As Jon Williams stepped off the bus his surroundings hit him all at once. Music was blaring, drugs were being dealt – he had been planted smack dab in the heart of Brooklyn.
“At that point I knew – this was real. The academy wasn’t there to insulate me anymore,” Williams said.
After spending a few minutes soaking in the scenery, Williams walked over to a group of guys milling on the street corner. Then, he just started talking.
“They said I didn’t talk like I new; I didn’t act like I was new. They respected that, because a lot of other cops didn’t ever talk to them,” he said. “The fact is you need them and they need you. You need those couple of guys, like the “mayor of the block”; you need to enlist them in order for you to do anything. It’s kind of like a mutual respect.
“I’m not under the illusion that everything stopped when I was on that block. But for those eight hours that I was on post, the illegal activity in front of me, that stopped. For those eight hours, the people on that block were safer,” he said. “People have died to be respected. If you show respect that helps a lot. I always approach everyone that way. It’s kept me safe over the years.”
A few hours later Williams had just finished his first day as an officer in the New York Police Department.
As Williams sat in the car, he kept checking his radio for a malfunction.
“I was just use to the volume of calls from New York, I was actually checking my radio to see if it was working,” Williams said with a laugh.
Nothing dramatic happened during Williams’ first day in Covington and the most trouble that day came, not from a criminal, but in understanding the people around him, including his dispatcher.
“I couldn’t understand them, and they couldn’t understand me. I came home that night and had to ask my wife ‘Am I speaking clearly?’,” he said, a light but discernable New York accent in his voice.
After having spent 20 years policing with the NYPD, Williams felt like a rookie all over again. He was a long way from the inner city streets of America’s largest city.
Wherever Williams has been, he’s usually found he can fit in. His flexibility stems from his experience growing up in Hempstead, N.Y., a Long Island neighborhood that straddled the border between the affluent suburbs and the dangerous inner city.
“I was raised by a single mother so we couldn’t afford the suburbs. But my mother knew we couldn’t afford to risk being in the inner city either. We were just faking it until we could make it,” Williams said.
Hempstead’s semi-suburbs provided some insulation, but the temptation of crime was never far away. Basketball was king in New York and the playgrounds decided who was royalty. But while Williams and his friends enjoyed acting the part of the next sports legend, for many the more immediate path to reward was found through the life of thief and pick pocket. If Williams ever had a doubt about whether he’d stray from the straight and narrow, his friends provided a sobering life lesson.
“One day after we finished playing basketball, my friend had this idea – ‘Let’s go snatch some pocketbooks in the village.’ I was only 11 years old, so I wasn’t going to get on a soap box, but I knew I didn’t want to be involved, so when they went right, I took a left.”
Throughout his life, Williams would be faced with tough choices: would he become a criminal; would he choose a police career over a sports passion; would he persevere when the NYPD sent him to “Do or Die Bed-Stuy” in the heart of Brooklyn during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic?
Whenever those questions came up, Williams went left and he never looked back.
“About half an hour later, I saw a police car coming around the block with my friends in the back seat. The look on their faces, the look on my friend’s face when they came to his home,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t going to be me. I knew that was never going to be me.”
An unlikely introduction into lacrosse provided Williams with a four-year scholarship to near-by Adelphi University. His success started a pipeline between the university and Hempstead High School that continues today.
The lack of a professional lacrosse league gave Williams no illusions about a career as a professional athlete, but he did dream about being a sportscaster for the wildly popular ESPN of the 1980s.
The Inside Perspective
In another unlikely twist, his mother had a professional breakthrough and became a dispatcher for the local Hempstead police department. And that’s how Williams was first introduced to police work. Visiting the station allowed Williams to see how police officers worked from the inside, giving him a more well rounded picture when compared with the views of those on the streets.
“Before I felt that they didn’t know us. Seeing them this way made them human, not just some occupying force,” he said. “I started to think I could do this.”
During the summer of his junior year Williams became a part-time police aid, like an officer-in-training. A year later he applied to the NYPD.
Police work appealed to Williams for many reasons, particularly because of the team atmosphere that was so similar to sports.
“The guys had camaraderie and would joke around. I didn’t want that team environment that I had in sports to end,” he said. “In police work you need each other. In some careers, a person can be a superstar while other around them fail. But not in police work; you all have to succeed.”
Williams really made the decision to be a police officer when he missed a heated rivalry game against Syracuse University his senior year to finish his NYPD entrance training.
In a historic organization like the NYPD, family ties and heritage go far. Williams was the first in his family to join the force; he never had anyone to pull strings for him. That’s why, after finishing training at the academy, he was assigned to Precinct 79, Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn - one of the most crime ridden in all of New York City.
