Photos Rob Smith

Q: How has the value of service and its roots in your household growing up impacted the way you approach your work and the citizens of Rome? 

 

A: I always go back to my parents. Together they raised five kids and they did it the best way possible: church, strong work ethics, and with a push for education. My father was a retired Orderly at Floyd Medical Center, he really was a jack-of-all-trades. I remember his drive to always improve himself and to improve his surroundings. 

My mom was an LPN at Battey State Hospital then at Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital, working and raising a family. Both my parents were strong in their faith and belief. It rooted me growing up and grounded me in the values of hard work, communication, and education. That’s what I bring to the table.  

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Q: You received your Bachelor of Social Work with a minor in Criminal Justice Corrections at the University of Cincinnati. How does this education in social work help you lead the Rome City Police Department? 
 

 A: I pursued social work in college because I had a passion to help others. I cared deeply about social justice and the value of human dignity; especially when working with diverse populations and helping those who are experiencing a crisis in their lives. I have always wanted to help people in any way that I could. That was also my draw to law enforcement. The two fields merge perfectly, as I quickly realized when I started policing. There are so many hats that an officer wears: mediator, counselor, a resource for avenues of support, advocate, researcher. Police work is social work, we are here in a helping role.  

Q: Who would you consider your greatest model/inspiration for leadership?  

 

A: That is a twofold question for me. I’m a believer, and I think that the Bible is a guide for leadership, how you treat people, and doing the right thing. From a humanistic aspect, I have multiple people that have been very influential in my life, and I’ve taken a little bit of all of them. Listening that’s the key. When you have someone in your life that is a mentor or role model, you listen and take in what they have to say. That helps mold you into the kind of person that you want to be.  

Retired Major, the late Mike Ragland, and Retired Assistant Chief Travis Goss always led by example. Ragland was phenomenal with the written word, and he successfully wrote a lot of grants for the department that helped us achieve things we would not have otherwise through our budget. They cared deeply for the department and its people. I would say that is a trait that I continue. I care about each and every person that works in this department. I care about them, and I care about their family. I want them to love our department and our community just as much as I do, because we have a phenomenal department, and we have a remarkable community  

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Q: What is the Pastoral Police Academy (P.P.A.) and what are your hopes for this program?  

 

A: When speaking about the community and our department’s principle of transparency, I have always promoted to have our Citizen’s Police Academy, and a few years ago I tasked the Training Division to develop the P.P.A. My vision is to have a pastor who can take the message of what policing is like and reach the masses. Within their congregation, a pastor can share that information versus a singular citizen in a Citizen Police Academy, who may not have that reaching power. When you see what is happening in other cities, these pastors can share their personal experiences, “I’ve been to the Police Academy at Rome Police Department. 

I will tell you they do not operate like what you are seeing on the news. They do not do chokeholds. They are a nationally and state accredited department. We don’t have the issues that other people are having in their communities because of our police department.” We hope to spread the word that our officers relate to the citizens of Rome and Floyd County compassionately and straightforward. They still have a job to do, so that doesn’t dismiss the fact that you may get a ticket or may be escorted to jail, but you will be treated with dignity and respect.  

Rome City Chief of Police, Denise Downer-McKinney
Q: The names of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Dylan Roof made national headlines in 2015, a year before you became Rome Police Department’s first African American Police Chief. You have served with Rome City Police for over 37 years, how would you describe our social climate in Rome?  

 

A: Rome is a very unique and special place. Though we are not perfect, and we have our issues, but I will say we don’t have the kinds of issues that have been publicized in the last few years. We don’t have those kinds of issues in our city because the PD is transparent. We as a police department have worked to collaborate with the community, encouraging our officers to be engaged members of our community. Whether as a coach and/or being a part of a civic organization, it’s important to be a part of the community; building relationships. 

In considering changes in our department, in my 37 years, I have not really experienced any racism or separatism. Speaking with other female officers, they also felt we really didn’t experience any of that. Still, in our careers in prior administrations, they had been confused about how to manage females breaking into the career of law enforcement which was predominately an Anglo-Saxon male job function. The bottom line is we were all one, because we wear the badge, and we wear the uniform. 

One story that strikes out in my mind. It was 1985, I was pretty new to the department and my husband’s uncle, Retired Lieutenant Archie Lawrence, began to kid with me. “Heard you made an arrest.” I said, “Yes, Sir.” “I heard you arrested a white female,” he said. I said, “Yes. Sir.” He told me, “Don’t you know you’re not allowed to arrest a white female?” I was stunned. I was like, this is 1985! I took it as a teaching history moment. 

