A friend tells Jeri Williams she was destined to lead the Phoenix Police Department from her earliest days in the department's academy. Williams doesn't remember it but her friend says Williams said nearly 30 years ago that someday she would be in charge of the department. On Oct. 28 Williams fulfilled that destiny and was sworn in as the Phoenix PD's first female chief.
Williams is as much a native of the city as anyone can be. She was born and raised in west Phoenix and attended Maryvale High School. But she didn't always plan on wearing the city's police badge.
When she graduated from Arizona State University in 1988 with a fine arts degree, law enforcement was nowhere on the horizon of her career plans. "I had planned to be a flight attendant," she says. "But I didn't meet the requirements."
Not sure what she wanted to do, Williams explored a number of possibilities. Then she came upon an announcement that said the Phoenix PD was hiring. She decided to apply. "The idea of no two days being the same, the pay equity, and helping the community were all things that were important to me," she says.
Like many police recruits Williams did not find the academy to be easy. "It was a lot of hard work," she says, and remembers now that receiving her badge felt like a reward for all of the physical and mental effort. "My mother pinned my badge on me," she says. "She has always been my role model. She always told me I could do anything."
Williams says she started to realize what that anything could be in her law enforcement career as she rose up through the ranks of the Phoenix PD and her responsibilities grew. "I started to entertain the idea of being a police chief when I was the commander of the Central City Precinct," she says. "Running a precinct is a lot like running a mini-city [police force]. I enjoyed that assignment."
Like many women in law enforcement working to advance their careers, Williams has found it difficult to balance her career ambition against what she thought was best for her family. She says she turned down choice assignments because she knew she would have to sacrifice much of her family time.
Presented with an opportunity to attend the FBI National Academy, a Virginia-based leadership program that is often a stepping stone for police executives, she decided to decline. "I didn't want to miss that much time with my family," she says. "Balancing career with my personal life has been one of my greatest challenges. Fortunately for me, family and friends have always been supportive and understanding."
But Williams overcame that challenge and earned promotions to the rank of assistant chief in the Phoenix PD. Then she had to make a hard decision and leave home.
Williams left the Phoenix PD in 2011, accepting an offer to command the Oxnard (CA) PD. Looking back on that decision, which took her away from her family at times, she sees it as an opportunity she had to pursue if she wanted to grow as a law enforcement leader and advance toward her ultimate goal of taking command of the Phoenix PD.
She's not sure if taking the Oxnard job was the only path toward her goal of becoming Phoenix chief, but she believes it was an important step. "Leaving everything I knew about policing and my life was a risk but it resulted in the reward of me 'cutting my teeth' as a police chief," she says.
Oxnard was an excellent test of her leadership skills, Williams says, and overall it was a good experience. "The Oxnard PD and the Oxnard community were so warm and welcoming. To this day they are still part of my family."
But her family and friends in Phoenix were always pulling her back to Arizona. So when Phoenix Chief Joe Yahner announced that he was retiring, Williams let the search committee know she wanted the job.
Of course, Williams wasn't the only law enforcement executive who wanted to serve as chief in the nation's sixth largest city. She had to beat out an impressive field of more than 60 other applicants.
Williams believes her familiarity with Phoenix and its issues as well as her experience as a chief in Oxnard gave her the edge over the other chief candidates. "We successfully faced significant challenges during my tenure in Oxnard," she says, adding this gave her confidence in herself during the hiring process. "My leadership style and communication abilities were also of great benefit."
Despite the differences between the Oxnard PD and the Phoenix PD, namely the fact that the Phoenix PD is nearly 10 times larger in personnel and serves a much greater population, Williams doesn't believe her command style will have to change to succeed.
She characterizes her leadership approach as one of listening to and building connections with the officers in her command, city leaders, and the community. "I will involve employees in making decisions to the extent possible that I can," Williams says. "I am meeting with my fellow department heads to develop those relationships. I am also meeting with elected officials and the community to make sure I stay connected with all whom we serve."
