Wilson, Jimmy L. 1946(?)–
Jimmy L. Wilson 1946(?)–
Law enforcement executive
The career summary of Jimmy L. Wilson, noted the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “reads like a high-powered novel with cops and robbers, national politicians, diplomats, and terrorists.” Hired as a police officer in Washington, D.C., at a time when few African Americans were on the force, Wilson played central roles in a series of high-profile cases of national renown. He moved into law enforcement administration, eventually rising to the position of chief of police in three different departments. Much of Wilson’s administrative career, however, was dogged by controversies in which racial tensions sometimes lurked below (and sometimes clearly appeared upon) the surface. In the early 2000s, Wilson served a term as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
One of four brothers, Wilson was born around 1946 in Durham, North Carolina. He joined the United States Army in 1964, serving for four years and traveling to Turkey as an intelligence officer. Back in the United States in 1968, he was hired as a patrolman by the Washington, D.C., police department. In 1974 he earned a bachelor’s degree in administration of justice at Washington’s American University, and he later pursued graduate studies there. As an administrator, he would lobby vigorously for educational opportunities to benefit the officers under his charge.
As a Washington police officer, Wilson several times found himself in the line of fire in cases that made newspaper headlines. Rising through the ranks in the city’s sixth police precinct and reorganizing the department’s homicide investigations unit, Wilson headed investigations into the 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, during which he was responsible for the arrest of shooter John Hinckley, and into a 1982 Potomac River airliner crash that killed 79 people. He also led investigations of terrorist activities. But it was another set of headlines in the early 1980s that brought Wilson his first brush with controversy.
By 1983 some considered Wilson an ally of the city’s flamboyant mayor, Marion Barry, who later faced allegations of drug abuse. That year, a Howard University psychiatrist named Alyce Gullattee was said to have stated that Barry had suffered a drug overdose and was treated at Howard. Wilson headed the police team investigating the allegation, which in the end did not confirm that the psychiatrist’s statement had even been made. A police union official claimed, according to the Washington Post, that Wilson and other officials had “covered up” Gullattee’s statements, but Wilson insisted to a Washington television station that no corroboration for the allegation had been found, and that (again as quoted in the Post) “when it relates to medical conditions or medical reports, then it has to be understood that this is privileged communications between the doctor and the patient.”
Wilson headed the department’s Internal Affairs Division in the mid-1980s and faced criticism on several more fronts. The most serious was the opinion of an independent consulting firm, which was hired to review the division’s probe of a botched 1986 investigation
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1946 in Durham, N.C Education: American University, Washington, DC, bachelor’s degree in administration of justice, 1974, further graduate study; attended several police leadership training courses. Military service: U.S. Army, 1964-68; served as intelligence officer in Turkey.
Career: Washington, DC, police department, patrolman, homicide investigations supervisor, internal affairs investigator, 1968-86; Washington, DC, sixth police precinct deputy chief, 1987-92; Jackson, MS, police department, chief of police, 1992-94; Canton, MS, police department, chief of police, 1994-97; Suffolk, VA, police department, chief of police, 1997-2001; Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA, chief of police, 2003-.
Memberships: National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (president, 2002-03).
Addresses: Office— 1 Jackson PL, Box 9405, Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA 23806.
called the Caribbean Cruise drug sweep, that top police officials should have been blamed for the fiasco. Despite the problems, Wilson was named a Washington deputy chief, heading the sixth precinct, in 1987.
As deputy chief, Wilson notched several accomplishments. Crime in the sixth precinct dropped faster than anywhere else in the city, and Wilson founded a widely noticed Citizens’ Police Academy designed to familiarize community leaders with police work. Despite another issue that flared over the Caribbean Cruise investigation, in which a group of white D.C. officers accused Wilson of unfairly disciplining them because of their race, Wilson generally received strong praise from supervisors and associates when national recruiters came looking to fill police chief vacancies. In 1992 Wilson was hired as chief of Jackson, Mississippi’s 528-member department.
Two years later he was fired, a fate that had also befallen his African-American predecessor, David Walker. Jackson officials cited Wilson’s failure to bring down the city’s high crime rate, but Wilson contended that his firing was the result of his having asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate allegations of rape and brutality at a local juvenile prison. Local African-American community leaders supported Wilson strongly, arguing that he and Walker had been held to higher standards than white chiefs, and after his departure for a three-year stint as chief of the small town of Canton, Mississippi, near Jackson, they began to agitate for his return.
Similar patterns repeated themselves after Wilson was hired as the first African-American police chief of Suffolk, Virginia, a medium-sized city in the Norfolk area. Wilson jogged through high-crime neighborhoods and implemented community-policing initiatives such as recruiting volunteers for police clerical tasks. Working long hours and often showing up at crime scenes, Wilson won praise from community leaders. “He’s making our neighborhoods safe again,” Suffolk Vice Mayor Charles F. Brown told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. “He’s professional. He listens to the little folks, the big folks, everybody.”
Wilson’s relations with Suffolk’s mostly white police union weren’t so harmonious, however. The union released the results of a survey showing that many of its members resented Wilson’s management style. Some of the comments were racist in nature, which inflamed tensions within the department and led to the creation of a minority officers’ association. Wilson strove to increase black representation in the department, which lagged behind the percentage of blacks in Suffolk’s participation as a whole.
As the controversy deepened, congregants at the city’s black churches prayed for a favorable resolution and circulated petitions supporting the chief. Wilson, who had bought a house in Suffolk and enjoyed the area for its recreational opportunities and for its proximity to his hometown of Durham, hoped to stay on. In June of 2001, however, he announced his retirement under pressure from city officials. He planned to stay on for several more months in order to qualify for a pension, but after an officer filed suit against the city alleging unfair treatment from Wilson in connection with paid absence time, Wilson was suspended. Legal wrangling between Wilson and the city ensued, but it was finally settled out of court, and the suit was dismissed. Smith told the Virginian-Pilot that he had been “totally vindicated” by the dismissal.
“It’s a great loss for Suffolk,” African-American community leader Mary Richardson told the Virginian-Pilot in response to news of Wilson’s resignation. “He was a good police chief.” Police officers’ union head James King conceded that Wilson “did a lot of good things in the community. But he also destroyed our police department from within.” Wilson served in 2002 and 2003 as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a group of which he had been a member since 1979. Late in 2003 he was hired as the chief of police at Virginia State University. His career could furnish an instructive case study for historians interested in the organizational dynamics that have occurred when African-American administrators assume law enforcement leadership positions.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), June 7, 1994, p. A1.
Washington Post, January 17, 1983, p. Dl; December 1, 1989, p. D5; May 4, 1991, p. Bl; January 25, 1992, p. B6.
Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), December 21, 1996, p. Bl; January 13, 1997, p. B3; January 14, 1997, p. B3; January 19, 1998, p. Bl; May 5, 2000, p. B10; June 12, 2001, p. Bl; July 4, 2001, p. Bl; August 5, 2001, p. Bl; October 10, 2001, p. B4; October 12, 2001, p. B3; January 28, 2003, p. B2.
“VSU Names New Police Chief,” Virginia State University, http://www.vsu.edu/news/newpolicechief_2003.htm (April 6, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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