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A day in the life of a homicide victim advocate

Meet Mary Nero: Greensboro Police Department’s lone homicide victim advocate who managed a record 74 homicide cases in a single year

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Mary Nero began her law enforcement career as a patrol officer, later working as a detective for nine years.


In Greensboro, North Carolina, a unique position within the police department bridges the gap between law enforcement and the community it serves, particularly those affected by violent crimes.

Mary Nero, a seasoned detective turned advocate, embodies this pivotal role as the Homicide Victim Advocate for the Greensboro Police Department. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nero, where she shared her transformative journey from patrolling the streets and unraveling mysteries as a homicide detective to advocating for victims and their families with a level of compassion only someone with her background could offer.

This transition was not merely a career shift but a response to a growing need within the community, driven by Nero’s desire to make a tangible difference. As violent crime rates rose and the public’s outcry for justice and support became louder, Nero recognized an opportunity to apply her unique skills and insights where they were most needed — supporting those left in the wake of tragedy.

Nero’s team is expanding at a crucial time, as the city of Greensboro, N.C., has experienced a record number of homicides this past year

Her initiative and dedication led to the creation of a role that bridges the crucial gap between law enforcement and victim support, underscoring the importance of empathy, communication and community in overcoming adversity.

Below, Nero delves into the challenging yet rewarding world of victim advocacy. Her journey illuminates the evolving landscape of law enforcement, where roles like hers are increasingly essential in addressing not only the crimes but also the human impact behind the statistics.

Can you share about your journey from being a detective and homicide investigator to becoming the department’s Homicide Victim Advocate? What motivated this transition?

I started out as a sworn officer, patrolling and later working as a detective for nine years. During that period, I spent three to four years as a homicide detective. In 2017, I took a complete break from law enforcement. However, I returned in 2020 as a victim advocate for the homicide unit. This transition happened during my two-year hiatus from law enforcement when I was employed by a nonprofit focused on victim advocacy.

Unfortunately, I felt the organization’s efforts weren’t as impactful as they could have been. During this time, I closely followed the escalating violent crime rates in Greensboro, N.C., and the growing public outcry. I realized that the work I was doing with the nonprofit was precisely what was needed at the Greensboro Police Department.

I drafted a proposal for the city manager’s office, detailing the role, its significance and why I was the right candidate for it. Upon my return in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, I assumed the role in a part-time, pilot capacity, testing its viability and worth within the city’s budget constraints.

As 2020 progressed, violent crime continued to rise, not just locally but nationally. This increase only cemented my position as essential, as victim families began receiving the support and services they had previously lacked, and detectives could dedicate more time to the investigative and law enforcement aspects of their jobs, unburdened by the additional responsibility of directly supporting the families, which I then took on.

You essentially created this role on your own. Did you have any help when it came to detailing what your now-current role would be?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department has three in-house homicide victim advocates. I reached out to them, shadowed them for a day and had extensive conversations with one of the advocates, Shardal Rose, who is now with the Baltimore (Md.) Police Department. She has been my mentor throughout this journey, but much of my approach was modeled after the practices of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Are you currently still the sole homicide victim advocate for the department?

Currently, we’re experiencing an exciting phase. We received a federal grant, the Law Enforcement Victim Advocate Grant through the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was awarded to us last October. This two-year grant aims to extend or expand our victim support program by adding two more victim advocates to our team.

They will not only continue addressing homicide cases but will also cover aggravated assaults, nonfatal shootings, robberies and home invasions. We’re in the process of growing and hope to have the new advocates onboard within the next month or two.

This expansion is timely, as we’ve faced a record number of homicides this past year, with 74 cases, surpassing our previous high of 64 homicides. Handling 74 cases as a single person is overwhelming and there have been times when I felt unable to provide families with the level of support they deserve.

With the addition of two more team members, our services can become more comprehensive and inclusive. This will allow for more follow-up by advocates, improving our support system. I find myself establishing initial contact with families and encouraging them to reach out if needed, but often, they’re too overwhelmed to do so. Enhancing our team will enable us to better serve our community.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Just like any other position in law enforcement, no two days look the same and things rarely go as planned. My role involves making initial contact with the families and ensuring consistent communication with the detectives. For example, after a homicide, I gather a summary from the detectives to inform the families about what to expect next. The families’ first questions usually concern the whereabouts of their loved one, so I explain the autopsy process, what it entails and how they can retrieve their loved one’s personal belongings.

My goal is to clarify the basics for them, answering their initial inquiries while providing a realistic overview of the investigation process. I assure them that delays in detective updates are not due to negligence but are a result of the detectives diligently working through leads. In essence, I serve as the main point of contact for them.

I also assist with applying for victims’ compensation, aiming to simplify the process so that all they need to do is provide a signature. I also compile statistics and data for our command staff and engage with community groups interested in supporting our efforts. Especially given the recent surge in the homicide rate, there’s a growing desire among community groups to support victims and find ways to curb violence. By collaborating and building relationships with these groups, we hope to make a significant impact.

