Beyond the Badge
By Brad McEwen
There’s simply no denying Michael Persley loves his community. It’s a part of him. Much like the color of his skin and the color of the uniform he dons every day. He was born here. He has raised his family here.
And he gets up each and every day, grabs his badge, and proudly and humbly sets forth to serve the many friends and neighbors—some known and some not—who rely on him, and his dedicated team of fellow servants—to protect and help them.
It’s a job he enjoys and respects—one that allows him to make a positive impact on every corner of the Albany community—but in the past few days, it’s a job that’s never been more difficult.
“It’s an extreme honor to serve as the chief of this city,” the Albany Police Chief and Army veteran of three combat tours told me in the aftermath of nationwide protests against systematic racism and police brutality stemming from the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and finally George Floyd—the latter two at the hands of others who wear the same blue Michael has put on for nearly 30 years. “But the last few days, it’s kind of been a mixed bag of emotions.”
Those emotions, Michael said, range from disgust and sadness, to optimism and hope. And everything in between.
“I have to remind people that I am a black guy, who’s also a chief of police,” he added. “It tears my heart when we have… [trailing off as emotions well up].
“First off, death gets me. And in light of the current situation [protests that exploded after video surfaced of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, senselessly ending his life over a counterfeit $20], it hurts because why did it have to happen? I wasn’t there. I can’t say what the mood was before.
“But what I can say is that you have an action and it seems like, ‘Well, there’s another statistic.’ And when you talk about another statistic, it also refers to there’s another black male who’s dead at the hands of law enforcement.”
It’s easy to understand why the events that have unfolded across the country—including peaceful protests right here in Albany—would have such a strong impact on Michael, and why a person in his position might struggle with the situation.
But true to his forthright nature, the APD chief, and fellow Leadership Albany Board member, didn’t shy away from succinctly sharing those feelings.
“First let me say that I’m glad you went ahead and addressed the elephant in the room,” he told me. “It pains me because I love this job. And I love being black. I love my race.
“But I have to make sure that whatever we do here (we do the right way). To me (race) doesn’t matter. Am I going to put more emphasis on my white officers than my black officers? No. We’ve got to put emphasis on what everybody does. Are we doing what’s right for the community?”
The notion of doing right for the community is something that’s been a part of Michael Persley for at least the past 26-plus years he’s served on the Albany police force, following a career in the Army that saw him do tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But interestingly, that notion—contrary to what many might think—was not what drew him to the profession. In fact, he likes to tell the story of the reaction his mother got when she informed his childhood neighbor that the quiet boy next door was joining the force.
“The lady said that I wouldn’t make it because I was too kind-hearted,” the Chief said with a chuckle.
He told the story, not to point out that he is essentially a nice guy (which he is), but rather, with his trademark humility, as part of his explanation of how an average kid that grew up in a small southern town with deeply entrenched racial and socioeconomic divisions, started on a path to a nearly three-decade career in law enforcement.
“You know how you have some people who’ll go stand up for somebody that’s bullied, step in the midst of right versus wrong,” Michael began. “That wasn’t me.
“Even looking at how law enforcement has interacted with my family wasn’t the most positive interactions. I just wanted to get into the profession.”
According to Michael, he had pretty clear vision early on in his life of what he wanted to do when he grew up, not because of any ingrained sense of justice, but mainly, as he said, because those professions seemed interesting to him in one way or another.
“There’s three things I wanted to be when I grew up,” the chief explained during a recent Beyond the Bank interview. “I wanted to be a police officer. I wanted to be in the military. I wanted to play football. The football thing didn’t work out. The best I got was being the water boy. I served in the military, retired, and I’ve been a police officer for 26 and half years.”
Michael continued by explaining that quite frankly police work was something he didn’t have much direct contact with as a youth and that his main attractions to law enforcement in his younger days were the motorcycle police that used to patrol in his grandmother’s neighborhood and the cop shows his dad liked to watch on TV.
“Growing up I remember my grandmother used to live at 413 South Jackson,” he said. “The house is no longer there. But I remember the police department had a traffic unit that was on motorcycles and I loved to see the motorcycles. After a while, the TV show C.H.I.P.S. was on. To this day I’ve never ridden a motorcycle or anything, but I was fascinated by them.
“My dad liked to look at police shows, like ‘Police Story,’ ‘The Blue Knight,’ he continued. “Just minor influences from TV. I can tell you there was nobody in my family prior to me that had any kind of inkling to be a police officer. That was one of the last things. Something inside me just made me want to venture this way.”
And as he stressed more than once, that something was not some inner sense of justice.
