Outgoing Sweetwater Police Chief Jim Kelley has taken a phrase from the popular TV police drama ADAM-12, "to protect and serve", and has embraced that mindset in his past 35 years of local law enforcement service.
"It fits for wearing the badge," he says.
But on May 1, 2012, he officially steps out of the police chief role toward a new journey — retirement.
"Law and Order"
Kelley's thirty-five years in local law enforcement started in June 1977. Two and a half years later in December 1979, he was promoted to Lieutenant and in February 1984 (for the past 28 years), he began his tenure as the Chief of Police — something he calls a "rare" feat.
Throughout his time in the Sweetwater Police Department, Kelley recalls the ups and downs of the job in working on a variety of cases. He says that his military service in the Navy during Vietnam helped him with his job, but can remember working on a triple homicide and suicide case that was "the worst thing I've seen outside of Vietnam."
He recollected a hostage situation in November 1982--an eight hour ordeal that included 52 shots fired at the SPD. However, he looks back and remembers their luck in finally saving a woman and her two-week old baby.
Yet another tough moment was in 1989, when a bus carrying a Midland boys club crashed which resulted in casualties. But since that time, Kelley says that changes for the good have taken place within the department, notably with technology and women in the workforce.
The growth of resources has been a huge asset to the force, as response capabilities, fire and ambulance services and emergency room staff have all seen an increase in skill. Continuous training has also allowed the SPD to respond to situations even without Kelley, who was out of town during the recent bomb scare at the Post Office, and he offers praise to the officers who handled the situation.
Portable radios and countless channels for contact have also helped, along with the police department packages now available for patrol cars (in the past, Kelley said, the cars would be purchased right off the showroom floor).
The computers in the cars, which were purchased through a grant, have helped officers immensely with reports and running licenses. Kelley believes that technology has made the job safer, but as technology evolves he hopes that officers will have the chance to use the updated equipment.
The other great change Kelley discussed is women serving in law enforcement, noting that two women were on the force when he started — women who helped blaze the trail for the five female officers Kelley worked with, leading up to the two ladies currently serving.
He knows that some people still think law enforcement should remain a "boys club", but dismisses the notion and calls it "bull". One of the women who Kelley worked with at the start of his service, Edith Brothers, was shot on July 4, 1977 in an event that resulted in three other people being shot and killed. Kelley said that in that summer alone, six murders took place in Sweetwater.
The department has also seen growth in some areas during Kelley's tenure. The city transitioned from the DARE program — which he called a success — to adding a school resource officer at the middle and high schools.
He says that as a result, problems at the schools have reduced greatly. Drug dogs have been used in the past at the schools; Animal Control has been placed under the umbrella of the SPD as well.
The times and ideas have evolved within the department, but so has crime during Kelley's employment. One of the events that he calls a "tremendous success story" is that of Angel Flores, the four-year-old boy who was thrown out of a car and abandoned on the highway — an event, Kelley says, would have never happened 30 years ago.
He says he can still see the little boy in his mind, his body covered with thousands of cactus thorns.
"We had nothing to go on," Kelley said about the initial case. However, he credits the detective and investigative work from his officers that eventually led to finding the man responsible.
As the case unfolded locally, Kelley shared that the coverage of Angel was well beyond the city limits. He was told that a news broadcast in Del Rio had covered the story while people from all over the nation wanted to adopt the boy, from places like Nebraska, Connecticut and Virginia.
Kelley said that Angel is doing well right now in foster care and he wishes nothing but the "absolute best" for the boy. He hopes that one day, he can see Angel when he's a bit older to see what the young man has become.
"Band of Brothers"
Kelley says that when he started on the job, he was fortunate enough to work with men who had previously served in World War II and he deemed it a learning experience.
"They were solid people and officers who knew how to do their job and pass on experience," praised Kelley, but he hopes that he has made the same impact on the officers he's worked with.
He compares the job of police chief to that of a baseball manager — assigning the roles and letting the officers do their job. He says he's lucky to work with the best — "top notch" people who are like a second family to him.
"Regardless of what the blogs or comments say, it takes a special person to want to be an officer", he says. He says that anyone who has passed the numerous exams and training sessions already has that drive to do the job. He hopes that he has made a lasting impression on the SPD to continue to be fair and do the job correctly.
He says that if he had to do it all over again, he would — right back in Sweetwater, Texas. In contrast to larger cities where cops specialize in areas, he says Sweetwater offers more to do, see and learn.
Not only does the SPD help alleviate crime, but they deal with every situation. For instance, SPD officers helped during the intense wildfire season in 2011 in surrounding counties and by even evacuating homes in Rotan and Colorado City.
