Called to Always Answer the Call

By Brad McEwen

While the escalation of violent offenses seen throughout Albany has rightly brought fear, sadness and outrage from city officials and citizens, that rising tide has also had a profound impact on the brave men and women who investigate those cases and work tirelessly to protect this community.

It’s easy to lose sight sometimes, as we struggle to comprehend the recent trend of violence that resulted in 23 homicides last year—a number this area has not seen in more than 20 years—that with each of one of these incidents, the Albany Police Department’s robbery/homicide unit is called into action, no matter the time, place or circumstance.

Quite frankly, as most of us recoil in the face of the brutality that typically accompanies these crimes, the members of this elite group of detectives choose to step forward and bravely tackle the difficult challenges inherent in working these kinds of cases to ensure justice is served.

And to hear them tell it, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We know what we do is taxing; we know that it takes a special type of person to do this type of work,” said Lt. Keithen Hall, commander of the robbery/homicide unit. “We give a lot to our profession, to our community.

"(We’re) basically working for those that can’t work for themselves. We are the protectors of the weak. We do the ugly work. We have to endure all the sadness, all the madness. But in order to get what we need out of that, we have to go through it. And these guys, I put a lot on them. And they’ve got big shoulders. I know a lot of stuff that we go through, average people couldn’t take it.

“You’ve gotta be a special person to stand up on that wall and answer that call.”

I recently sat down with Hall, a veteran of 29 years as a police officer, and the majority of the APD’s robbery/homicide unit—including Cpl. Kalandria Peterson-Kearney, Cpl. Nicovian Price, Sgt. Dennis Richardson, Cpl. Chris Hutcherson, Cpl. Benjamin Persley, and Cpl. Roger Jones—to learn a little bit more about what drives them to answer the call to service and to gain some insight into what they believe can be done about the growing number of violent crimes plaguing the community they love.

I learned more than I could imagine during our nearly hour and half discussion—held at downtown Albany’s Law Enforcement Center, so that the team could be on hand should they need to respond quickly to an incident—but what truly me, as I listened to the team share their thoughts and feelings, is that every member of the robbery/homicide team is deeply devoted to serving their community and that they consider themselves fortunate to be members of a unit they see as the pinnacle of police work.

“Once I started in law enforcement, I didn’t really know which direction in law enforcement I wanted to go in, but once I actually got in and got my feet wet, my ultimate goal was to become a robbery/homicide detective,” Cpl. Hutcherson said when explaining how officers end up in the unit. “Your first couple of years, you know, you’re gonna go on the street, and that’s really your foundation.

“I felt like robbery/homicide is like as far as you can go. It’s like the top.”

“A lot of times you go through a different department, like general theft, and learn how to work investigations,” added Cpl. Jones. “Myself, I’ve been a gang unit investigator and I was an undercover narcotics officer for nine years. So you learn different ways of investigating. I came from the drug unit directly to the robbery/homicide unit because I have years and years of investigative experience.

“Once you come to robbery/homicide, I think it’s probably the best of the best in investigations. And we seek out the best of the best. And I think our team is the best of the best.”

While being a member of the unit clearly requires a certain level of skill and training—gleaned not only from time spent working in other departments within the force, but also from additional training the detectives get once they join the unit—I also came to realize that the most important trait the members of the unit share is their desire to serve and there dedication to protecting the citizens of Albany.

In truth, it was clear that each of the officers believes what they’re doing is a true calling.

“I genuinely love policing and I feel like wherever you put me in the department I’m going to shine,” said Cpl. Hutcherson. “I like doing police work. I love what I do. I love being a part of the community.

“I was that child that looked up to the police officer when they were younger. I actually listened to the D.A.R.E. officer when he said, ‘don’t do drugs; don’t drink.’ I took those steps. When everyone else was calling their friends snitches and all that stuff, and I was called that, it was no big deal.

“So basically everything I did was set up for policing, so it’s been there. That love has always been there.