“I would say early on I just wanted to do the job,” he said. “I just wanted to get into the profession.
“Learning how you can make a difference, that came later in my law enforcement career, where I was like, ‘hmmm, you can make a difference.’
“You can’t make it everywhere. We can’t save everybody. But then we can’t afford to give up on anybody either.
“And I’m glad I did, especially during this time. I’m so glad I didn’t leave to go to a larger agency. I’m glad I didn’t leave and get out altogether. I’m glad I stayed.”
It was refreshing to hear that from him, considering the turmoil in his heart, and it served as a reminder that despite apparently difficulties, the police chief is still committed to his mission of improving the quality of life for all of Albany’s citizens, especially those who traditionally have held fear and skepticism toward law enforcement.
“I have to walk that balance,” he continued. “Many people may say, ‘he’s too black for the position; he’s not going to support the police.’
“And I (also) don’t want to come off as too blue, that I’m behind the blue wall of silence and I just shun the black community.
“No, I have to keep that balance because we have to maintain law and order.”
Which is something many in the community have praised the Chief for repeatedly during his 5 year tenure leading the APD.
In fact, that praise has only intensified over the course of the last week or so as the Albany community—one which civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. considered so divided that he looked on his inability to affect change here as a personal failure—has digested and unpacked the George Floyd incident, its immediate aftermath and its ramifications on the state of race relations across the United States.
As recently as Tuesday’s Dougherty County Commission meeting, commissioners were vocal in their praise for Persley and other local law enforcement for the way they handled weekend protests here in Albany, with commissioner chairman Chris Cohilas quoted in the Albany Herald as agreeing with fellow commissioner Victor Edwards that our community is in good hands.
“I too want to (thank) our law enforcement leaders and the work they did in these times and obviously a very emotional time,” read Cohilas’s quote. “We do have community policing, and I do like the fact we have community leaders that are in positions in law enforcement.”
While Cohilas and Edwards were clearly praising the individual leaders in our law enforcement community—which also included Sheriff Kevin Sproul, DOCO Police Chief Kenneth Johnson, Albany Fire Chief Cedric Scott and EMS director Sam Allen—they were also praising the concept of community policing, which lies at the heart of how Chief Persley approaches his job.
And it’s what he believes is the key to Albany so far avoiding many of the tragic scenes unfolding nationwide.
“People talk about community-oriented policing where they talk about it in the context of a program,” Michael explained. “It’s not a program. It’s a philosophy.
“If you’re thinking giving out hamburgers and hotdogs and having bouncy houses is going to win over the trust of the community, then I will say you may need to think again. The way you win over the trust and respect of the community is that when they call, you respond and answer their need as best you can. Now we can’t solve all problems and some people may not like the solution we bring, but if they know that if they call we’re coming and when we take care of a problem, we take care of the problem. That’s how you build trust.
“Another part is, even in interactions—police/citizen encounters—first and foremost, everybody has rights and we have to know those rights. We have to have legal authority to do whatever we’re going to do. The days of police just pulling up and stopping people and directing people to do just whatever they want them to do—'everyone get up against the car, get up against the wall’—those days are far gone.
“Again, it takes more than hamburgers and hotdogs.”
In its simplest form, Michael said, community-oriented policing is really about being visible in the community and interacting with residents not just when there’s a matter of law and order to deal with, but anytime an opportunity presents itself.
And, he said, it has to be earnest, yet strategic.
“We stay connected to the youth, a lot,” he said. “And I feel that we need to do more to stay connected to our senior population. Everyone who falls in the middle, we’re going to interact with them on a daily basis, whether they are a victim, a witness or a suspect.”
Chief stressed that a lot of what the department does in terms of community-oriented policing programs, are geared toward young people, a segment of the population he feels is critical to the future of the community.
By addressing some of the needs that segment faces, Michael said, it creates very positive outcomes.
Whether it be Project Safe Neighborhoods, where the department partners with outside groups to provide cognitive behavioral therapy to juveniles to help deal with anger issues an conflict resolution, or the Teen Police Academy which helps pave a way for at risk youth to make it to college, Chief Persley said his department is committed to impacting positive change with the youth of Albany.
“If we go out and deal with the kids, the youth let’s say who are the most challenging and we can help them with their challenges and eventually, let’s say, they go through the Teen Police Academy, which we have, and that causes them to go to college, that’s a good outcome,” he said. “Then they go to college, and not necessarily want to be a police officer, but they want to be an attorney, or they want to be a doctor, or they want to be an engineering, they want to be something, and we provided some assistance to them, that person, in turn, the only thing we ask of them is that they give back.
