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Former Athens Police Chief Jack Lumpkin Talks Integration, the Dixie Mafia and the Unrest in Ferguson

After 18 years as police chief of the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, Jack Lumpkin, who was born and grew up in Athens and previously served as chief in Toccoa and Albany, retired from his position here. He is now the chief of the Savannah-Chatham County Metropolitan Police Department, a jurisdiction that includes 285,000 people. (He could retire here and work there, but he couldn’t retire here and work here. Go figure.)

In this interview, Lumpkin reflects on the integration of the local police force in the 1970s, the current state of race relations in Athens and how, when police focus on the helping the community, we can avoid the furor in Ferguson, MO, that is cropping up all over the country.

Flagpole: You worked your way up from cadet in the police department to chief. What was the department like when you started?

Jack Lumpkin: We were the first integrated unit within the Athens Police Department. Although the first blacks, [A.R.] Killian and [Donald] Moon, joined the department in 1962, they were in separate cars, separate shifts… and the only calls they could answer were in the minority community, and they were not supposed to arrest anyone who was not a minority. What we called the actual integration of the department was when we got into the cars together. Typically, what occurred was black officers, when they came in, would actually service all of the cars that were there—put gas in them, check the tires, the oil…

FP: So, the department wasn’t very welcoming to minority officers?

JL: I had applied for promotion and was given the excuse that I didn’t have enough time, and that happened three times. Mayor [Julius] Bishop had told us in 1970 when we complained about the way the police and the schools had interacted that police departments are closed systems, and if we really want to change the police department, we need to change it from within. Police departments tend to rally around… he gave the analogy to the wagon train, and that they will circle the wagons and stand off all attackers and then go about their business. Change has to come from inside. Some of us joined together to try to make that change, some black and white police officers.

FP: At one point, you were assigned to stake out the Dixie Mafia?

JL: When I was working probably ’73, ’74 with the feds. They can hire local officers cheaper than they can use their own agents. So we worked some with the federal folks when they were working the Dixie Mafia, who were into theft of clothing, hijacking trucks. They would set up their own stores in the Southeast. Working with federal agents, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to armed robbery, anti-burglary/robbery teams. I was not promoted to detective, but I was given plainclothes status, and five of us were assigned to try to prevent robberies, and we actually stopped a couple of armed robberies and got commendations for it—armed robberies in progress, and we did not have to shoot the individuals, thank goodness.

FP: You did have to take out a guy on a roof one night, didn’t you?

JL: That’s legend. They called me “Straight Shooter,” but that’s just legend. At one point, I could hit you in the head at 600 feet, easy, but I’ve never had to use that particular skill.

FP: Did you work at it, or did it just come naturally?

JL: My daddy taught me how to shoot when I was a kid, and there was some natural ability. We were on an NRA pistol team, once, competing in a law enforcement training camp, and they said, “Those country boys can shoot.” And we were good.

FP: You also once had to take Archibald Killian into protective custody when the Klan threatened to burn down his nightclub?

JL: It was really the police. He was involved in conflict with the shift that was on… they hit him across the face with a shotgun, and we got between them and got him up and took him to the hospital.

FP: And those police were in your department?

JL: Yes. They were ranking officers. We were in plainclothes, but we got between him and the officers.

FP: Well, maybe you are prepared for Savannah.

JL: I’m prepared. Any minority officer who went into a police department had to make up his mind: Either you’re going to be a man, or you’re going to allow things that are illegal or unethical. And I would like to say that we stood our ground. And that was prior to Chief [Everett] Price arriving. He came in 1975, and then the equity issues started to change, and the violence that was associated with the police was toned down.

FP: Later on, of course, while you were in Albany, we had the Edward Wright killing, and partly as a result of that you came back to become chief?

JL: It certainly did not harm my chances of getting the job, because when he was shot and killed, he was naked and running, unarmed. And process and procedure… I think the officer found himself in the situation where he thought he was going to die, and he shot and killed him. It was a classic mental-health issue, where one person is trying to handle a mental-health issue that he should not have been required to get out on. It’s a classic issue of not having backup in terms of process and structure, where they didn’t have enough folks there to work right, and it put him and ultimately the community in crisis.

FP: In a much smaller way, it was similar to what’s been going on in Missouri [and now in New York], because there were some demonstrations after that.

JL: Yes, but I think the difference is, when the Wright death occurred, it was ’95. We had been unified since 1991. The old city police department, Athens police department, since Everett Price became chief in 1975, we had been making what I call deposits into that trust account with the public. We had been doing things for the public, and we had built a trust there. The old county government had not built trust, had not deposited in those trust accounts, in my opinion.