“I guess I’m built like that.”

Where Hutcherson spoke about being “built” for police work—that the desire is innate in him—his fellow detective, Cpl. Peterson-Kearney, took the notion a step further saying that like many of her co-workers she believes she became a police officer because she’s a natural servant.

“I think with law enforcement, we don’t choose it,” she said. “It’s very cliché to say, but we don’t choose law enforcement. We are born servants. I can tell you that from a child, I wanted to be a police officer.

“We are protectors. I guarantee, any of these guys, even if they weren’t police officers now, they would be protectors of this community, of their families. Even prior to working here, I was military police and army. So to fight for the country, to fight for the city, to protect the community—and those that can’t protect themselves—we don’t choose it. It chooses us.”

While the decision to become a police officer might have come easily for most of the detectives in the robbery/homicide unit, for some that choice also brought with it its own set of challenges.

When discussing the motivation to begin a career in law enforcement, Cpl. Persley freely shared that while he had total conviction in his desire to become a police officer—despite being different from Hutcherson in that it wasn’t a childhood dream—his decision to join the force ultimately put him at odds with many in neighborhoods where he grew up.

And while that sometimes makes things difficult, in a way, he also believes it’s one of the things that has helped him achieve success and make a real difference.

“My story’s a little bit different,” he began. “Growing up here I never saw myself being a police officer. I grew up in a lot of the neighborhoods I (eventually) had to patrol. Coming up in South Albany I saw the same crimes that we work now.

“I guess my upbringing it gave a certain edge to me. It just felt natural when I did become a police officer. I had rapport with people in the community and I had a sense of what was going to happen, or who did what, as a beat officer.

“I followed my heart, my instinct, and I believe that’s what made me a good fit at the narcotics unit because I dealt with a lot of people from my neighborhood who sold drugs. Being a kid, your hero was the neighborhood drug dealer because that’s the person who had everything. I was a good fit in narcotics because I understood the culture of the people who sold drugs.”

Despite growing up in those rough neighborhoods, Cpl. Persley said he made the decision early on to forge his own path in life and that it was those early choices that started him on the road to entering law enforcement.

“I had a lot of friends that lived other lifestyles, and a lot of good friends I’ve hung with, some of them went to prison and I had to separate myself from that aspect of what they do because we’re not on the same page,” Cpl. Persley continued. “People, a lot of times, let their environment dictate who they are, but (I believe) you let yourself dictate who you are and who you’re going to be and set your future up for your kids. You have to raise the bar for your kids, and a lot of times, in those particular areas of the community, you see generations of people who are content with that. That’s never been my thing.

“I have strong family values and my family values gave me the drive to want to do better. So that allowed me, as I matured, to just kind of distance myself from those particular friends who stayed on the not so good path. But that was the path most taken in that community.”

That the “not so good path” is the one most chosen in the areas where he grew up, not only led him to take a different route with his life, it has also become part of what fuels him to work long hours and answer the call in the middle of the night when a crime is reported.

“It drives me,” he said. “It drives me. When I talk to the younger kids and stuff, definitely the ones I may have seen involved in certain things, I’m always the first to tell them, ‘Hey look, I grew up in your same neighborhood, and look at me. I chose to do something different. While you’re young, you have a choice to do something different before you make a greater mistake.’

“There’s almost a natural transition to be over here in robbery/homicide. It gives me (a chance) to be that kind of role model that people from my same old neighborhood can see. You don’t always have to turn into this drug dealer from you neighborhood, and grow up to be like this guy. I come from the same neighborhood and I’m helping solve crimes and helping my team.

“I’m here solving murders and stuff like that from YOUR neighborhood, being a hero that way. It’s just about giving kids something else to look up to and look forward to so they can be like, ‘He’s from the same neighborhood as me, maybe I have a chance also.’ “That was my whole outlook on becoming a police officer.”

Wanting to make a difference in his community is also a motivating factor for Lt. Hall, who said that being a native has also given him a certain amount of credibility when investigating crimes and encouraging people to make better choices.

