Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Police Chief Rebecca Coleman is in a good mood this morning. It's Friday in Jackson, and the city is seeing more snow today than it has in years. The icy weather, while a deviation from typical central Mississippi weather, did not contain the kind of deadly black ice that terrifies cops. The department adopted a policy the day before of having a pile of barricades ready to block off the city's most potentially deadly bridges the minute ice became a threat.
The city's second female police chief is looking out the window at the snow-covered lawn of City Hall, happy that her officers are working considerably fewer accidents than she was expecting. That week, the city had reported a slight drop in crime from the previous week. She takes no personal responsibility for the dip and warns that accident statistics can fluctuate wildly.
Coleman is the kind of leader who constantly defers to her command staff, praising them as much if not more than she's willing to praise herself. Her face is filled with the kind of confidence that comes with doing one job for almost 40 years, but without a hint of arrogance.
Jackson does not represent Coleman's first stint in leading a police department. After leaving the Jackson Police Department in 1994, she served briefly as chief of the Forest Hill Police Department in Texas before moving on to become the assistant manager of that city. Later the same year, she returned to her home state to serve as bureau director for the office of Program Integrity of Fraud Investigations at the Mississippi Department of Human Services. From there, she became head of the Jackson State University Department of Public Safety, where her work doubtless caught the attention of then-adjunct professor Harvey Johnson Jr., who brought her on as Jackson chief soon after his return to the mayor's office last year.
What possessed you to get into law enforcement?
I don't suppose Angie Dickinson had anything to do with it, did she? No, I can't say "Police Woman" had much to do with my decision to go into law enforcement. I'd actually graduated high school with the intention of being a social worker, but once I got out, I learned that it was not so easy to find a job in that field. I later considered going into the police academy, because law enforcement felt like another kind of social service.
What was it like in that kind of man's world? Was it protective or hostile?
When I came on the police department, I was one of three African American females here. We had maybe 20 or 25 African Americans in this department, so the females had to prove themselves in this male-dominated atmosphere. The men were not of the impression that we could carry our own, to back them up on a call or a response for service. I think they mostly looked at the women at the time as someone they had to look after. But once we proved ourselves, we were readily accepted. In fact, some police preferred female partners once we proved ourselves.
There was no different standard for females to complete the training at the academy. At the time, we had to complete the same training as the males. We had to meet the exact same physical expectations the males did. If you couldn't make it through the physical aspect of the academy, you did not complete the training.
Tell me about your first patrol? Who'd they stick you with?
I was put with a black officer, John Coleman—that's (former Jackson Police Chief) Bracy Coleman's brother. Bracy and I were in the same class, but his brother John Coleman graduated ahead of us. So I was put with him. I was assigned later to a white female officer and several white male officers. In all essence, I had no problem during that time, but occasionally there would be some kind of racist comment. During that time, they would say it was a slip of the tongue. That was the language at the time. I was able to deal with it. It was not something I accepted, and I had no problem letting it be known that I was not accepting of it—especially not in my presence.
What was the most daunting aspect of the physical training? Did they actually expect you to do a fireman's carry on a 300-pound guy?
No. I don't remember pulling a 300-pound guy. I got to dance through the tires and climb the wall. We also had to change a tire by stooping and not letting the tire touch the ground, and keeping it out from the body. It wasn't easy.
Can I assume there were times when you were envious of Bracy Coleman's upper-body strength?
I was envious of a lot of things concerning Bracy Coleman. He was my inspiration while I was in the academy. I wasn't very good at running, but he would pair up with me, and he would smoke a cigarette and run backward in front of me, so I would have no choice but to run forward.
How did you prove yourself to the other officers?
I did my work. I carried my own. When we handled calls, we handled them together.
What, no big Mel Gibson-style standoff with the bad guys?
No, nothing like that. It was the little things: being there; being reliable.
Did you have a family at the time?
I was married when I came on the police force.
How did they take the news of your profession?
My mom and my father were somewhat opposed to me going into law enforcement, but my dad came around. I don't think he felt that I would be able to get through the academy, and he told me if I could get through the training then he would support me in it. Once I got through that and graduated, I received both their support.
How did the spouse take it?
He didn't have a problem with it.
Really? He didn't have a problem with the rotten schedule or the potentially dangerous environment?
He felt that I was able to carry my own, and it was not a problem.
There was no whining about you coming home at 2 in the morning?
I was working between a day shift and an evening shift, and after 11 p.m. I was home. Later the schedule changed, but it was never a problem as far as my marriage was concerned.
What would you say were your most trying years—uh, providing your most trying year is not this one?
