Anyone looking to work in law enforcement needs to have a servant’s heart.
“I tell everyone that I like to hire someone with a servant’s heart because you have to want to help people,” said Rome Police Department Chief Denise Downer-McKinney. “Are we here to enforce the laws? Yes, but that’s just one hat. What I love about policing is that we get to wear many hats. You have to interchange those hats and you have to be able to adjust.”
You do it, foremost, because you want to help.
“If you are going to do it, you want to make sure you are doing it for the right reason,” McKinney said.
Fostering that intention has led to a desire for excellence, for Rome’s law enforcement to be above the bar in terms of excellence and service, McKinney said.
“I think we have the best. They care and they work hard,” McKinney said. “We are a very unique community and really blessed in that fashion.”
Being nationally accredited helps keep this standard of excellence in place.
The Rome Police Department is in the process of seeking national re-accreditation from the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
As part of remaining accredited the department undergoes an on-site assessment every three years. The RPD was the second agency in Georgia to become nationally accredited by the CALEA in 1986, McKinney said.
They were also the second department in Georgia to become accredited at the state level and have been since 1998.
McKinney explained that accreditation helps keep their agency accountable to the community and helps to maintain a sense of trust.
“Accreditation promotes the efficient use of resources and improvement in service delivery,” she said. “From the involvement of citizens and police working together, local officials demonstrating our commitment to excellence in leadership and resource management, to supporting and meeting the community’s needs — these standards give written objectives, training and well defined lines of authority — particularly our use of best practices.”
One example of a best practice is the department’s ban on choke holds, which has been in place for over a decade.
“Part of being accredited is that everything — every interaction and encounter — is well documented and held to the standards outlined by the stated best practices,” she said. “It covers us and it covers our citizens.”
For McKinney, RPD is a family unit.
“We care about each other and about those we serve,” she said. “We want what’s best for you so that you can give your best to our community” she said.
A constant concern is that Rome’s officers are fully equipped, trained and that they have back up when they need it.
“Those are the kinds of things that keep me up at night,” she said. “I love all of my officers and care about their safety and well-being as much as I do our citizens’ safety and well-being.”
Part of that concern is a staffing shortfall.
“We are short staffed, but so is most everyone else in the United States,” she said. “I read about it all the time.”
The hiring process is strenuous, but it’s well worth taking the time to weed out the prospective officers who are not a good fit.
“My goal is to hire the best of the best because they are a reflection of the RPD and they are a reflection on me,” she said. “Our officers want us to be fully staffed as well, but they don’t want someone to come in who is going to tarnish the badge and make us look bad. When you have one bad apple, it reflects on us all.”
An open door policy is one of the examples of how the department works as a team.
“Our departments work well together because we support each other. One thing I’ve always said is ‘my door is open.’ I want to hear what everyone has to say and what they have to contribute. I’m always willing to listen.”
Creating a good, harmonious working environment starts from the top down, she said. What you require of your team should be no different than what you require of yourself.
“I’m constantly doing self evaluations, critiquing myself, and I try to always be informative,” she said. “I push myself in keeping all of my officers informed about everything they need to be aware of.”
Success takes having a good team, and she feels that she’s got that with the department’s command staff.
“What I am most proud of is how different organizations are able to come together and use one another as resources when in need,” she said. “That’s the part that I love about policing — the networking and gathering of connections with people that can help you and serve as a support for something that you are going through. That’s a big plus.”
The Women’s Firearms Safety Course is one example of how the RPD helps facilitate readiness and awareness.
“There are more women that live and travel alone now, and this training provides them that sense of protection, the knowledge base for having that firearm, and the laws that coincide,” said McKinney.
Among the programs RPD facilitates, McKinney is most proud of the work they do in the Rome City school system and of the Pastoral Police Academy which she developed.
“I started out working as a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer at the elementary school level. I love working with our school system and seeing our kids grow up and develop and do wonderful things,” said McKinney.
The Explorer Program gives students the opportunity to experience what a career in law enforcement is like. It also separates the experience of real life policing from what people see on the movies or television.
“Some that we have hired were our Explorers at one point in time. This program is one that we have worked with and developed for a number of years,” she said. “Whether their interest is military, police, state patrol, or local police agencies, it is for any young person interested in working as a public servant.”
Since becoming Chief of Police in March of 2016, one program that McKinney has implemented is the Pastoral Police Academy.
“My vision has always been that we need people to reach the masses to help provide a better understanding of police work. If you are a pastor you have a unique platform to serve in a very intimate way.”
The Pastoral Police Academy is open to any interested pastors from the community.
Part of the program allows pastors to take part in a practice scenario called a ‘judgmental shooting activity.’
“You have all these things working around you and you may have a situation where you don’t know if someone is a criminal or if they are just an honest citizen,” she said.
The program stress-filled simulation she describes as three second decision making, the participant doesn’t know if the person they’re facing is innocent or trying to kill them. But it does impart a small degree of what an officer is going through in a confrontational situation.
“The last thing any of us want to do is take somebody’s life,” McKinney stressed.
McKinney recognized that policing and pastoring share a common bond.
“Both pastors and police officers are shepherding people,” McKinney said. “We come into contact with people who are heartbroken and downtrodden…We are here to serve and protect. We are here to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our citizens.”