FP: Why not?

JL: When we unified, the county manager became the manager. The county chief became the chief, and they were of a suburban mindset, if not rural. And we were dealing with urban issues—social, economic, mental-health issues. The training issues and the competency issues, from my perspective, were significantly different… We cannot perform what I call “risky tasks” all the time, from a safety-net perspective… Qualified humility in my opinion is big, because you can’t do the job perfectly. You can’t be reckless. It’s too complex, because of human error. And Mr. Wright is where the process broke down. And what I see in Ferguson is that people have not been depositing into that trust account. Whatever happened with Mr. Brown’s death and the officers, it was the aftermath issues, and you didn’t have that here, as I recall. You express your outrage, displeasure, et cetera, and demand change, but not to the point of violence, and do not roll out armored personnel carriers, either.

FP: What about the militarization of police departments? Has that happened here? Do you have a tank hidden back in there?

JL: Someone said that we did had a tank. No. But we do have a vehicle that is very much like what the banks use to move money around. 

FP: An armored personnel carrier.

JL: Yes, and it would be used to go up to a house where people are shooting at you. We’ve had it for a couple of years, and folks haven’t seen it, because it’s been used only once in those couple of years… It’s an equipment issue and a mindset. You have to have certain equipment in a police department of this size—or in Savannah, or Atlanta. The only thing that we legally have out there that citizens can’t buy—they can’t buy the M-4s because of the recency of that gun, but the M-16 fires at the same rate of fire, and you can buy an M-16. You can buy an AK-47. The challenge is that you don’t want the police to be outgunned if things really turn bad… The point is, it’s a mindset… I think it’s leadership that the focus is on. It’s not the equipment, per se. I think you’ll see the feds pull back, to some degree, in terms of what they’ll offer the states. 

FP: You have the reputation as a believer in community-oriented policing.

JL: Yes. I think that’s what we did in the old city, trying to make those deposits in the trust account. The reason police exist, from my perspective, is to help citizens solve their problems… We don’t exist just for a paycheck… In the middle of the night—one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock—typically the only governmental services you’ll have is the police, and we help people with their problems. In my view, it builds trust.

FP: But your friend Rev. Killian would say that your department is still stopping black people for minor infractions, for “driving while black” and such harassment.

JL: Rev. Killian has been one of my biggest supporters and one of my biggest disparagers. It depends on how he’s feeling that week. I listen to him all the time in terms of what his perspective is. Somebody told me years ago that whether it’s real or imaginary, it’s real to that person, and if we’re contributing to that perception, we need to look at what we can do to eliminate that contribution… I don’t want to see anyone’s constitutional rights infringed upon. I don’t think what Rev. Killian sometimes says is accurate, about how we make arrests here. Since I came here, for 20-odd years we’ve been requiring officers to wear audio and record their interactions with citizens.

FP: Has that helped?

JL: For instance, unfortunately, we had a death in custody here recently, the first week or so of October. A gentleman died while in our custody for DUI. And we have him on video from the initial encounter, and the car that transported him had the video on him in the back seat and video all the way; video of him actually becoming ill, that we showed the family. We showed the family the entire thing, and the family could get tapes. Those types of things. Everything’s on video.

FP: The population of the jail is 85 percent black. Would that seem to indicate that…

JL: I think you have to drill deeper than that. I think you have to look at the socio-economic issues, the educational issues. When we did a snapshot of the jail in the past, it was 85 percent or so, in the 80th percentile who were not high school graduates. If you look back to the years prior to the last two superintendents, you’ll see that we’re arresting less people age 18–22. The crime rate has fallen. Those five years are significantly different from the prior administration of the school district. And that’s who’s out there in the jail.

FP: Will building this bigger jail mean we’re just going to fill it up with more people?

JL: We could fill a 2,000-person jail tomorrow. Of course, some of those at the jail can’t get out. If I went to jail, or my child or grandchild, we can get them out, but some of them cannot make bond.

FP: What’s the solution?

JL: You can’t arrest your way out of crime problems, from my perspective, and I’ve been doing this 44 years. I’ve visited a lot of cities in the world with the International Association of Chiefs of Police—cities from 100,000 to half a million, and I’ve traveled to those places, and we’ve talked, and we’ve strategized and looked for best practices, and you can’t arrest your way out of it. That’s what I was trying to tell the people here as I was leaving: you’ve got to get into youth development, particularly kids whose parents have less means. If you have a population in public schools that have 80 percent free or reduced lunch, if you’re charging those kids to use your field for athletics—where we’ve got coaches that are volunteering their time—and they can’t feed themselves, where do you think they’re going to get the money to play on fields?