(Laughs.) No, this is not my most trying year. My most trying year was not too long after I came on in the police department. I was on three and a half years before the sergeants' exam was given. During that time, we had dual lists for everything. You had a list for black officers, and you had a list of white officers to take the test. I was No. 1 on the black list. A white female was No. 1 on the white list. I passed the test and wound up being promoted to sergeant. With less than four or five years on the force, I was in a position where I was supervising people who had 10 or 15 years tenure. That was a trying time. Not only for being accepted by my peers, but by those individuals who felt that they should have been in that position instead of me.
But I was able to get through that because I wanted that position. I knew what that position would entail, and even in those early years I was able to see how some of my supervisors handled situations. I learned how to treat people, and how to treat my then-subordinates: how I wanted to be treated.
It amazes me that you were able to belt out orders to middle-aged white guys in the 1970s without more of an issue.
Absolutely—and they took those orders, too. (Laughs.)
But how did you diffuse the potentially dicey atmosphere at the time?
I was supervising people who had been on this department 10 or 15 years, and here I was three and a half years into the job, and I was their supervisor, and it worked. I did have maybe one or two occasions when the subordinate wanted to buck a directive that had been given, but my style of supervision has always been firm and fair.
Yeah, but reprimanding some older white guy for bucking orders might have hardened his older white peers against you.
Let me say this about law enforcement, and supervisors and officers: When officers came to work, most of them had a passion for the job. They knew they were public servants, and they wanted to make a difference in that precinct or on their particular beat. There may have been certain petty things that they may not have wanted to do as far as directives from me, but they did it because they were looking at the whole picture, the overall picture. They knew that to spite me in not doing it meant they were also spiting themselves and cheating their citizens, who we had all sworn to protect and serve. For that reason, police are often able to overcome their pettiness and are able to do their jobs. Now it's often said that the police officer only has to come in, do his hours and answer his calls for service, but the group I came in with and the people under me wanted to do more than that.
There was competition between the precincts, the beats and the shifts to be the better officer. It's something ingrained. They were able to get over that I was a double-minority, a black female, in Mississippi, giving orders.
You've removed another nail of cynicism from my heart.
Well, it was a good thing that they got over it, because I was not going anywhere, and I let that be known, too.
Are you finding the world of running the city department different from running JSU? Woo, that's dumb reporter question, ain't it?
It is different in size, but managing people is managing people, whether it's a large group or a small group. Believe me, there were issues and concerns and challenges at Jackson State. I had a small police department and a small command staff, but it was workable. The same thing applies here at the Jackson Police Department. Bigger police department—bigger command staff. I believe in working smart, by using the people next to me to make sure that those areas they're responsible for are being handled. Ultimately, at the end of the day, I'm responsible for whatever happens with this police department, but I'm holding accountable the people I have in charge of their respective areas—just as the mayor is going to hold me accountable. It's a bigger tree, but with more branches.
What's your take on Ward 1 Councilman Jeff Weill's hesitation to confirm you as chief?
I don't really have one. That was his prerogative not to want to go along with the confirmation. I didn't take it personally. I didn't take it personally that another council person didn't show up for the confirmation. At the end of the day, I was confirmed, and as long as I serve as chief of the department I'm going to do the best job I can, regardless of the council vote.
Supposedly, he left word with the mayor that he invited you to sit down for coffee or something like that prior to the vote. Did you get the message?
I heard that I had been sent that message to have coffee, or whatever the case may be, with the councilman. But those issues were funneled through the mayor's office, and at that formative stage, if the mayor felt the invitation was not proper, then it was not proper. I was someone he was considering bringing into the police department, so at the time it was his call.
Would you have done it had the mayor not intervened?
I'd sit down and talk with anybody, but at the time I had not been hired by the city.
How would you rate officer morale in the department right now?
The feedback I'm getting tells me that morale is upbeat. Some officers feel that I'm going to lead by example and that I will be consistent in handling situations as they arise in this department. As far as being able to please all the officers on the department, I'm afraid that'll never happen.
How did you achieve better morale? It's not like you can afford to give them raises in the current economic environment.
I'm not about to take all the credit for it. I have five deputy chiefs, and a new deputy chief over operations, and he's assisting me in chasing more aggressive projects, getting officers involved in more things going on in the precincts. That could be a contributing factor. And we're including officers more in the process of governing the department. That could also be a factor.
How do you fill gaps in officer ranks without stretching the officers thin?
