Ten years ago, Jeri Williams was promoted to commander in the Phoenix Police Department. At the time, she confessed, her goal was to be the Chief of Police...in ten years.
Rarely do career goals come to fruition so precisely as this, but today, Williams has her wish. Although her dream job, and the challenges which come with it, are far different than a decade ago.
The Phoenix police force is supposed to number about 3,000 officers. There are about 2,300 serving in uniform today.
The serial street shooter leaves the department scrambling to catch a killer before he strikes again.
And of course, the protests and tension with the African American community.
Just a day after word leaked of her hiring, though, Williams was giddy. “Early this morning when I got up, I just took a few moments and meditated and stepped out on the balcony overlooking Phoenix and just felt really blessed. I’m so excited,” she said.
It probably helped that she woke up in her own bed. Williams is home. The Phoenix native was born and raised in Maryvale. She went to ASU, got married, started a family, and raised two boys, now aged 22 and 23. Her oldest son, Alan, was signed in March to play in the Phoenix Suns' summer league team.
Williams has earned the respect of fellow officers because she’s risen through the ranks, from the bottom to the top. She began as a trainee, eventually becoming an assistant chief. For 22 years, she was a fixture in the Phoenix Police Department.
Then, in 2011, she got the opportunity to be chief – perhaps not the dream job she hoped for – but valuable experience serving in a community which needed it. Oxnard, California, population 200,000, came calling.
On October 13, 2012, Williams was tested as she had never been before. Oxnard officers were pursuing two suspects in what Williams termed a ‘rolling gun battle.’ Dozens of shots were fired, and in the haze and confusion of the pursuit, at night, Alfonso Limon Jr was out for a run. Mistaking him for one of the suspects, offices opened fire.
Limon was shot 16 times. Some of those shots were fired as the 21 year old lay bleeding on the ground. The anger and outrage that followed shook the police department. “We owned that mistake. We learned from that mistake. You can look at our policies and procedures and we have made significant changes,” Williams said.
On its face, however, an innocent man was dead. “You’re right, he shouldn’t have died,” Williams said. “Sometimes others force our hand in law enforcement and that rolling gun battle was the forced hand.”
To this day, the family of Alfonso Limon Jr maintains justice has not been done. An independent investigation ordered by Williams eventually cleared the nine officers involved. The Limon family filed a wrongful death suit, and two years after he was killed, the city settled the case for $6.7 million.
Today, in Oxnard, Williams has both earned praise and harsh criticism. For some, she’s a chief who took steps to reach out to the community in a department which had a history of rocky relations with minorities. For others, she protected killer cops.
Williams has gained a reputation as a tough, fair leader, but she’s also honed the political skills which inevitably come with the job. She can defend her profession while admitting the culture of law enforcement needs to change. She issues the similar challenges to leaders in the black community.
Williams takes over amid local and national tensions between police and the communities they cover. Last Friday, protesters against police violence clashed with law enforcement when they tried to shut down Interstate 10 through downtown. When asked what she would say to those who do not trust law enforcement, she said her answer hasn't changed in nearly three decades.
"What I'd say is what I've said for 28 years," Williams said. “Sit down with us. We are one community. It’s not us versus them. It’s not neighborhoods versus those people in blue. We are so much more similar than we are different.”
"I look forward to your voices. Doesn't necessarily have to be the voices that agree with law enforcement, we're here to protect and serve all even those that don't believe in us," Williams said. "We're here to build that relationship through communication."
The news of Williams' hire is historic for the police department: she is the first African-American woman to hold the position.
That fact isn't lost on Pastor Warren Stewart, Jr., though he believes her background and experience will be more valuable in providing a fresh start for the city.
"She's going to hold a level of accountability for us all it just so happens she's a black woman," said Stewart.
Stewart has been a leader in the African-American community, following in his father’s footsteps. Williams even attended the elder Stewart's church before she left for California.
"She can speak from a place that is beyond privilege so that people can understand what others have been missing about the 'Black Lives Matter' movement," Stewart said.
Williams' first day as Phoenix police chief will be in October.