Over two years into the top-cop job, Chief Kimberly Jacobs has been a police officer for more than 30 years, making her way up through the ranks of the 25th largest police force in the country, a gay woman ascending a competitive ladder long-dominated by men.
So I was more than a little nervous to meet her.
Whenever I find myself in conversation with a cop, I must continually reassure myself that I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m constantly on verge of blurting out the litany of minor crimes that I have committed and gotten away with, like some kind of inverted Minority Report. And the higher they are in police food chain, the more I assume them able to peer directly into my soul.
While Chief Jacobs probably was able to see into my soul (or at least likely wondered at the number of low, anxious questions related to weed), my fears were unfounded. She’s not necessarily fierce, but her eyes are very clear and I was under no illusion that she would ever tolerate any bullshit. She’s not a shouter or terribly forceful, but I sensed a powerful personal toughness under her genial (though reserved) exterior.
And, she seemed genuinely concerned…for her community, for the officers on her force, even for me.
An impressive listener, Chief Jacobs is thoughtful and focused. She paused after my questions, and didn’t offer anything like a “canned” answer – even on questions that many in her line of work would probably dodge. An avid gardener and bicyclist, she’s spent the last couple years clocking crazy hours. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows the challenges she faced when first assuming office. With budget crunches, possible layoffs, and precinct re-districting looming over the early part of her administration, the new chief managed to handle her department’s problems with grace and a cool head, and seems to have earned the respect of the rank-and-file. She greeted her officers warmly as they passed by us, asking them the kinds of questions that indicate she pays attention when you tell her something.
With headlines about police brutality and excessive force regularly making the news cycle, I began our interview with a question about riot gear. She didn’t bat an eye.
I‘ve noticed a lot of departments around the country taking a look at their “best practices” and reevaluating how they approach their job, such as reducing the number of officers in riot gear and no-knock raids.
The Vancouver chief came and presented how they handled the Olympics a few years ago. He explained how he dealt with his officers who thought they should be in the riot gear to protect themselves, and he wouldn’t let them put it on. They went through extensive training as far as how they would handle the crowds. It took a little while, but there was buy-in…this is how to handle just regular protesters that have a right to be there, that aren’t trying to cause criminal activity. And they were able to separate those people out. And they got what they came for, so then it was just the anarchists were left, that really did want to engage in some criminal behavior, and they were able to deal effectively with them, too. I think that’s the kinds of things we can learn from going to the conferences, especially from the major cities: how other people do it. But at one of the conferences, I heard a chief explaining how they handle protesters, how they actually talk to the heads of the group that were going to protest ahead of time. They claimed it was the first time it had been done, and I was like, ‘well, we’ve been doing that for 10, 15 years.’ As soon as we find out there’s going to be some kind of protest, we contact the group and say, ‘Here’s how we do things in Columbus. What point are you trying to make? What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want to go to jail or not, and this is how you can go to jail if you want to – because some people do – and this is how you can stay out of jail if you don’t.’ We have that open line of communication, we explain how we do things and how they are able to…succeed in whatever they’re trying to accomplish. We’ve been doing that for a long time.
To me, for a city like Columbus, 1,900 uniformed officers doesn’t seem like very many.
Our city’s land size is huge. We’re the 15th largest city, but we’re not the 15th largest agency.
So you’re tasked with having as many officers in the neighborhoods as you can, and getting a certain kind of result, and that charter comes from the same community that isn’t always ready to pony up for the bill.
We’re constantly looking at our deployment to see whether it’s meeting people’s needs and expectations, and you measure that in complaints and what you hear at community meetings, and when I hear, ‘I never see a cop in my neighborhood,’ that’s when you pay attention. Because that means they are either busy doing something, or they’re not getting time to drive through. If you hear, ‘I know my officer in my neighborhood, or I’ve seen some cruisers,’ that’s a good thing. If some of the complaints are quality of life issues and not a crime problem, that’s a good thing, too.
That means we’re focusing on our priorities. Yet the quality of life things cause them to be more vocal. You listen to them, and listening to where their complaints are and where they compliment you. We get lots of compliments about the helpfulness of our officers. We’ve got three community response teams that were created when we got our [federally funded] COPS grant, and they don’t respond to calls for service. They follow up on crime patterns; they go to community meetings and see what the concerns are. I don’t know how many times they’ve been able to address a problem brought up at a community meeting within a week – because they can. They’re not tied to going to take an accident report or a burglary report. Having access to officers that are available to follow up on either short-term or long-term problems is a plus for us, and I believe it is necessary to staff that role, because we’ve seen a lot of positive outcomes from it.
Do you think you’re going to be the Chief of the Columbus police department when marijuana is no longer criminalized?
I don’t know if Ohio can move there that fast. Ohio seems to be behind the curve in a couple of things. It’s a very conservative state in some ways, and a very liberal state in other ways. I’m seeing what’s going on in Washington and Colorado and talking to some of their chiefs, and they are treading new ground. I mean, they have police candidates that maybe smoked marijuana, and well…it was legal. You can still abuse things [that are legal]. What do you do about police candidates? What do you do about people growing in their backyards without a permit? It’s legal, but it’s not legal.
They have a lot of work to do for the rest of us.