“When I arrived (to the Bed-Stuy station), the sergeant behind the desk asked ‘Who did you piss off?’,” Williams said.
Williams survived that first day on the block and all the others. He never asked for an easier gig, never asked any favors – that was part of being a “cop’s cop.” That doesn’t mean “the man upstairs”, as Williams would say, didn’t throw him a couple of ropes during his police days.
Who’s Joe and How Do You Know My Uncle?
Williams remembers getting a call to go NYPD headquarters and report in civilian clothes. The headquarters are where the biggest of the police bigwigs reside; a place few regular officers ever get to see. And going in civilian clothes? He could only imagine what kind of trouble he was in.
He met Sgt. Jimmy Johnson and the NYPD’s top official, Police Commissioner Lee Brown. He was told he was going to be working at headquarters from now on in the employee relations department. And he was told he was going to take care of Joe. At the end of it all, Johnson asked how Williams’ uncle was doing.
Who Joe was, why Williams was being moved from one of the worst precincts to headquarters and why Johnson cared about Williams’ uncle – well, Williams had no clue.
Williams proceed to take care of the cancer-stricken Detective Joe Smith for the next several months. He drove and literally carried Smith to and from the hospital, he played with Smith’s son and he supported the rest of the family however he could.
When Smith’s cancer went into remission and he returned to duty, Williams returned to Bed-Stuy. He later found out that Johnson mistook John Williams for a different Williams, hence the question about the uncle. That stroke of luck would prove to be doubly fortuitous.
Williams continued to work at the NYPD, spending much of his career in Spanish Harlem. Everything was different from Brooklyn, and Williams once again had to rely on his ability to adapt.
After spending several months of learning Spanish and relearning how to police in a different world, Williams once again got a call from Sgt. Johnson. And once again he was assigned to take care of a prominent detective.
Detective Steven McDonald is one of the most famous New York officers in the department’s history. A talented detective, McDonald was better known for his forgiving heart. The victim of three bullets from the gun of a scared 15-year-old young black boy in Central Park, McDonald was left paralyzed from the neck down in the prime of life, while his new wife was pregnant with their first child.
If anyone had a reason to be angry at life and to be filled with hate, it was McDonald, Williams said. But after being shot in the throat, when McDonald was finally able to speak, the first words he said into the TV cameras surrounding his bed were that he forgave that 15-year-old boy.
“He wanted peace in his life; he didn’t want to be eaten up eaten up by hate. No one understood how he could forgive that kid, but he did,” Williams said.
Over the next several years Williams became best friends with McDonald, as he cared for the man, help raise his son and accompanied McDonald on trips around the country. McDonald is famous for speeches about non-violence. That friendship and those speeches never left Williams.
“He said that boy was angry and (the boy) lashed out so that somebody would feel the pain he felt. He said if people could work to take away that anger then lives would be saved,” Williams said. “He taught me a lot about compassion. He taught me to be happy every day … when I realized how happy he was despite being paralyzed and how easily he projected that happiness, I realized I had no problem in the world.”
Settling Down, Ramping Back Up
Williams eventually retired from the NYPD and moved to Covington to visit his sister and brother-in-law, who had also been a New York police officer. Georgia was like a second home to the Williams family, because they used to spend their summers here visiting Williams' grandmother.
“The firs thing I liked was the weather. The second thing was the calm, peaceful atmosphere,” he said. The family decided to make Covington a permanent home.
While his wife opened a small business that had been a life-long dream, Williams focused on spending time with his children, visiting the square, enjoying the sunshine and eating ice cream.
It was during one of these trips that a Covington Police Department car drove by, and Williams saw the phrase “first nationally accredited agency in the state of Georgia.” The phrase peaked Williams’ interest and in the following days he notice how professional and sharp the CPD officers looked and acted.
“In New York we thought we were the professionals of the professionals. But when I talked to an officer one day, and he was friendly, helpful and said “yes, sir”, I thought this is something I wouldn’t mind being a part of,” he said.
Unlike the NYPD, which initiates their rookie officers by ignoring them, Williams immediately saw how friendly the Covington force was. From trainer Ryan Rolston, who helped Williams learn how the CPD operates, to Anthony Walden, who leads Williams' current team, officers at every step of way were kind, welcoming and professional.
Williams said Assistant Chief Almon Turner’s southern hospitality, Captain Craig Treadwell’s open honesty and Chief Stacey Cotton’s drive to constantly train and improve sealed the deal.
Williams' first arrest in New York was for attempted murder. His first arrest in Covington was for shoplifting. But while some things are worlds apart, others never change.
“I’m looking forward to a long career here. I’m proud to be part of this team, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t a professional department,” he said. “It’s always about the people behind the story. I’m just a small cog. The CPD started long before me and will keep going long after me. I’m just trying to contribute wherever I can.”