“I was born and raised here in Albany,” he said. “I grew up on the south side and I still stay on the south side, so I have a vested interest in my community and the people that I serve on a day-to-day basis.

“And it’s not just policing. I see them at the convenience store. I see them at football games. I see them at basketball games and stuff. My connection is a whole lot more than just policing. That’s the reason why, when we do have that type (of violent) crime over there, I take that personally, because it affects me too, because I’m a part of the community. That’s why I try to reach out to my people in my community. We’ve got to do our part.”

The notion of people doing their part to improve their community turned out to be an important topic of discussion once we began talking in earnest about Albany’s recent crime statistics.

The entire unit makes no bones about the fact that regardless of the solid police work APD officers and detectives do—illustrated by a homicide closure rate over 91 percent—more cases would be cleared much faster, if the average citizen was more willing to provide the police with information.

“I would definitely say, and that’s with any crime, ‘If you see something say something,’” said Cpl. Peterson-Kearney. “It’s not like ‘First 48’ where a case is cleared in that little one hour television show, or ‘CSI.’ Even if we do get forensic evidence it’s still gonna take a while for those results to come back (from the crime lab). So, if you’re on the scene and you see something—like you saw him run behind a garbage can, and even you think it’s minimal information—say something. It might be the key that helps us solve the case.

“What’s gonna solve cases is everybody taking part and having a vested interest in Albany and saying, ‘we’re gonna say something about the crime we see.’”

“That’s what you have to get the community on board with,” added Cpl. Persley. “They ain’t that way. You have people who are like, ‘I’m not getting involved.’ They may have seen it and don’t want to get involved either because of fear—fear of retaliation—or just fear of getting it put out there that they’re a snitch.”

“They just have to get to the point where they just say, ‘Not in Albany. Not in my community. Not on my side of town. Not on my street. It’s not gonna happen here.’”

“The whole community needs to gets together with that same mindset, like, ‘We don’t care about that snitching stuff. If you kill somebody over in our community, we’re gonna tell it,’”

While some witnesses do come forward in the aftermath of certain crimes—which the unit says is an invaluable help—many on the robbery/homicide team say it’s frustrating that not only do people refuse to come forward, there also seems to be a level of complacency and acceptance in many of the areas where the bulk of these crimes are occurring.

“The thing that hurts me the most, when an incident occurs like that, is it doesn’t just affect us,” said Lt. Hall. “I know I’ve gotta pull these guys from their families and all that stuff, but it’s gonna affect everybody in the neighborhood. But I’ve got individuals in the neighborhood that won’t call and won’t say no. They just say, ‘Another black male is dead. Okay.’ It’s almost like it’s acceptable now. That’s what hurts me. It shouldn’t be that way.

“They should be feeling the same way I’m feeling. When we have something like that in our community, we need to try our best to get that element out. I don’t care if they’re my son or my daughter, they committed that crime. It is what it is. They’ve got to be held accountable.”

Further exacerbating the situation, the detectives pointed out, is the fact that in many of the communities where the majority of these violent crimes are occurring, violence seems to permeate the culture and often stems from other criminal activity.

Like Cpl. Persley pointed out earlier, in a lot of the neighborhoods where crime is occurring there are higher numbers of individuals engaged in other types of crimes that are often driven by larger societal issues such as poverty and lack of education.

“It’s really more disheartening, because you don’t have full control over it and the issue is not just a police issue,” Cpl. Price said about the crime rates in Albany. “A lot of these crimes happen in impoverished areas. So the issue is, on a total scale, it’s a lot bigger than us. Everybody in the community, from the commissioners, the mayor, on down to the police and the average citizen, I think we all need to get together and figure out a way to combat this by different means.

“Sometimes just being in that impoverished area brings crimes such as selling drugs. So it’s different things that need to be done, probably, to deter people from doing that.