Balancing empathy with the need for professional detachment must be challenging. How do you manage this balance in your day-to-day duties?

Overall, I manage pretty well due to my experience as a detective. Over the years, I’ve improved my ability to compartmentalize, setting aside each case mentally and moving on to the next. However, there are days when I arrive home utterly drained, needing quiet or a complete change of scenery. Running is my escape; it’s how I process and release the accumulated stress, emotions and heaviness. It might sound cliché, but running genuinely helps me clear my mind and rid myself of the day’s burdens.

There are times, though, when the emotional weight stays with me, becoming almost a physical presence. During these moments, I’m acutely aware of the need to disconnect entirely for a couple of days.

This doesn’t mean disappearing off the grid but rather turning off my phone and stepping away from work-related thoughts, focusing on resetting mentally and emotionally. By doing so, I ensure that I can return to my duties fully recharged, ready to provide the best support possible to the families I work with.

What do you find most rewarding about your role as a Homicide Victim Advocate, and what success stories can you share that highlight the impact of your work?

It means a great deal to me when people express their gratitude, saying things like, “Thank you so much for your information; I don’t know how I would have gotten through this ordeal without you.” That truly fills my cup. It’s a reflection of what justice means to me — being treated by the system in the same way I would want others to be treated. My approach with families is to communicate with them and treat them as I would want someone to treat my mother or any of my family members if something happened to me.

When a family returns to say, “Thank you, you’ve clarified things for us,” or “We didn’t feel supported and you made it make sense,” that’s incredibly rewarding. Making it “make sense” for them is a key part of my role and succeeding in that is my reward.

Now, as I enter my fourth year in this role, seeing families I assisted in 2020 still participating in our events and community walks in 2024, because they want to pay it forward and support other families, shows me the positive impact of my work. It confirms that my efforts are not in vain, despite days when I doubt whether I am making a difference among the anger and hurt directed at me. Understanding it’s not personal doesn’t lessen the sting, but the positive feedback and seeing the cycle of support among families reinforce the positive impact of my work.

For individuals interested in pursuing a career similar to yours, what advice would you give them about preparing for and thriving in such a demanding and emotionally taxing field?

To make a difference in law enforcement, it’s crucial to get to know people and become comfortable interacting across diverse cultures and communities. For instance, I grew up in upstate New York in a predominantly middle to upper-middle-class area. However, when I moved to North Carolina for college, I embraced the change. The welcoming weather and affordable cost of living were significant factors in my decision to stay and pursue a career as a patrol officer. Back then, officers could choose their assignments, so I deliberately opted for neighborhoods vastly different from my upbringing to immerse myself in varied cultural experiences.

This approach not only expanded my understanding of different communities but also honed my communication skills, enabling me to interact effectively with people from all walks of life. Making even the smallest difference, such as providing bottled water on a hot July day, was important to me.

Understanding the legal and judicial systems is another crucial aspect. Knowing how these systems operate allows you to assist others more effectively, making complex processes comprehensible to those unfamiliar with them.

Familiarizing yourself with the various communities within your town, such as refugee populations, and understanding the support networks available to them is invaluable. Equally important is understanding your police department’s resources, like the Office of Community Engagement, and how they can be leveraged to benefit not just citizens but officers as well.

My best advice is to place yourself in unfamiliar situations to learn and grow. This not only builds your professional toolkit but also enriches your ability to assist and understand others, laying a foundation for meaningful community engagement and support.

What does it mean to you to hold this position as a woman and serve as an example for other young women looking to make a difference in the realm of victim advocacy and law enforcement?

I’m truly glad to have started my career in law enforcement in the early 2000s. Now, 21 years later, I’m especially grateful for the range of options available to me. During Women’s History Month, there was a presentation showing women in law enforcement back in 1974 in Greensboro. The depiction was essentially of a meter maid, which seemed to be the extent of opportunities for women in the field at the time. They wore a distinctive hat and a smart-looking jacket with a patch — that was the image of a woman in law enforcement.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape has drastically changed. I’ve even created my position, leveraging a platform and space that might not have been accessible 25 or 30 years ago. This progress is nothing short of incredible. Nowadays, if a woman aspires to be a tactical officer or join a SWAT team, she has the opportunity to try out alongside men. This scenario would likely have been met with skepticism in the past, perhaps even becoming a topic of ridicule.

The most thrilling aspect of this era is the array of options available to women. We’re no longer confined to narrowly defined roles. Beyond just not being “the meter maid” anymore, women in law enforcement can aspire to and achieve much more.

Starting my career at the academy at 22 years old, I was determined and hardworking. I demonstrated my work ethic and commitment to being in law enforcement. This approach has allowed me to pursue the career path I desired.

To young female officers entering the profession, I serve as an example that if you’re here for the right reasons and maintain professionalism, there’s no limit to what you can achieve in your career.

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Sarah Calams, who previously served as associate editor of and, is the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the public safety industry to bring insights and lessons learned to first responders everywhere.

Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in news/editorial journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Have a story idea you’d like to discuss? Send Sarah an email or reach out on LinkedIn.