"People call to have us fix their problems — we go wherever we're needed to do what we can," citing their work in domestics, riots and encounters with ethnic organizations — which Kelley says has been resolved and have thankfully stayed in the past.
He says that, through his time, the department has been able to help victims of all kinds but he understood that all crimes can't be solved. But, he praises the work of people and entities that can help such as counselors and the West Texas Children's Advocacy Center.
He adds he always tried to look for the best in his job, but it was sometimes hard when the situation resulted in a different outcome. On his watch, Kelley recollected, four people were killed.
He pointed out that he has been shot at six different times while with the SPD, but not once did he ever return fire. But perhaps the most harrowing situation he has personally endured was in 2003, when he was stabbed.
The injury led to Kelly contracting Hepatitis C, in which he underwent 48 weeks of chemotherapy treatment which resulted in the onset of an intense flu-like illness. He recalls the ordeal as a "brutal" time, but he never missed a day of work during his treatments.
"I didn't want him to win," said Kelley.
Additionally, Kelley also has a multitude of people to thank and offers well wishes as he leaves the department. He along with the employees of the SPD extend well wishes to incoming police chief Brian Frieda, a man who's "done the job before and understands the requirements."
He thanks the past and present city commissioners, mayors, city employees and the 100-plus police department employees he has worked with. He counts law enforcement at the local, state and federal level as friends who have always been of great assistance to the SPD, but Kelley hopes that the outside groups have also learned from the department.
He is also thankful to have had "great luck" with the press during his time with SPD — with the Sweetwater and Abilene media outlets, the Washington Post, New York Times, the Associated Press and the BBC, among others.
But one thing that has always impressed him are the people in the community — "good, caring and loving people who want to succeed." He knows that sometimes the experiences can be bumpy, but at the end of the day, he hopes that he has had a hand in helping people grow to become better no matter what role they take on. On the other hand, Kelley says that the local people he has worked with have helped him grow as well.
He says that people within the community felt comfortable enough to tell the department their problems, as his office was located more within the town than at police headquarters. He says he values the relationships he established and also hopes that people will still feel comfortable enough to talk to him even though he will no longer be chief.
And with the relationships he's made, Kelley hopes to take them into this new chapter of his life. He says he has received several job offers in town but plans to find a part time job in his retirement — "if I wanted to work full-time, I would have stayed."
Kelley shared that he and his wife, Scharles, decided last summer that it was time to move on. Since the City Commission announced his retirement during the August 2011 meeting, he says that he and his wife have been flooded with good wishes, congratulations and thank you's.
At her suggestion, their plan is to take up the game of golf (if they make clubs long enough for his six-foot, six inch frame, he says). While Scharles still plans on teaching art at Sweetwater High School, he says their summers will now be free to travel.
Looking back, Kelley's well aware that his wife and two sons, Tanner and Paxton, have felt the brunt of his work first hand. The boys have grown up around officers, several in which Kelley says were role models to his sons.
They have even been with Dad during some situations, and Paxton even helped out last summer during the heightened wildfire season. Paxton is currently a freshman at Abilene Christian University, while Tanner has followed in his father's footsteps in serving in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman.
He says he won't miss the long days and late nights on the job (he said that on one occasion he spent around 34 hours away from his family), and he definitely won't miss the paperwork.
There are some perks that he will miss, however, like meeting well-known people and being able to give some of them a police escort — including the past five Texas governors, members of the WASP, Janet Reno and Texas Rangers legend Nolan Ryan.
But even though Kelley is leaving, he does leave a type of wish list behind for his former co-workers. He has a desire to see more people on staff, noting that in his 35 years with SPD, the call load has increased by 500%.
In the past year alone, a 15% increase has been seen — with the same number of officers. He also hopes that the officers will one day get to move into a new building and that the department will stay up to date through technology improvements.
What will also remain is Kelley's faith —in the system, in people and in God. He acknowledges the Lord's help, and Kelley says he has always turned to God from his time in Vietnam and with the SPD ("I should have been killed", he says for both occasions).
He says that each time he came to work, he felt the light of the Lord in his co-workers to do something good.
"Being a police officer is a calling to be servants to the public," Kelley said. He considers himself blessed for having three strong families in his life for the past 35 years — at home, at work, and at church.
Several times during the conversation, Kelley takes another quote from the popular TV series, Lonesome Dove, to summarize his journey, yet makes it his own as the sun sets on his celebrated career — looking back on the abundance of mountains and valleys in his 35 years of experience and simply says:
"It's been a heck of a ride."