MAXWELL:  He won’t be chief before his time

9/22/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Although Capt. Tony Jones, interim chief of the Gainesville Police Department and its highest-ranking black officer, supports affirmative action, he had little trouble last week in removing his name from the pool of candidates for permanent chief. This action, an apparent retreat on first blush, is a lesson in individual principles from which we all can learn.

Jones has been interim head of the agency since May 31, when former Chief Wayland Clifton resigned. After Jones removed his name, City Manager Wayne Bowers commended him in a memorandum to the mayor and city commissioners: “Tony has performed outstanding work during his several months as interim police chief. He has demonstrated a continuing strong dedication to the Gainesville Police Department and taken an active role in the department.”

With such accolades and with nearly 21 years on the force, why did the 39-year-old Jones drop out? Many of his supporters, both black and white, urged him to “hang in there,” Jones said.

I have known Jones since 1988, when he invited me to join the Gainesville Black-on-Black Crime Task Force. He impressed me then with his effective work with the city’s black children, and he impresses me now with the reasons behind his decision to bow out.

Jones easily could have fought for the job, which attracted 85 applications nationwide. After all, he has a solid record both as a patrolman and as an administrator. And he certainly could have invoked the principles of affirmative action, as some had encouraged him to do. Moreover, and perhaps most important, he has done a good job as interim boss.

Even Jones’ harshest critics grudgingly acknowledge that he worked his way up through the ranks _ from child police explorer to captain.

“Some people say I could be a good chief right now,” Jones said. “But I really don’t think I’m ready to be the CEO of a 375-member organization. I was told to “hang in there,’ but I want to make sure I’m ready before I make a move like this. I think my police career is still young.”

Cynics argue that Jones withdrew his name because he knew that he had no chance of getting the job. And they might be right. Each of the eight finalists Bowers selected after Jones withdrew either has an advanced law enforcement degree or other advanced professional experience, such as FBI National Academy training, or both.

Although Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in human services from the University of Alabama, he has had no advanced professional training, which, by the way, is no guarantee that a person will be a good chief.

“I’m qualified in some areas,” Jones said, “but most of the finalists are better qualified. Anyway, I want to attend formal training. It would be a disservice to me and to the residents of this city if we didn’t hire the best qualified person for the job.”

In this era of extreme race consciousness, worsened by the O. J. Simpson trial and crass anti-affirmative action politics, Jones is in a class unto himself, an example for the rest of us to emulate.

In my talks with him, he honestly assessed himself and black people’s personal responsibilities in the nation’s ever-tightening job market. Jones clearly understands his role as a black member of the department. He knows that he always must do an exemplary job _ both for himself and for other African-Americans considering the field.

One of his goals, as he works with police explorers in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, is to attract more qualified blacks into law enforcement. And he always emphasizes the term “qualified.”

Fully aware of the experiences of other black chiefs, such as Willie Williams of Los Angeles, Beverly Harvard of Atlanta and Bennie Holder of Tampa, Jones knows that, above all else, he needs to hone his “people skills” and develop the ability to deal with potentially explosive situations that arise when diverse groups work closely together in competitive environments.

Affirmative action gets a bad rap, at least in part, because minorities often get thrust into positions for which they are not qualified, Jones said.

“When people are promoted beyond their abilities, they’re going to have some problems in the long run,” he said. “If you take people and put them in a position just because of their color and tell them to learn as they go, I think it’s unfair to them. They’re coming in at a unique disadvantage to deal with a system that’s already in place. It’s a setup for failure.”

Jones is one a growing number of black professionals too proud to fail, to whom individual preparation is the key to success. In his many talks with blacks seeking careers in law enforcement, Jones offers this advice as one way to succeed: “Diversify your career as much as possible. Try to work in every division in the police agency. Always be eager to volunteer, and if you ever have a chance to attend the national schools, take it. And always further your academic education. It will help you both personally and professionally.”

Meanwhile, the city manager said that he expects Jones “to be a valuable asset to the new chief and will continue to perform as a senior member of the management team at the Gainesville Police Department.”

Jones’ supporters know that his time will come, that he has the right principles and the right attitude. He simply needs more training and experience.