“That’s what’s disheartening to me about it. We do everything we can. But as soon as we arrest somebody for a violent crime, someone else commits a violent crime. That’s very disheartening.”

Even more frustrating is the fact that outside of working diligently to clear cases and using every opportunity they can to interact with members of the community to encourage them to make better lifestyle choices, many of the detectives are just as perplexed as city officials when it comes to figuring out a way to actually prevent crime from occurring.

“I’d win the Nobel Peace Prize if I could figure that out,” Lt. Hall said when asked about crime prevention. “I put it out to my team, ‘How can we combat that problem, cut down on the homicides? What can we do?’ We know homicide is a crime of opportunity and a crime of passion. Thefts, anything like that might spark it off, but it’s hard to cut it down.

“We can go out there and teach these young folks about their lifestyle choices, but this is their time. They’re going to do what they’re going to do until they get put in that situation. And it’s really sad when we’ve got to sit in there in that conference room with the family and see them crying and tearing up and everybody done lost a loved one. It’s real sad.”

Sharing a little about that sorrow and raw emotion that comes along with someone losing their life as a result of a violent crime, certainly had an impact on me as I listened to the detectives share their thoughts and feelings about what they do every day.

And, as it turns out, those emotions have an impact on how, and often why, the members of robbery/homicide do their jobs.

One such example was Cpl. Price, who openly shared with me how he came to be a member of the unit.

“I really didn’t have a direction when I came here,” he said. “I went to investigations and I was passionate about that. Anything I do, I do with passion. But the other thing I was passionate about was, ‘I’m not going to robbery/homicide.’

“I told them straight, ‘I don’t want to go to robbery/homicide.’ They approached me about it a lot, but (your) lifestyle has to change (once you’re in robbery/homicide) and I like to be at home. I like to do things.

“But you never know where life is going to take you. I say that, because I lost my son back in 2011 and I never knew the direction God was trying to take me. I knew the direction I wanted to go. But I didn’t have any control over it. I don’t have control over my ultimate destiny.

“So, I was actually put in robbery/homicide. I ended up telling them, ‘Yeah I’ll go ahead and go,’ but losing my son has a correlation with me being in robbery/homicide. I can identify, empathize so much with those parents that lose their kids.

“And I can also connect with those suspects, because I can explain to them, and I’m so emotional during interrogations—the tears come out because I’ve lost a child—and I’m telling them and it brings out their emotions. I have some sort of bond with them.

“So, a lot of times in life you think you know what you want to do, or what you will or won’t do. The benefit of losing my child, I see it as a benefit, because it made me empathize more. It actually made me more passionate about fighting these types of violent crimes and bringing justice to those families.

“A lot of people don’t know what my drive comes from, because I don’t talk that much about my lifestyle or how I feel, but that’s where it comes from. And that’s why I don’t have an issue when they call me out (on a case). I don’t mind. I come on out because somebody lost a child. I’ve been in their shoes. I know that feeling.

“I think every parent plans for their kids to bury them. I never planned for me to have to bury my child. I feel their pain every time and that’s what drives me to get any information I can to bring (criminals) to justice.”

Throughout my meeting with the robbery/homicide unit it became clear that handling emotion, and using emotion, is a critical aspect of what these men and women do every day. Like Lt. Hall said, it takes a special type of person to be able to handle the demands of the job.

And even then, he said it’s vitally important for him, as the team leader, to foster an environment that’s trusting and supportive. Lt. Hall said he goes to great lengths to make sure that the detectives get time to relax and be with their families when not working the dozens of cases each one actively working at any given time.

“We have fun too,” he explained. “We have to. That’s one thing I try to promote. When these guys need down time, when they don’t have something pressing, I tell them, ‘Take off. You wanna take off? Take off. Take the time. Do what you need to do with your family.’

“We have a lot of fun and joke and laugh and all that stuff because you take a part of each of these homicides with you. After all these years working homicides, I can recall homicides from 13, 14 years ago that I worked.