“Just image if we were able to impact them at an early age, to where they want to make some better decisions, go a different route. They see that there is a way other than what their current environment has. Those people give back.
“That’s how you win the trust of the community. We’re helping them become successful in life. You start to give back.”
The concept of community policing also strengthens the community, Chief said, because it’s only successful through relationships—those built between law enforcement and the community and those law enforcement has built with the organizations and agencies that help administer programs in the community.
“We find organizations that will bring resources to those who don’t have resources,” Michael continued. “That’s a part of the philosophy of community-oriented policing. I don’t have a behavioral therapist on staff. I don’t have any substance abuse or mental health counselors on staff, but I do know organizations that have these resources. So let’s get them to the people that need them.
“That’s a part of the philosophy of community-oriented policing. It’s not just going in to solve the crime. It’s also going in to solve some of the root causes.”
Of course for as much as the department does to stay connected to the community and build trust, Chief Persley stressed that the trust the community has in the department is something that’s been built over time and maintaining it factors into the training new officers get when they leave the police academy.
“I will say that citizens can identify with their police department to where we’ve made so many social deposits over the course of time, that whenever we have to make a withdrawal, then it’s understandable,” Michael explained. “Albany is different. Albany is unique.
“You see a lot of what’s happening. It can happen anywhere man. It can happen anywhere.
“But then, we’re not so big that we can’t identify with the population. You hear people who will say things, negative, derogatory things about the police department, but then they’ll be the ones clapping and hollering the loudest at graduation because somebody who they know or who they’re related to is graduating from the police academy.”
And after those new recruits leave the academy, Chief Persley said their next step is become educated about Albany, GA and its long history, including its well-documented racial tensions.
“I take officers, graduates, from the Police Academy to the Civil Rights Institute and take them on a tour so that they understand, start beginning to understand, why Albany is the way it is to an extent, and why some people feel the way they do about Albany.
“If you’re from Kalamazoo, Michigan and you just moved to Albany and I take you to the Civil Rights Institute, sometimes that person has a greater respect for Albany than someone who has been here all their life and never went through the Civil Rights Institute.”
It’s actually because of this kind of education, coupled with the intense social work the department has engaged in over the years, that the Chief believes Albany has thus far avoided peaceful protests turning violent and destructive.
“A lot of things we’re experiencing now, (and the reason) we don’t have the fall out is because of mechanisms (like community-oriented policing) that were put in place years ago,” Chief Persley continued. “Once again, when you pull your resources (officers and other employees) from the community that you serve, it helps.
“It’s like with us solving crime. We get a lot of from the community. People, they trust the officers. They know the officers. People know me. I’m born and bred here. I have people who have been knowing me since 1st grade. If they have a problem, they can pick up the phone and call me and we can work to solve the problem.”
“But it takes a lot,” he continued. “It’s nothing that happened overnight. Also, it’s something where we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to continue to do that and then some, because I don’t know what’s the next crisis to come. I don’t know what the next event is. What I do know, is that as long as we continue to maintain the trust of the community, we will be able to weather that storm.”
Chief Persley’s belief that trust and the continued efforts of the department and those it has relationships with, is spot on. But it’s not the only thing helping to make Albany, Georgia a better place, and an example to the rest of the country.
A lot of what makes many in the community hopeful for the future is simply the fact that someone like Michael Persley is leading the APD.
The Chief regularly draws praise from every corner of the community. Be it the county and city commissioners who regularly praise his efforts and defend the department when unfairly maligned, those, like me, who have the pleasure of serving on civic and nonprofit boards with him, members of the both the black and white communities at large that count him as a friend and ally, or the badged men and women who serve alongside of him, Michael is counted as one of this community’s greatest assets and champions.
“Me and Chief go way back, back to my high school days,” said Dramoski Franklin, an APD Lieutenant who credits Michael with not only inspiring him to strive for more beyond the sports life that dominated his youth, but also for starting him on a path in law enforcement. “I was in the military and I was working at Target. When I got deployed to Bosnia, me and the chief, we were good friends by then. We were talking and he said, ‘You’re a good guy. I think you’ll do well with us. Why don’t you apply when you get back?’ I thought about it the whole time I was there. When I got back, I applied and ended up getting a job in 2002.
“Chief Persley is the reason I am the way I am today. He showed me how to be productive in the community as well as how to respect our citizens. I was 16 years old when I first met him and at that time I had a negative perception of the police. How he treated me throughout the years changed the way I look at police officers as a whole and for that I am grateful.”
But perhaps more importantly, many in this community, myself included, are grateful to have a man of character and integrity giving himself to the service of others and working tirelessly to make this community, and this country, one we can all be proud of.
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