TAMPA — To an officer on patrol in Tampa, Tiffany Lawrence's voice was one of the most reassuring sounds that could come through the radio.
It was a voice you wanted to hear during the most pressing of circumstances — when you needed to scour a neighborhood for a fleeing suspect, if you wanted a helicopter to zero in on a car's tag number, for those moments when monotonous street work could be punctuated by bullets and chaos.
When Lawrence took your call for help, you weren't just talking to a dispatcher, you were reaching out to a friend.
"All the officers loved having her on their frequency," said her friend Melissa Jammes, an assistant to Chief Jane Castor. "When they saw her name or heard her voice, they knew she was going to take care of them."
It was a voice many knew. And almost as many knew the person behind it.
Miss Lawrence, 31, worked for the Tampa Police Department for 11 years. She lived her whole life in Hillsborough County, the daughter of a police corporal, the niece of a patrol officer, the granddaughter of an airport cop. You might say law enforcement work was in the blood, but not everyone saw it that way.
"I think it was probably her true calling, but I would be hesitant to say it was something genetic about police work," said her father, Cpl. Joe Clark, 52. "She had an intuitive grasp of what was needed when it was needed."
Miss Lawrence went to work for the Police Department at age 20 after the birth of her son, Garrett. A single mother, she needed a steady job to provide for him. She signed on to be a dispatcher, took the tests and got hired.
Many who knew her father or her uncle, Officer Ron Carpenter, came to know her even before she was hired. Dee Mathena, a fellow dispatcher, remembers the dirt-covered little girl who trotted up to her at a holiday gathering in Plant City.
"Hey," said the girl, "you want to play in the dirt with me?"
Years later, Mathena helped train Miss Lawrence in dispatch. Her instincts and skills — patience with people, boundless energy, coolness under pressure — made her a natural. They were traits that transferred easily when she took a job two years later as an administrative assistant in the department's internal affairs bureau, where she spent days sorting through residents' complaints and typing confidential reports.
All the while, she and Mathena stayed in touch. They grew close — so close that Miss Lawrence called her "Mama."
She was a loyal friend, always at the center of planning holiday gatherings or friends' weddings. She was a party girl, the first one at a tailgate to strike up a game of horseshoes or Frisbee. She was a gifted writer who could put her friends in hysterics with her words, like the online classified ad she posted for a cat she wanted to sell:
You'd have to be crazy to want this cat, she wrote, because it is a demon from hell. But if you want it, here's my number. ...
"A lot of people saw the side of her that was always happy," Mathena said. "They didn't see her cry."
The crying came two years ago, when Miss Lawrence was diagnosed with cervical cancer, Mathena said. Few people ever knew. For Miss Lawrence, the burden of her troubles was something she kept near. And still, the needs of others were always on her mind.
In January 2013, the department was rocked by the killing of dispatcher Deanna Mendoza, the victim of a murder-suicide at the hands of her estranged husband. It was after that when Lawrence decided to return to her old job, Mathena said. Her fellow dispatchers needed her.
Early the morning of May 20, Miss Lawrence drove home after work and pulled into the garage of her Valrico townhouse. She closed door behind her and walked inside. The car was still running.
Hours later, she was found on the kitchen floor, overcome by the carbon monoxide. She was rushed to Brandon Regional Hospital.
The news spread quickly. Those closest to her braced when a police lieutenant arrived at their doors — the unspoken act that says an officer has fallen.
Miss Lawrence died two days later. A sheriff's investigation concluded it was an accident.
At her funeral service last week at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge on Florida Avenue, the Tampa Police Honor Guard performed a changing of the guard ceremony. They saluted her casket. Widows of fallen officers attended. Officers on street patrol that day stopped in to pay their respects.
She wasn't an officer. But she was one of them.
Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.