As we spoke, I could see what it was like for him as he policed in the 60s and 70s. Initially, I looked at him, like are you serious the African American officers aren’t allowed to arrest anybody who wasn’t African American?  He was in an elevated position, Lieutenant in the Rome Police Department. I look at his career, and I see in the ways I have been able to surpass him, and I don’t take it very lightly. It is a great honor and privilege for me to have risen in the career that I chose. 

Q: Rome is very fortunate to have a police department so engaged with the community. Can you describe why this is so important to you?  

 

A: It’s all about relationship building. We want to educate and to inform our community every chance we get, but I tell you in this time of COVID, it has been quite difficult. Our P.P.A. had to cancel because of COVID and the reduction of meeting in person. Click-it or Ticket is an ongoing program that helps us educate the community about safety. Additionally, we continue our Car Seat Initiative in which we provide free car seats for parents that take a class about proper installation, proper usage, and the law. 

The pandemic has really hampered our ability to get out and be involved as much as in years past, but we utilize social media to keep citizens informed of what’s going on and how to be safe. One day at a time, you know, but we are eager to hear from District Public Health Director, Dr. Voccio to tell us numbers are going down, and things will soon be getting back to a new normal.  

Q: What kind of training does the police department provide for officers working in the field?

 

A: I worked in the Training Division for a number of years and my goal remains the same as it was then: to reach officers through a holistic approach to training lending support not only professionally, but also personally. I’ve noticed sometimes those two roll into one in the job. We have a lot of mandated training through the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) in addition to the State requirements. 

An important component to our training is the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) our officers received from Bonnie Moore of NAMI. This training focuses on an officer’s ability to recognize a mental health crisis and teaches them appropriate ways to intervene. In addition, we have de-escalation training, community policing, and law updates. In addressing the physical and mental approach of each officer, we discuss how to talk to people, how to interact, and even in making an arrest. It is this attention that is key in building and making the best officer possible.

In keeping with our holistic vision, we sometimes offer additional training to help support our officers on a personal level. The city has an educational incentive program, for those officers interested in continuing their education for a college degree, and for those who can’t afford college. It was a big draw for me when I wanted to complete my master’s degree in Public Administration.

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Q: Officer vacancy is a challenge most police departments confront; national statistics indicate 53%, over half of new recruits will quit before serving five years. What do you think is a leading cause for such low retention rates?  
 

A: If we’re speaking of today, in this present time, when you look at what’s going on nationally: with police shootings, and I am talking about the ones at the hands of police and the ones that are directed to police, and the lack of support, you question yourself would I want my child to do this job? We have a lot of parents that try to direct their children in other directions. Secondly, I think the pay is also a factor. I talked to somebody the other day, whose dad retired from policing—not Rome Police— and for 25 years he had had to work a part-time job. That says a lot when a full-time job can’t support a modest lifestyle. People just don’t want to do this job anymore that’s the bottom line. 

Q: How does your command approach the problem of officer vacancy?  

 

A: We try to think outside the box. We use social media to advertise. We work closely with Sammy Rich, the city manager, and Kristy Shepard, Human Resource Director of Rome City to come up with innovative ideas. I have a recruitment team that is instrumental in trying to put the word out that we are a department that you want to work with and work for. The city has devised an annual incentive pay plan that addresses officer retention specifically based on experience. One year: $5,000; two-five years $8,000; and six-plus years: $10,000. That’s on top of base pay. 

We have other pay incentives for officers who are on a S.W.A.T. team, for those who are bilingual, as well as shift differential pay. When looking to hire it’s important to find the right fit, not just any fit. We look for officers who respond to people honestly and want to serve. That’s what I want in our department. When you have those who want to serve the community in that capacity that’s the best kind of officer you can have. That’s how we build our department with the best.  

Q: How does your command address mental health and wellness concerns for officers feeling the pressures of being understaffed? 

 

A: Police officers, like everyone else, feel the professional pressures and personal pressures wherever they are. An effective command staff will always meet them somewhere in the middle. Our supervisors prioritize strategies that help them stay in tune with their officers and know what’s going on. We are very unique and very fortunate that we have two psychologists that are Reserve Officers, Dr. John Azar Dickens, Ph.D., P.C. and Sam Perri, Ph.D.  

They go through all the training that our police officers do, so they are a valuable support team. We also have two department chaplains: Dr. K. Scott McClure, Pastor at Flatrock Baptist, and Pastor Jody Hagerty of Cornerstone Church. They routinely ride-along, talking to the officers as they work the field. This paints the picture of our holistic approach to supporting the health of our officers’ mind, body, and soul.