Jerry Lee Roberts was sworn into the Covington Police Department in August, but calling him a rookie wouldn’t exactly be accurate. For starters he’s 43 and a former pastor, so he has a good bit of life experience. But also, he’s already been a CPD rookie — in 1987.
It’s been a long and unusual full-circle for Roberts.
Roberts said that even though law enforcement and ministry might appear to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum, to him they’re really very similar.
"I love helping people," Roberts said. "People come up to me (in both jobs) and would say "You made a difference in somebody’s life."
Born Covington in 1966 and raised here, Roberts was an active child both in school and in his church — The Baptist Tabernacle on the Access Road.
Lt. Phillip Bradford, who is now commander of the Covington-Newton County Special Investigations Unit, said he remembers growing up with Roberts, as the two played sports together and became good friends. What Bradford remembers best are the rib-cracking practical jokes they used to play.
"He and I are exactly alike — big cut ups. In school they’d elect people for doing the craziest stuff, and he and I would always take the cake. He and I have toilet papered many houses," Bradford said. "Every weekend was an adventure; we never knew what we were going to get into."
Wherever the two went, the pranks would follow, including the CPD, and especially when they worked the night shift together.
"We used to get in the back of (other officer’s) police cars, while they were out, and then as they would back up to leave, we’d jump and scare them to death. We just did all sorts of silly stuff at the police department. He’s always been fun and we always had a blast," Bradford said.
That outgoing, friendly personality hasn’t changed through the years, and it’s one of the reasons Roberts has been so effective in his careers. He said both law enforcement and ministry are both about serving people, and they’re both about being part of a strong team of people.
For most of his first stint with the CPD and later the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Roberts also worked as a youth pastor at Baptist Tabernacle. He spent a lot of time ministering to people at church and in his squad car.
"I saw Jerry ministering to people who committed some of the worst crimes," friend and former officer Danny Smith said. "Yet he still had compassion; he still tried to turn them around."
One night Roberts and Smith responded to call where a pregnant girl wanted an abortion, but her boyfriend wanted to keep the baby. Roberts recalls talking to both of them, and in the end the girl had her baby and the couple was grateful for it.
"Those are the kinds of opportunities you get in law enforcement. I didn’t force her to do anything, but I was able to show her what her life could be like," Roberts said. "I can share Jesus with people who are in real turmoil. If someone is in my car, that means they’ve had a bad day, but it doesn’t mean there are a bad person.
"I have a captive audience while they’re in my car and I give them what I think is the right thing to do. It’s a counseling time. I would tell them, "I can’t solve your problem, but God can and he can change your life.’"
In the 1990s after working for several years at the CPD, Roberts moved on to NCSO. At one point he was assigned to work as a bailiff at the courthouse, where he transported juveniles to the Lawrenceville detention center.
"I would always keep lists (of Christian advice) and put them in the kids pockets as they went off, and I told them to call me if they needed me," Roberts said.
Most of the time nothing came of those lists, but one Roberts received a message that former Judge Billy Waters was looking for him. Roberts’ first reaction was to wonder what he had done wrong, but as it turned out, his words had struck a chord.
"He said that a kid wanted me to know that I had saved his life and turned him around," Roberts said.
Although Roberts was successful as a police officer, winning rookie officer of the year in 1987 and helping form the CPD’s first crime scene investigation unit, his faith was the central motivator in his life. That’s what eventually led him to leave the force and go into ministry full time.
He had told then Sheriff Joe Nichols that the only reason he would leave the NCSO was if he received a full-time offer from a church, and that call finally came from Belmont Baptist Church in Conyers in 2004.
He started there in a familiar position, as the full-time youth pastor. But soon after, Belmont received a call for help from Trinity Baptist Church on U.S. Highway 441 in Morgan County. Belmont began sending different church officials to preach at Trinity every week, including Roberts, who received his first opportunity to preach on a regular basis.
After a few months, Belmont Pastor Nolan Jackson saw a talent in Roberts and knew that he was suited to be Trinity’s full-time pastor. But Roberts didn’t yet know that, so Jackson sent him on a prayer retreat.
After four days of solitary praying and searching, Roberts said that God revealed his will. Soon after Roberts was voted in as the head pastor at Trinity.
"Law enforcement prepared me to be a pastor more than anything else could have. It helped me with marital conflicts, because I knew what families were really going through. I had experience working with (troubled) teens and helping them," Roberts said.
During his time at Trinity he oversaw the expansion of the church’s building and congregation, which grew from 22 to 90 during his four years there. Smith said he heard Roberts preach on several occasions, and believed his success was because he was a caring, compassionate man who had powerful stories to tell.
"He had a compassionate way about him, but at the same time he could see the seriousness in situations. He was just able to deliver a good message," Smith said.
Thought Roberts enjoyed his time and had successfully helped the church grow, he left the church the same way he joined it, by following God’s plan for his life. He resigned from Trinity in March of this year and found himself unemployed in the midst of the long recession. He managed to find part-time work at the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, but that wasn’t enough to support his family.
"We faced some hard times for six months without a full-time paycheck, but the Bible says God will never leave or forsake us. I was definitely in a valley, so that’s when I put my trust totally in the Lord," Roberts said.
He desperately needed a full-time job and that’s when Bradford brought up an interesting idea: come back to the CPD. At first Robert was hesitant. An opening was in the process of being filled, but Cotton said if that candidate didn’t work out then Roberts would have the job. The rest is history.
"We always say that things happen by coincidence, but there was no coincidence. That opening came for me. I even got my old badge number," Roberts said.
Cotton said he was happy to have Roberts back on the force.
"I thought it was ironic how we had started out together, and now 22 years later, I had the chance to hire him again. It was interesting to look at how we had changed," Cotton said.
Roberts said the progression in technology and communications had been the biggest change, but a welcome one, because it’s made the force more efficient. However, many of the relationships have remained the same, even if Robert’s fellow rookies are now his superior officers.
"It’s kind of a joke that now the people I trained with are my boss; it’s a little topsy-turvy. But I always treated them right before and now they treat me right back," Roberts said.
Smith said it’s not surprising that Roberts fits back in so well, because he’s a great man and a great friend.
"He is one of my closest friends and what you see is what you get. I always knew that if I needed him he would be here for me and my family. That’s something we kind of take for granted these days, that binding relationship," Smith said.
Roberts said he has no plans to move on from the CPD. He said he hopes to retire eventually from his hometown police force. Oh, and he’s planning to start helping out in ministry. After all, it’s only natural.