They really do. They are going to be setting up some things for the future, I suppose. And certainly there are issues with our staff time being spent on investigating people who are distributing marijuana. That’s a huge money-making thing. The money that is spent in Columbus on marijuana could probably build a school, or something like that. I mean, it’s an amazing amount of money, compared to some of the social services that could be better served. And of course we spend money investigating and convicting and trying to track it down.
If it becomes legal, does that make the danger less? Possibly. We’ll find out, I think, with Colorado and Washington. Will I still be chief? I’ve got a five-year term right now, I’m well into my second year, and who knows if they’ll re-up me for another five years after that…I hope so. But we’ll see.
I think we’ll be able to deal with it, no matter what. It will just be a new paradigm.
Is this something that you hear officers discussing? How’s it going to change their job?
It will be significantly different.
I’m going to ‘out’ my readers a bit here, but of our magazine’s targeted 25-45-year-old demographic in Columbus, I bet over half of them smoke marijuana more than once a month. And it doesn’t seem like Columbus comes down too hard on your average hippie.
Well, it’s a minor misdemeanor, to have a small amount, so it’s like giving you a ticket for speeding.
So would de-criminalizing it be a big difference for you?
For the average user it wouldn’t be anything different, other than where you buy it. You’d buy it from a store, instead of your friend or whoever.
At the distribution level it would be very, very different. If it’s somehow taxed, if it’s somehow regulated in the sense of how good the stuff has to be, then certainly we might see a difference in the crime that is associated with it.
If your resources weren’t being spent on that now, would it help you do other police work better?
Well, I would say we could focus on other drugs of abuse more. Heroin is a huge problem right now. It’s cheap, it’s an alternative to the opiates that people sometimes get started on…heroin is a very big problem, and associated with an awful lot of crime. You can just about guarantee that, if your car’s been broken into, or if someone walked into your garage and took some of your tools, they’re a user. They need their daily fix and they can’t keep making enough money to do it because they’re getting high…a lot of the property crimes that are happening around here are happening because of drug abuse.
Heroin is a huge part of it.
What do you see as your greatest obstacle as chief in 2014? What is standing in the way of being the police department you want to be?
Hmm. What I’ve noticed is that even good ideas take time to develop and time to implement and time to train, to get from point A to point B. You don’t want a knee-jerk reaction to most things. So we do develop, and research, and try to think of all the ins-and-outs. But – just for instance – if I want to expand the gang unit, I have to find the people I want for that, and decide if I have to give up other staffing. And then, where are they going to report for work? What types of duties are they going to do? Who’s going to be their sergeant? Because I don’t just have sergeants lying around doing nothing. Do I have to give up another sergeant position for that? I have to get it approved, I have to find equipment, computers and cars and all that. So the slowness of getting things done is probably the biggest roadblock, if you want to say that.
And then, on the crime side, I wish there was a way to find a treatment for heroin addiction and allow people to get away from that, because very few people say, ‘I want to be a heroin addict.’ They try using it and before they know it they’re stuck. They can’t get away and there aren’t very good treatment programs. I believe it really stalls your life, if not making it go backward.
You seem to really have a heart for that one in particular.
I’d love to see our community and society find a way to treat that, so there’s less crime, less poverty, less abuse going on. Just as a community member, I think that’s a scourge on how our community does. The other big issue that I have is domestic violence. We make more arrests for domestic violence every year than for any other crime in particular, and usually, if you’ve done it once, you’ve done it more than once. It’s an on-going crime. If you’re the victim of domestic violence, you often continue to live with the person that abused you. So every day you live in fear, under threat, and have to worry about what’s going to happen tonight when you get home from work, or whether your children will be hit, too. I can’t imagine being a kid living in a with domestic violence and having any hope for the future.
Do you feel like you’re to the point as chief where you can be taken simply as a police chief? The LGBT-slash-first woman chief, all those qualifiers, are they less a part of the conversation?
I think they’re less a part of the conversation but I won’t minimize what it means to women, or the LGBT community. They’re all very proud that they can say, ‘one of us is doing that job.’ So, as a role model for women and the gay community, they still consider it be a great thing. But it’s not necessarily a part of the conversation with the people that I have to see and that I go and talk with. But it’s been remarkable how many women that, far and wide, are just so happy about me being here. We need to be more diverse. So whatever I can do to model that women can do this job and any other job is still something that I’m trying to accomplish.
This might be a failure of my imagination, but aren’t you supposed to have those sort of vertical window blinds, so you can shove them aside and gesture people in here? The design of the office is sort of missing that whole, “Get your ass in here, Murtaugh!”-Lethal Weapon-aesthetic.
(Laughs). One of the questions I was asked was, ‘are you going to be a tough-on-crime kind of chief, or are you going to be more community minded or whatever. I think I can be tough on crime and still community minded. My persona is not that rough-tough type. Someone mentioned that I might be too laid back. I was like, ‘Well, that’s your image of what a chief should be’…having been here for 30 years, my style has worked for me and it hasn’t hampered me rising through the ranks, obviously. So I’m going to continue being the person I am. I’m not the pound-my-fists-on-the-table person that yells and screams and gets upset over every little thing. I don’t function well that way. I believe anger is something that you use as a tool, but very, very rarely.
I’m not the sternest looking person, but I still think that I’m very effective at getting the job done, and trying to model that there are different styles that will accomplish that. You can be your own person and do your own thing, and still accomplish those things you want to accomplish.