So, that mindset has to change. In this community, in the brown population—Latino and Hispanic—and the black population, that’s where the poverty is.

FP: Are we making any progress?

JL: I would say the youth development issue is still the key issue. You’re not going to have neighborhood development, community development, workforce development without it. With youth, you’re competing with all types of ills. Labor laws won’t allow them to work until 15 or so. But they’re standing on the street corner. What are they going to do if they can’t afford to go to the Y or the Boys and Girls Club? So, you have to focus there. Some of the kids that we’re producing, they will not leave Athens, and they don’t understand the world. But those are the kids who were not finishing high school and the ones we were having to arrest.

FP: What about the better prepared minority youth?

JL: Many of us who were successful here in the ‘70s, ’80s and ‘90s, our kids will not come back. They do not feel comfortable with the culture of Athens. They don’t feel that they can compete very well. They competed in school very well, but they don’t think they can compete for jobs. And if you look at Athens, it has a really small middle class for minorities. And the school district will tell you the same thing. They face that in the recruitment of teachers. There’s an old joke around here that we can recruit them, as police officers or teachers, but if we don’t get them married to a local person within two years, they’ll be gone to Gwinnett, DeKalb, Cobb… So, I think you have to work on youth development and particularly in the minority communities. You have to try to attract the young, professional types back into this community.

FP: So, the better prepared kids leave, and the less prepared stay here?

JL: It is very, very difficult to move poor people out of this community. This community has a desire to help the impoverished. We continue to take the impoverished from surrounding counties. But it has changed significantly with the Section 8 housing. The Section 8 housing in this community is problematic. If the young college students of means change to new amenities and apartments, what happens to the apartments that they leave? People have a perception of public housing that it is crime-ridden and really problematic. Your crime rate in Athens public housing is lower than it is county-wide. But the crime rate in those Section 8 complexes is tremendous.

FP: What’s an example of Section 8 housing?

JL: Bethel is an example, and Rolling Ridge and Athens Gardens. It’s a management issue: a leadership, screening, management issue.

FP: What about the reapportionment of our local government, which former Republican representative Doug McKillip pushed through on the pretense that it would increase minority representation in Athens-Clarke County and was supported by local black leaders?

JL: We use that term, “black leaders;” I don’t know who they are. I think the people didn’t come forward. You know, Kenny Dious, he ran for Congress from this district, but he also wanted to eliminate the super districts. But if you recall, back before unification, John Jeffreys was elected countywide here as one of five commissioners. And traditionally, in the old city council you had 10 councilmen, and typically three were minority, so the representation has changed significantly, and I think it goes toward that notion of what occurs in Athens and why our young people don’t come back. When you combine the two, it becomes more troublesome. 

FP: Do you see that reapportionment as an intentional effort to suppress minority voting?

JL: I don’t think the answer is any intent to disenfranchise, but I’m accustomed to dealing with intent on the criminal side, and I don’t see that as intent. I think we’ve got excellent people behind the rail. I just wish some of them had some of the life experiences I’ve had. And they need to remember that the people the police are dealing with, a lot of them don’t write a lot of emails. Many of the workers here don’t write a lot of emails. Our commission and our governmental officials, they’ve got to remember that they have to interact with kids and families that are working and not dealing with people like you and me, who can communicate through email or answer the phone because of my position.

FP: What do you hope for in a successor here?

JL: A person who realizes that he or she is police chief for all citizens and that they are the people’s representative on the police force. A police chief, from my perspective, should first try to keep the cops safe, because if they’re not safe, the citizens can’t be safe—and do it in a constitutional manner: treat people with respect and dignity. But after that, his or her job is being the representative of those citizens within that police department: get those problems solved. You are the chief of poor people, public housing residents, fraternities and sororities, senior citizens and the wealthy—everyone, all the elements of our society, and listen and hear what their needs are from a public safety perspective.

FP: Any final reflections?

JL: It’ll be 18 years when I go off the payroll in January; crime is going to be down here about 50 percent… with still one of the highest poverty rates that you’ll find… but we’re not going to have the issues that Savannah has had the last few years, with the former chief going on trial in federal court for corruption. We’ve got some heavy lifting administratively to do there as well as heavy lifting with criminals to do there. But it can be done.