We look at our COMSTAT reports; we look at crime and crime trends; we consider the size of each precinct and the numbers of calls for service we have in each precinct. Through collaborative efforts between myself and my command staff, we make determinations on how to deploy manpower. If you've got a precinct with a low crime rate and a good number of officers compared to the other precincts, we tweak those numbers to accommodate the problem areas throughout the city. There has been a shake-up in some precincts, in terms of moving people around and getting more for less.
Past administrations have resorted to 12-hour work schedules to cover holes in the schedule. Would you ever consider it?
They had a temporary 12-hour work schedule, but the eight-hour work schedule is working, in my opinion. One of the things the officers were proud of was that eight-hour work schedule. However, there will be times when we might have inclement weather or some other circumstance stretching the ranks. If we need to go to a 12-hour schedule, we'll do it, but I'd only consider it on a temporary basis.
What's the rate of attrition of the city's police force these days? Are we losing cops as fast as we were a couple of years ago?
I can't say how many we were losing before, but we have a lot of officers deployed (on military ventures), and we've got a lot of officers up for retirement and going out on medical leave. Thankfully, we don't have a large number of officers coming in one day and announcing that they don't want to work for us anymore, but I can't compare figures very well. Hopefully, we'll have another academy class this year and get the ranks up to speed.
The sergeant's exam caused a bit of a stir last year. What's the next phase in the sergeant's exam?
The exam will be administered April 20, I believe.
Violent crimes dropped nearly 10 percent last year in Jackson. JPD had two other chiefs for most of the year, but what do you attribute that to?
My excellent command staff. I came on in October, so I can't rightfully take credit for any drop in crime last year. I did an evaluation of the command staff when I came in last year. Some were of the impression that I would wipe out the command staff and start anew, but my philosophy was to come in and give the people already here the opportunity to do what they can do. If their goals are along the lines of my goals, then why not?
We've evaluated the command staff's job performance and their vision for the police department. If they are up to par and doing what's needed in their respective areas, then they'll stay where they are. If they're not producing, then things may change, but right now they're getting the job done.
Also, during this administration we've started a new division, the Division of Community Relations, which is headed up by Deputy Chief Tyrone Lewis. We have our quality-of-Life people. Our community relations people counsel victims of domestic violence. They do presentations on domestic violence, conflict resolutions; they attend the neighborhood meetings and the COPS meetings; they're in the schools talking to students. They're constantly out there giving information on how to prevent violent crimes and how to safeguard yourself from violent activity. That type of public awareness, in itself, serves as a deterrent to violent crime.
How deeply do you hold to the argument that the level of crime for any given year is connected to the health of the economy? I know you're not a social psychologist—
Yes, I am. I'm a police chief. I'm a social psychologist—except I'm not registered. Of course, there's a tie between crime and the economy. It stands to reason that when jobs are lost, it encourages a sense of desperation in individuals who are determined to feed their families one way or another—even if it means violating someone else's rights—just to get a meal on the table. I'm not saying that's the cause of the majority of violent activity in this city, but it is certainly one of the many causes. When I look at the news and read that the stock market dropped, I kind of get nervous. But often crime happens because of the suspect's drug dependency or a personal problem this person had with the victim.
JPD recently apprehended a few suspects in that spate of church burglaries from a few weeks ago thanks to a confidential tip from a citizen. What is the department doing (or what will it be doing) to increase citizens' trust in police?
We've gotten back to community relations. When we first came in, we had some complaints from citizens about the lack of police follow-up after the initial report of an incident. They said they never heard back from the police department. That's not the case anymore. We've implemented call-backs, so if you've suffered a crime incident, you will get a call-back from the police department, either to give you an update on your report or to ask you if you've obtained any additional information that might assist us in solving your crime. We attend COPS meetings, the ward meetings arranged by the mayor's office. We're getting away from a habit of no outreach to the community. We're working in concert with the community. We're letting our citizens know what services the police department offers to them, and we're making a point to hear their issues and concerns.
We get back to them in an effort to help resolve their problem.
How effective has the inter-agency JET (Jackson Enforcement Team) been?
I'd have to see the reports to answer that one. We have entered back into a memorandum of understanding with numerous outside agencies that allow us to get information from these agencies on a monthly or quarterly basis. We get reports and statistics on what is happening on these teams. If we have team members attached to the MBN (Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics) or something like that, for example, we want to know what they are doing for that team, why they are there, and how is it impacting crime in the city.
Will the department be able to keep JET going if the federal grant expires this year?
It was supposed to be disbanded, but they came up with some more funding. The grant was supposed to expire in July, but the MBN or the state government managed to get the funding. That gives us another year.