“I know the victim’s name, know the suspect’s name and all that stuff. All that I can still recall and tell you the details about what took place, because we take a part of each one of them with us. And if you don’t find a way to get that out of you, or find an outlet, it’ll eat away at you like cancer.

“So we bounce off each other and laugh and play and all that stuff because we deal with so much emotion. Especially when dealing with the families. Oh man. It’s sad. It’s very emotional.”

Even in the face of such raw emotion, and despite the frustrations that come every time there’s another report of an armed robbery, an aggravated assault, or a homicide, the members of the robbery/homicide unit remain optimistic that something can be done.

And they believe that contrary to the message often being delivered in the media, Albany is a good place and not a community where crime is widespread and rampant.

“The numbers definitely don’t reflect the entire city,” said Cpl. Price. “I live in Albany. I love Albany. And I’ve never been the victim of a crime here in Albany. And I don’t think it’s just because I’m a police officer. Everybody doesn’t know me as a policeman.

“I always like to say this, when it comes down to numbers, you have people from different places that look and say Albany is violent. Particularly, violence is based upon most people’s lifestyle. Some people live a high-risk lifestyle; they’re out late at night or are involved in drugs. Particularly those are the people that are affected by the large number of crimes. The citizens that live a low-risk lifestyle, they’re hardly ever affected.

“They may be affected by a property crime, maybe, but definitely not as much by violent crimes.”

“Meaning most of it is not a random act,” added Cpl. Persley. “Most of it is an act of two people who know each other that are in a high-risk lifestyle, like Detective Price said.”

While statistics certainly support that assertion, the detectives understand that while most violent crime is occurring in the same general areas of the city, among people engaged in a “high-risk” lifestyle, it is not limited solely to those areas and its impact affects everyone.

“Don’t get me wrong,” interjected Lt. Hall. “Bad things do happen to good people sometimes and we know that. That shows itself during the course of an investigation. You know (the victim) didn’t take any initial steps to get himself caught up in that, so you know how that’s going to play out.

“But when you’ve got these individuals out there, like you say, selling dope, four or five o’clock in the morning, meeting up with tricks, or running the liquor house, gambling, something like that, nine times out of 10 that opens the door for that type of incident to occur.”

It’s for that reason that the robbery/homicide team is adamant that the first step toward stemming the tide of violence in this community is making sure everybody is aware of what’s going on so each segment of the population can do its part to educate and empower the citizens of Albany to make positive choices.

“Going back to the 21 hearse parade (organized in October by Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler to bring awareness to the rash of homicides), me and Price went out and watched the parade come in and it was just surreal to see each one of those hearses,” said Lt. Hall. “We had touched those families, twenty-one families, we had had the opportunity to touch. And when they rode by and you see the names of these individuals, you’re like, ‘Wow.’

“And I understand what the coroner’s doing—trying to shock the conscience of the community, trying to make them fully understand what is going on right here, for them to see it. Because a lot of people hear about it, but it doesn’t bother them.

“But it’s got to. It’s got to affect them the same way it affects everybody else.”

Once that awareness is built, then the real change is going to take the effort of politicians, teachers, business leaders, and even the average citizen.

And it’s going to take the continued dedication of officers like those in the robbery/homicide unit, who have a strong message for those who choose to commit the crimes that impact all of us.

“The message we have for the people that’s gonna indulge in criminal activity, is that with every fiber of our bones, we’re gonna work on those cases relentlessly until we bring them to justice,” said Cpl. Price emphatically. “Every fiber.”

As I sat looking into the eyes of those brave protectors, there was no questioning the conviction in Cpl. Price’s statement, and as our conversation drew to a close there was also no doubting the passion and dedication each one of them brings to their job every single day.

So, when the next report of a violent crime inevitably hits the news, I’ll rightly be shaken, but I’ll also take comfort knowing that in today’s world of Marvel comic book movies, there are plenty of real heroes answering the call to make my community a better place.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen