ROCK HILL — Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory spoke Monday with The Herald about his upcoming retirement. His answers have been edited for brevity.
Why did you decide to become a police officer?
I was chosen through a group of people who applied to be a police cadet with the High Point (N.C.) Police Department. I got an opportunity to do it a couple of weeks after my mother passed away 40 years ago on Oct. 6 and I interviewed with them. I was hired while a senior in high school. I worked with juvenile detectives; I worked with kids in projects. I did coaching and counseling; I did public speaking. I had a boxing club.
I went to the academy when I was 20. I graduated from the academy, my birthday was the next day, and I was a police officer. The only job Ive ever had has been with the High Point Police Department and the Rock Hill Police Department. Thats all Ive ever done, so I dont know what it feels like to be a civilian.
What led you to decide to retire?
I always promised myself when I finished, I was not going to leave it on the field. I was going to save some for me, and I was going to bow out intentionally while I still had the juice. Ive seen so many people that I admire stay to the end and they would tap out. When they ended, they were done done for good. Ive seen others plan it and segue out of a career in law enforcement. Thats something I plan on doing. When The Herald asked me, How long do you plan on staying? I told them I would be here between seven to 10 years. I think Ive kept my word on that.
You also want to leave while things are really, really good. This is a good time because of the crime reductions, the things that we have going on, the staff; there are just so many things that are positive right now. There was the expansion of this (Rock Hill Police Department) facility. Before that, it was getting the stimulus officers. Before that, it was getting the street crimes unit. All these things have played out to work together in this whole pie to make it work together. I always wanted to leave while I still had the fire in my belly to do it. I am passionate about law enforcement. I think its a noble profession; I think its one of the greatest things in the world.
When you can take an agency with the history of Rock Hill as it was when I arrived Im not saying it was necessarily bad, but internally some of the friction with the community and some of the friction with the total community a lot of those frictions are gone. The accountability that we hold people to now, people embrace that. They know its important to do the right thing at the right time the right way for the right reason.
How did you make the decision?
I had to do what was good for me. I felt like I was in a good place. I have the energy and drive to do this for a long time, but is that a smart thing to do? I think whats smart for me to do is to look at some other things and see what else I want to do.
I had the latitude to do it. I retired twice. I retired from North Carolina and Ill be retired from here. And you always ask yourself, If you had the way to do anything you wanted to do and try something again you didnt have to worry about and you didnt have some of the financial things, what would you want to do? And I started looking at some things and I said, You know, Im at that point. I can actually ... try something. Ive planned for that. Ive planned for being in a position like that, and I realized, Im there. Im in a position where I can try some things and see what happens and just go out there to do it. Am I done being a chief? I think so, but you never say never. But I think Im not going to do this again.
Is anything left undone
The staffing in the zones should be improved. We dont have the people to do it, but there are some things we can do to make that occur and maybe reinvent some things and maybe put more officers in our six patrol zones. When I watch the Compstat presentations, when the officers were there presenting and they talk about their day-to-day challenges doing the job, I look at the geography and the diverse issues they deal with, and theres one officer in that zone. There should probably be two so thats the challenge going forward. We want to make it better all the time. We want to improve and make it better.
Lets look at Rock Hill five years from now. What challenges in public safety does the city face?
It comes down to staffing again. This facility was an issue. The expansion of the building that will be a major issue five years from now if its not addressed. We have areas like the Riverwalk area being developed; five years from now, that will be almost built out, and I think it will be a high-volume ... area that well need to find out: how does that mix into the type of activities that occur there; what type of preventive things we need to do there; what types of things do we need to do to police that area; what type of visibility things to increase tourism to that area? And, of course, leaner budgets are always a problem. People always say we do more with less, but actually, we do less with less.
When you first got here, you said you wanted to forge that alliance with the community. How have you felt that youve done that successfully? Its ongoing. Its not like mission accomplished. Its ongoing evolving. When we first started, we were trying to make sure that the officers who were used to communicating continued to communicate. We had to restructure this whole piece where we made it conducive to communication with the public. (Talking about Weed and Seed) Those lieutenants assigned to those areas; those officers doing our COMPSTAT initiatives; they know key people in the community. They know key people in the community, the businesses, the school districts and all walks of life and thats how we come up with our strategies. This piece evolves. Our Compstat, it used to be totally the lieutenant or the sergeant presenting. Now, its our officers. They present once and month and they present the issues of their patrol area and they talk about it and it gives me a perspective from their day-to-day work. I say that piece is still evolving but I say well done so far weve made very good progress. I also know that you said you wanted to boost the morale of the department internally. Do you feel that youve done that? I know something about everybody here. I may forget a name and say, I dont know that guys name, I cant remember his name, but I can tell you something he told me when he interviewed from the job, something I heard about them or something funny I know something about them; something significant. Thats important. You can isolate yourself away from the people as chief of police and some chiefs have that style and if it works for them, thats fine. It doesnt work for me. I want people to know that I KNOW who they are; I know they do a good work; I know whats going on and its something that you have to work at. You cant fake it. These people have to know that you have their best interest at hand and I think thats key.
I would assume every chief undergoes times in his tenure where he confronts some difficult things (such as use of deadly force). ... How did you handle that?
Those things like that, you soul search, and you ask yourself, what is the right thing to do? First, you want to find out what actually happened. After we find out whats happened, what can I tell them the public but not tell them something just to make them feel good. If I tell them something, I want to tell them the truth. So, can I do that? Who can I invite to the table while Im making the decision. You just want to be as transparent as you can, but dont let it interfere with doing the right thing. And, if its bad news, let me tell it and be in front of it.
Youre the first black chief of Rock Hill Police. Given Rock Hills history and the states history, how is that significant?
Ill tell you what I said nine years ago. Its very significant for the people that live in Rock Hill, and I understand the historical significance to it but when I was a young police officer, I was told, Youre one of the finest black officers Im not a black chief. Im a police chief who happens to be black. Thats who I am. Im not a black chief. Im a police officer who happens to be black, and thats the way I was taught and thats the way Ive operated.
We were not the first in South Carolina to do it, but it was significant. But I think the only way for me the only reason that would be significant for me is if I wouldve been the first and I was not good at it. What does that mean? What did that help? Who did that influence? Who did that inspire? But being successful at it and happening to be African-American or black I think thats probably something somebody can use and say, That can be me. I can be better.
Id like to be remembered as being the best chief youve ever had up to this point more than being the first black chief.