Oliver, Jerry 1947–
Jerry Oliver 1947–
Law enforcement official
Fought Crime White Facing Adversity
When he became Detroit’s chief of police in 2002, Jerry Oliver had amassed a spectacular record of accomplishments in previous positions in Pasadena, California, and Richmond, Virginia. “He’s earned the right to be called one of the most prominent black public employees in the nation,” Pasadena city councilman Isaac Richard had told the Los Angeles Times, and city officials in Richmond, where crime rates plummeted during Oliver’s tenure, might well have agreed. Yet Oliver was a controversial and sometimes polarizing figure, dogged by criticism of his policies and by well-publicized but never legally filed accusations of domestic abuse.
Jerry Alton Oliver was born in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 2, 1947, the son of Fred A. Oliver and Florine Goodman Oliver. He grew up poor, in a public housing project within sight of the city’s police headquarters. Oliver served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as a crewman on the U.S.S. Ranger aircraft carrier. Returning home to Phoenix, he joined the city’s police force in 1971. The following year he earned an associate’s degree from Phoenix College, and he continued to further his education as his police career developed. He received B.A. (1976) and M.A. degrees (1988) from Arizona State University in nearby Tempe.
Became Memphis Drug Czar
Oliver rose through the ranks in Phoenix, becoming assistant chief by the late 1980s. One facet of Oliver’s approach as a police administrator stressed community involvement, and in Phoenix he founded the Special Friends Project, a counseling service for young minority males. The project was a success; social service agencies in Phoenix realized its value and moved to shoulder part of the cost. Oliver married three times and had four children; one son became a Phoenix police recruit. In 1990 Oliver moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to become the city’s director of drug policy, its “drug czar.” While he was there, he married his third wife, Jackie, and started a local Special Friends Project.
When the position of police chief in Pasadena, California, fell open in 1991, Oliver was hailed by the city’s mayor (according to the Los Angeles Times) for his “sensitive and caring” approach and was hired; he was the first chief named from outside the ranks of the city’s police department in over 50 years. In Pasadena, Oliver endured a trial by fire. His greatest challenge
At a Glance…
Born on March 2, 1947, in Phoenix, AZ; son of Fred I. Oliver and Florine Goodman Oliver; married five times, four children. Education: Phoenix College, associate’s degree, 1972; Arizona State University, bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, 1976, master’s degree, 1988; attended Police Executive Research Forum, Washington, DC. Military service: Served in U.S. Navy in Vietnam War.
Career: Joined Phoenix Police Department, 1971; rose through ranks to become assistant chief of police; named director of drug policy, Memphis, TN, 1990; police chief, Pasadena, CA, 1991-95; police chief, Richmond, VA, 1995-02; police chief, Detroit, Ml, 2002-.
Selected awards: Arizona State University Public Programs Hall of Fame inductee, 1989; Image Award, NAACP Phoenix chapter, 1990.
Address: Police Department, City of Detroit, 1300 Beaubien, Detroit, Ml 48226.
came in the spring of 1992, when Los Angeles erupted in civil unrest after not-guilty verdicts were turned in for four white police officers charged with the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Crowds milled in the streets of Pasadena, but within hours of the verdict Oliver met with local community leaders and enlisted their help in defusing tensions. Pasadena was spared major destruction of property.
Oliver faced other problems in Pasadena, including luckless involvement in an ongoing feud between the city council and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and fallout from an incident in which an officer sprayed a two-year-old baby with Mace. Then Jackie Oliver, during the couple’s divorce proceedings, accused him of physically abusing her over their 14-month marriage. She placed four 911 calls, at least one of them classified by dispatchers as a domestic disturbance, and she later was quoted by the Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service as saying that Oliver told her, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to break your neck.”
Fought Crime White Facing Adversity
At the time, however, Jackie Oliver declined to press charges against her husband. Oliver maintained, both then and whenever the accusations were mentioned in the future, that they had been motivated by the couple’s messy divorce proceedings, and though the Pasadena city council offered to investigate further if Jackie Oliver stepped forward, she remained silent and the issue remained unresolved. “As many times as you run it [the story], it will still be a lie and not be true,” Olvier was quoted as saying by the Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service when the issue resurfaced later in his career. Oliver got high marks for new community-policing initiatives, such as a rap opera featuring community youths, and community activists hailed his hands-on approach to local problem spots.
In 1995 Oliver was hired as police chief of the notoriously crime-ridden city of Richmond, Virginia. As he had in Pasadena, he stepped on some toes during the early phases of his tenure. He hired Pasadena consultant John Kennedy as deputy chief without telling Richmond officials of a felony assault acquittal in Kennedy’s past, and several personnel disputes blew up into major controversies. One female cadet (who eventually left the force after being paid a $125,000 settlement) claimed that Oliver had subjected her to intimidating questioning when she filed a rape charge against another Richmond officer.
But spectacular success earned Oliver passionate defenders in Richmond. Homicides in the city dropped from 164 in 1994 to 72 in 2000, and rates of other serious crimes also fell. Oliver implemented new community policing programs, and once stripped to the waist at a community meeting in response to a disgruntled citizen who said that he wouldn’t dare to come into the neighborhood without wearing a bulletproof vest. He won praise, even as he was dogged by domestic-abuse allegations himself, for improving police procedures in domestic-violence cases. After Kennedy’s departure, Oliver hired Richmond’s first female deputy chief, Teresa Gooch; she became chief when Oliver left for Detroit.
Hired as Detroit Chief
“He came charging in when Richmond’s head was down,” wrote Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Mark Holmberg of Oliver. “He looked muscular and confident, like Mr. Clean. He was cool in a crisis, hot when challenged. The men and women on the force didn’t all love him, but they knew where they stood.” With publicity like that, Oliver attracted the attention of newly elected Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick as he looked to fill the chief’s chair in a city that had long been plagued by crime. Oliver moved to Detroit with his fifth wife, Felicia, and became chief to Detroit’s 4,235 police officers on February 4, 2002.
In Detroit, Oliver’s task was complicated by several factors: the police force faced a federal investigation of rampant patrol-officer misconduct, and Detroit had a tradition of strong public-employee unionism absent in southern Richmond. “We’ve had a cancer on this department, and [Oliver’s] trying to excise it,” Detroit officer David Mahalab told the Detroit News. “But he’s got to realize he’s not in Richmond, where he was judge, jury, and executioner. He should work with the unions.”
In his first several months on the job in Detroit, Oliver moved to implement some of the same community policing initiatives that had worked so well in Richmond. He went door to door with Kilpatrick, recruiting volunteers to combat the city’s Halloween-weekend “Devils’ Night” arson problem, and began a major overhaul of the department’s supervisory staff. Oliver irked some officers by enforcing a ban on braids protruding below the hat and targeted what he considered unprofessional apparel such as jewelry, long nails, and nonmilitary shoes as well. Clearly Oliver was attempting to bring to Detroit the same combination of image, toughness, and community sensitivity that had served him well over his entire successful but controversial career.
Associated Press, January 7, 2002, BC cycle.
Detroit News, March 29, 2002, p. 6; April 19, 2002, p. 6; April 26, 2002, p. 6; July 22, 2002, p. 1; August 20, 2002, p. 1.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (originally published in Detroit Free Press), February 5, 2002, pp. K1878, K1879.
Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1991, San Gabriel Valley section, p. J1; July 19, 1992, San Gabriel Valley section, p. J1.
New York Times, June 26, 2002, p. A20.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 30, 2001, p. Bl.
Detroit Police Department, http://www.ci.detroit.mi.us/police/chieLoliver.htm
—James M. Manheim
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