Williams says it's harder to take charge of an agency from the outside as she did in Oxnard than to return home to Phoenix. "I didn't know anyone in Oxnard and my family was in Phoenix initially. In Oxnard I had to learn the department's culture and understand the political dynamics. Here in Phoenix I already know the department culture and I have worked with a number of elected officials previously."
Coming back to Phoenix, Williams says she doesn't plan to effect too many changes too fast. "I haven't identified any programming or staffing changes," she says.
But there are some projects she would like to move forward with as soon as possible. "I would like to fully implement the body-worn camera system to all of patrol. There has been a pilot underway but we are close to creating a full roll-out."
How soon the body camera program can be expanded is a matter of money and like many departments Phoenix PD faces some budget issues and it's also short on officers. "We've had to take a hard look at expenditures," Williams says.
Like many big city chiefs, Williams is having to confront some of the racial issues that plague contemporary American society and frustrate and anger so many in the public and in law enforcement. As a police executive and a woman of color, she has seen both sides of the issue.
She says she has never been personally profiled, nor does she feel that any of her fellow officers have treated her badly because she is a woman and African-American. "People assume that I've faced resistance because of my race and gender. I believe that although both are evident, people see me as a leader who just happens to be black and female. I was the first African-American female commander and assistant chief in Arizona law enforcement, and I was the first female chief in Oxnard and now I am the first female chief in Phoenix," she says.
However, she is personally and painfully aware that racial profiling by law enforcement does occur. She says her sons, one of whom plays basketball for the NBA Phoenix Suns, have been racially profiled. And she will do everything she can to prevent the practice under her watch.
"The Phoenix PD addresses issues such as racial profiling through policy, procedures, training, and discipline," she says. "However, I believe to make impact on this issue, officers and the community must be taught about implicit bias and trained to [eliminate it]. We are looking to integrate some of that training to the officers and discuss it during Citizen Police Academies."
Williams has already met with some of the more vocal groups that protest the Phoenix police and paint the officers as racist, and she says the meetings have gone fairly well. "During one meeting, I respectfully disagreed with one person's perception of the department," she says. "When I was leaving, I provided my card to continue the conversation. Maintaining open lines of communication will be key."
Williams believes such contact with the public may help her if the Phoenix PD faces a racially charged use-of-force incident like the ones that have affected so many agencies since Ferguson. "I believe because of my leadership and open communication style, the community will give me time to find out the facts. That time will be critical in explaining why we did what we did. At the same time if we make a mistake, I will own that mistake and be transparent about it."
One of Williams' goals for the Phoenix PD is to have a workforce that represents the ethnic diversity of the city. She would also like to see more women in the department and in law enforcement in general. "I am hopeful that I can be an example [for future female officers], along with other area female police chiefs such as Sylvia Moir in Tempe and Debby Black in Prescott."
True to Herself
Now that Williams has achieved one of her greatest career goals by becoming chief of her hometown Phoenix PD, she has equally lofty goals for the department. "I want to have a properly staffed, trained, and equipped department that would be the model for other police departments to emulate," she says. "I want us to return the pride that the PPD has been known for internally and externally. I want us to increase our internal legitimacy as well as our external legitimacy to the community."
Williams knows she has a big job ahead of her. But she says she's prepared for it. And she offers this advice to any officer who seeks to follow in her footsteps and become a big city police chief. "Be well rounded. Understand the business of policing and become politically astute. You have to be willing to work hard and be true to yourself," she says.
Remaining true to herself is one of the toughest challenges Williams faces. Because the greatest joy in her life is being with family, and she knows her new post will demand almost all of her time. She is still seeking that career vs. family balance and says one of the ways she works to maintain it is by cooking and baking for her loved ones.
Looking back on her career, Williams says she remembers a lot of officers who have helped her. But she says some of the best advice she ever received was from her field training officer and she offers the same advice to all other officers under her command and nationwide. The FTO told her: "Be all in at all times. Treat people with respect. Details matter. Be impeccable with your word. Model positive behavior. Care about people. Be yourself. Work hard." She says these lessons are the keys to a rewarding and successful law enforcement career.