Nunn, Annetta 1959–
Annetta Nunn 1959–
In 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, made worldwide headlines as the site of some of the most vicious attacks of the civil rights movement, when notorious police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses on protestors in an effort to enforce segregation. Connor also instructed his officers to look the other way as white-cloaked Ku Klux Klan members viciously beat black Birmingham residents. One of those members went so far as to toss a bomb into an African-American church, killing four young black girls who were attending Sunday school. Those living through this reign of terror could not have imagined that a successor to Connor’s seat was in their very midsts—a four-year-old African-American girl named Annetta Watts Nunn. Yet, 40 years later, Nunn did just that, becoming the first African-American female to don the police chief’s badge in Birmingham. A student of local history, Nunn brought to the position not only a reputation for dedicated crime fighting, but also a belief in her ability to change things for the better. After a stellar 23-year career spent on the Birmingham police force, Nunn’s promotion was indeed well-deserved.
A native of Birmingham, Nunn was born Annetta Watts in 1959, the daughter of a coal miner and a nurse. A dedicated student early on, Nunn graduated as class valedictorian from Jackson-Olin High School. She went on to study at the University of Alabama, where she majored in criminal justice and minored in history. After earning a bachelor of arts degree with the honors distinction of magna cum laude, she was commissioned as an officer in the Birmingham Police Department. The year was 1980 and the police department had just begun a massive minority recruitment campaign in response to a racial discrimination suit. As a result, Nunn had to endure suggestions that she had succeeded on the force only because of her skin color, accusations that were unfair considering the level of education she brought to the position. “When I took the job, I told people to judge me by my character, not by the color of my skin or by my sex,” she told the New York Times. She then set about earning what American Police Beat called “a reputation for quietly getting things done.”
At a Glance…
Born Annetta Watts in 1959, in Birmingham, AL; married Robert Nunn, Sr.; children: Robert Jr., Stephen. Education: University of Alabama, BA, criminal justice, 1980; graduate, FBI National Academy. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Birmingham Police Department officer, 1980-83, sergeant, 1983-91, lieutenant, 1991-95, captain, 1995-2000, deputy chief, 2000-03, police chief, 2003-.
Memberships: Leadership Birmingham, member; Workshops, inc., board of directors.
Awards: Drum Major For Justice award, 2003.
Addresses: Office —1710 1st Avenue North, Birmingham, AL, 35203.
Nunn’s hard work steadily propelled her up the ranks in the police force. In 1983 she was promoted to sergeant. She became a lieutenant in 1991, and then a captain in 1995. Her ascent through the ranks was aided by her graduation from the FBI National Academy. During this time she married Robert Nunn, Sr., and gave birth to two sons. A devout Baptist, Nunn also became heavily involved with the work of her church, most notably through its choir. She also sang in the choir of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Nunn’s close alliance with the Baptist church has had an impact on the way she fights crime. “[Nunn] brings to her job a strong belief in the church’s potential, and responsibility, for solving the social problems that breed crime,” noted the New York Times. To that end, Nunn has recruited ministers from some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Birmingham to step forward and help, urging them to offer job training and drug counseling, as well as alternatives to gang activity. “If people want to change, they need the resources. That’s where the church comes in,” she told Essence.
Her conviction proved right in 1997, when she was serving as a precinct captain in the north end of Birmingham. The mayor had proposed a city-wide goal of reducing crime by 15 percent. Nunn was the only precinct commander to meet—and exceed—that goal, cutting crime by 16 percent in her precinct. However, the gains did not always come easily. Many ministers refused to become involved out of fear. “People say to me, ‘I can’t get involved, because I’m afraid something may happen to me,’” Nunn told the New York Times. “And I tell them, ‘Thank God those who came 40 years before acted in spite of their fears, or we would not have the gains we have today.’”
In March of 2000 Nunn continued her upward climb through Birmingham’s police ranks, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as a deputy chief. In that role she headed up the department’s Field Operations Bureau, a position she held until February of 2003, when Nunn was promoted to the position of police chief. In her new role she would become the first woman to head Birmingham’s police department, and only the second African-American to hold that post. It was as if her life had come full circle. As a child she had borne witness to the racial intolerance of a police chief bent on keeping African Americans down. Now she wore that same badge, overseeing a police department that was “committed to serving all citizens and one another with dignity and respect,” as she noted on the official City of Birmingham website.
Nunn’s appointment drew nationwide news coverage in both the black and mainstream presses. Besides the historical significance of the fact that an African-American mother and Baptist choir singer was now occupying the seat once held by Bull Connor, the fact also remained that Nunn had earned her position during 23 years with the department. Birmingham’s Mayor Bernard Kincaid, in an official press release on the City of Birmingham website, declared that “in naming a new chief, the first consideration was qualifications. Based on her education, her experience, and the level of respect she commands within the department, Chief Nunn was a natural choice.…”
As the fanfare of Nunn’s promotion quieted down, the new chief eagerly took on her job, including the management of more than 1,100 officers and employees and a $70 million annual budget. However, her real challenge lay not in the daily operations of the department but in the increasing problem of what she described to the New York Times as “the scourge of black-on-black violence.”
In 2002 73 percent of Birmingham’s 243,000 citizens were African-American, and the majority of the city’s crime occurred amid this population. As chief of police, Nunn faced a rising homicide rate, with nearly all of the victims and most of those indicted being African American. “We are our own worst enemy,” she told the New York Times. “My job would be much easier if we would stop killing each other, if we would stop stealing and burglarizing each other.” In her efforts to combat this epidemic, Nunn turned once again to black churches and ministers, and implored local citizens to become involved. “The whole community must be involved in fighting crime,” she told the London, England, Sun. “People must not only report crime and make sure their property is safe but also help clean up an area once crime has been eased there.”
Nunn has also not been afraid to use hardball tactics, including a crackdown on drug crimes. “We practice zero tolerance but call it 100 percent enforcement,” she told the Sun. “If you see a violation of any sort, however trivial, you take action immediately and enforce the law.” Since Nunn’s tenure began, arrests have increased and crime has decreased. In addition she has instituted new policies that reduce the amount of paperwork police officers must file, thus freeing them to spend more time on the streets.
Nunn’s first six months in office were met with praise, from both local city leaders and from police units as far away as Birmingham, England, where Nunn was interviewed on her crime reduction efforts in August of 2003. However, she has also met with controversy. After the police shooting of a suspected criminal, several prominent Birmingham ministers—including the Rev. Abraham L. Woods, one of Birmingham’s most revered civil rights leaders—publicly criticized the police department. Nunn turned the tables on the critics, asking why they chose to criticize a police officer when they had turned their backs at shootings committed by civilians in their own neighborhoods. Her fear-lessness in the face of these powerful local leaders drew praise from her officers as well as the local community.
Ebony, August 2003, p. 10.
Essence, October 2003, p. 36.
Jet, March 3, 2003, p. 20.
New York Times, May 3, 2003.
Sun (London, England), August 27, 2003, p. 6.
“Birmingham, Alabama’s Top Cop Brings Talent and a Sense of History to the Job,” American Police Beat, www.apbweb.com/articles-z40.htm (December 23, 2003).
“Chief,” City of Birmingham Official Website, www.informationbirmingham.com/police/chief.htm (December 23, 2003).
“Mayor Kincaid Taps Nunn as Birmingham’s First Female Police Chief,” City of Birmingham Official Website, www.informationbirmingham.com/pressrele/nunn.htm (December 23, 2003).
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