Leroy Smith, Capt. Shawna Gadsden and Col. Chris Williamson

From left: S.C. Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith, S.C. Highway Patrol Capt. Shawna Gadsden and Highway Patrol Col. C. N. Williamson. Provided

Shawna Gadsden isn't done breaking down barriers. 

The Charleston native and newly minted S.C. Highway Patrol captain is the first woman appointed to lead one of the agency's troops. Through her 25-year career, one simple principle has guided her: a desire to serve. 

"I feel unbelievably honored," Gadsden said. "I can’t express how happy I am to be afforded this type of opportunity. I am unbelievably excited and just so, so, thankful."

In her new role, she will oversee 57 troopers plus two civilian staff in Troop Seven, which comprises Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Hampton and Orangeburg counties. Since 2013, she held the position of lieutenant and executive officer in Troop Six, which oversees Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester and Jasper counties.

Gadsden was raised in the Charleston-area and went to St. Andrew’s Parish High School, graduating in 1988. She attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham on a basketball scholarship before transferring to the College of Charleston. 

In 1992, she had a chance encounter that would change her life. 

Gadsden wasn't sure what career she should choose. She thought she might be a school teacher or become an officer in the Navy. Then, one day while in a car with her brother, she saw a female trooper on U.S. Highway 17.

"She was in a fully marked Mustang," she said. "I looked over at her. I was just in awe. I told my brother, I think I could do that."

On April 4, 1993, she entered the academy and was stationed in Lexington County following her graduation later that year.

"It was an awesome experience, but it was very scary at the same time," Gadsden said. "Once you’re out there doing enforcement, it’s very different.”

The following year, she was transferred to Charleston County where she served the remainder of her career until her latest promotion. 

Those early days brought experiences that stay with the veteran trooper to this day.

Her first fatality involved a group of teens, Gadsden said. A 16-year-old boy was killed and alcohol was a factor in the crash.

"It was just something that will stay with me for the rest of my life," she said. "It sort of spearheaded by desire (to serve)."

And it's that dedication to service that Gadsden's superior officers have noticed.

"She’s a strong leader and makes good, sound decisions," said Col. C. N. Williamson, the agency's commander. "She has dedicated her entire career to the Highway Patrol. She also has the heart for helping others. She will be a person that will invest in the community."

Despite the historic nature of her June 8 promotion, Gadsden said she's staying humble. She thinks back to the trooper in the Mustang, to female lieutenants and other officers she's met though the years, and hopes to inspire the same desire to serve in another young woman some day. 

"It’s just setting the stage," she said. "Hopefully, I’m doing that for someone who comes behind me."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.