georgia earlier that morning.  

Burnham said she thought about calling for backup, but her previous goading from female officers made her decide to handle it herself. 

Burham said after patting down the subject, she went to unlock the rear door of her patrol car. Upon turning around, the man hit her in the chest and started to run. She said she was able to tackle him and began wrestling trying to get him in handcuffs.

During the scuffle, he grabbed for her gun and began pulling on her holster, saying he was going to kill her. The gun was locked in her holster, but back in those days, deputies had to buy their own equipment.

“I didn’t think he could get it out, but because it was so old, I’m twisting his arm behind his back, and I almost had the handcuffs and I hear it rip,” Burnham said.

That’s how Burnham ended up on the side of Interstate 185 with her own gun — a .357 magnum revolver — pointed at her own head.

Burham said she grabbed the cylinder of the revolver, hoping it would prevent the gun from firing but she ended up getting shot in the arm. From such close range and such a large gun, the blast practically exploded her arm.

Lying in the middle of I-185, Burnham said her assailant began to circle her, threatening to kill her. Barely able to move, she managed to kick him with a low blow causing him to fall to the ground. On the ground, he held the gun to her head and again threatened to kill her. 

He then got up and stood over her and pointed the gun at her but didn’t shoot.

Then Burham began to pray, “Lord, if you can just let him leave. I know I can survive if you just let him leave.”

Then surprisingly, or miraculously, the assailant got into his car and took off, leaving Burnham in the middle of the highway in a pool of blood to die.

She said she tried to get up but couldn’t. Fortunately, she was able to reach her tiny portable radio and summoned the strength to call for help.

Help eventually came but the struggle was not over. Joy had to endure more than 30 surgeries over four years to save her arm.

Burnham said she had been a Christian before, but she saw the devil and God that day.

“I believe I’m so much closer to God than I ever was before,” she said.

Burnham returned to the Troup County Sheriff’s Office as a computer manager but she still longed for police work, so she went back to being an investigator where she worked for many years.

Burnham said it got to the point where no one wanted to work child cases, so they often fell to her. After years of enduring second-hand trauma, Joy told her superiors that she needed a break and asked to work on financial crimes. When they told her no, she resigned and took a job as an office manager for the hospital.

When Sheriff James Woodruff decided to run for office, he asked Burnham to come work for him as his office manager. She agreed and returned to the TCSO under Woodruff.

“She came on board and has been with us for 12 wonderful years,” Woodruff said, noting Burnham heads up so many of the department’s programs like their annual dinners and luncheons.

Woodruff said he and Burnham worked together years ago when she came over from LPD.

“Our comradeship goes back a long way, and she’s been a very vital and important role in the sheriff’s office,” Woodruff said.

Burnham officially retired from the Troup County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, after decades in law enforcement. She said when she woke up the next day she felt free.

“I didn’t have to worry about doing stuff. I didn’t have to worry about victims. I don’t have to worry about what people think of me. I want to love people and care for them but now I’m not really responsible for them,” Burnham said.

Burnham said that she’s going to continue writing and publishing Christian books.

“I have ‘The Blood of Jesus’ that Lifeway published and then they got out of the publishing business. For whatever reason, everything they published took off, so I want it back in print. I’m rewriting it now and almost done. Trilogy is going to publish it.”

She said she is also working on another book about relationships.