JPD created Precinct 5 initially to deal with crime in the downtown business district. Recently, it's been more of a roving unit, helping out wherever crime increases. How do you plan to use Precinct 5 in the future?
Precinct 5 is serving its purpose. When we have blitzes throughout the city, we pull members from that team. We deploy our personnel based on need, and the Precinct 5 unit will not be disbanded, if that's what you're asking. They're working very efficiently to combat crime in the downtown area. If we need them to enhance what's going on in Precinct 1 or Precinct 4, we'll send a few members from Precinct 5, but we'll never send everyone and fully dissolve the precinct. They're too valuable. We have a growing population downtown, and we want that population safe. In fact, we have more officers in that precinct even as we speak.
Are their headquarters still on Farish Street?
Are they permanent headquarters?
Eh, I wouldn't call it permanent, not just yet, anyway.
Have there been any updates in the alleged Fuelman gas theft investigation?
Sure. The investigation has been completed.
Well, OK. What happened?
It's not my position to speak on personnel issues, but it has been completed.
Oh, for Pete's sake. Spit it out. Were there any dirty deeds being done?
Those are personnel issues that can't be discussed.
What would your advice be if it is determined that one or more officers actually engaged in the theft of gasoline from the city? What needs to happen to the city employees involved? Would you go so far as to press charges if the wrongdoing appears odious enough?
Anytime any police officer is found guilty of committing a criminal act—not only a police officer, but any employee of the city—they will be dealt with according to the rules and regulations set forth by the police department and the service commission.
Who would be the ones to press charges if it came to it?
We would be the agency to press those charges if it happened to the city.
Sounds dicey, like it wouldn't be much fun.
No. No, it wouldn't.
Changing the subject: How are you maintaining the city's aging fleet of patrol cars? I've heard some vehicles sound like Jed Clampett's truck when they go up and down the street.
We have purchased new cars this year for the city's fleet, so the vehicles that need to be deadlined will be deadlined. Believe it or not, there was some money in the budget for the purchase of new vehicles, and we were also able to utilize some grant funds.
I've heard some vehicles can sit up for days, even weeks, waiting for parts near the end of the budget year because the money to pay for the new parts is so hard to come by. Has that changed?
I can't say whether that's going to be a problem this time around, but I'm certainly trying to stay within the budget this year.
Do you plan any changes in how the police department will work with other members of law enforcement—such as the county or the state—to reduce crime?
We renewed all our relationships with entities willing to work with the police department. We have new memorandums of understandings with the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. Marshal Service, ATF, DEA. And MBN offered their assistance at any time to come into the city and work with us on our problems.
As far as the Hinds County sheriff's office, my relationship goes back with Sheriff Malcolm McMillin further than I even want to think about.
You never fight over the drug money whenever there's a dual bust between the county and the city?
I don't see us fighting over anything.
Yeah, but does that mean he walks away with all the money he can?
No. Believe me: He won't tell you that. Direct that question to him, and whatever answer he gives you, print it.
How would you rate detectives' relationship with the district attorney's office? During the DA's election there was criticism that the DA wasn't working well with the cops, that they weren't helping them put together the best case they could. Has that changed?
When I came into office I met with the district attorney's office. The deputy chief over investigations and I went over and spoke with the DA. They've given us their full cooperation in dealing with active cases we have and the backlog of cases we have. Right now, I don't have any complaints about the relationship we have with the DA.
They have offered officer training assistance, and our investigators and patrol officers are getting in-service training. The FBI has also offered to do a block of training on how to prepare cases. We're taking everything they offer.
Completely unrelated to the last question: I don't recall seeing any checkpoints in my part of town these days. Do you believe in police checkpoints?
Obviously, you've been in the wrong part of town or very lucky, because I could frighten you with the number of tickets that have been written at checkpoints throughout the city. I see the value in checkpoints, and we're seeing improvements based on the number of tickets and the arrests that are coming in as a result of these checkpoints.
If you had a little more money at your disposal, how would you invest it in the department?
In a perfect world, if we had the money, I'd give our officers a raise.
What, we don't need any new parking meters?
Raises. My officers need raises.
Where in five years will you be?
This year marks my 35 years of service. In five more years, I'll have 40 years of law enforcement under my belt. I don't see me in law enforcement in five years. I'll finish out my four-year term, but after that, I'll be 61. It'll be time for me to sit down. I don't think my daughters would allow me to stay in it.
This chief is effective in light of my use of the department services recently. I've used the 960-1234 many times in the past couple of weeks and was treated like a citizen and a partner each time. The beat officers were courteous and professional...and responsive. The interview shows she has a realistic and purposeful view of police work.