From the Archives: The Toughest Cop in Town

Emily Foster
James Jackson is surrounded by friends and family in 1990 after he was appointed the city's first black police chief.

Editor’s note: In 1991—just a year into his controversial, pioneering and record-setting tenure—Columbus Monthly’s Emily Foster profiled James Jackson and his difficult journey to the top of the division of police.

One of the stranger cases of inter-departmental feuding in the annals of the Columbus police and fire departments unfolded in September 1976. Workers at Capital City Products in the Short North were out on strike, and as the evening air cooled off on Sept. 21, the strikers outside the plant lit fires in two oil drums. It is a common practice for strikers, but a police captain, the commander of the police department’s “B” company, saw it as a violation of city code and resolved to crack down.

That evening a police lieutenant in the area reported the fires, as he had been ordered to do, and the fire department came out and doused the blaze. The strikers later relit the fires. Again, the police notified the fire department. This time the fire battalion chief came to the scene from the Third Avenue station, took a look at the situation and told the police that it was against fire department policy to put out strikers’ fires if they were causing no harm.

The police captain arrived as well. He and the recalcitrant battalion chief were unable to agree, so they called in the assistant fire chief, Clifford Weate, third in command of the fire department. The police captain insisted that the firefighters extinguish the fires. When Weate insisted they wouldn’t, the police captain arrested him, handcuffed him and took him’ to the city jail, charging him with dereliction of duty.

Fire chief Ray Fadley wasn’t happy. Police chief Earl Burden wasn’t happy. Safety director Bernard Chupka certainly wasn’t happy.

The police captain says Burden called him in and told him he was wrong and should apologize to the assistant fire chief, adding that he would be looked on unfavorably for future promotions if he didn’t. The captain refused.

Still, by the time the issue got to Municipal Court, it had been spiked effectively “under the table,” as one firefighter observes. The judge ruled against the police captain, and the case was dropped.

The one-time police captain still can quote verbatim the city code section that justified his position on fires. He remembers how he felt he’d been snookered when the judge, he says, based his opinion on a selective reading of the section. The captain knew it all had been settled behind him because he wouldn’t back down. To this day he says he was in the right.

It was an overnight wonder in the papers. Most citizens have forgotten it. But firefighters, police and politicians who were around then have not because it was such a shocking breach of club rules. The fire department battalion chief that night, Richard Gordon, now living in retirement in Florida, doesn’t even want to talk about that “can of worms” except to say of the arresting officer, “I think he has no business being chief of police of any city.”

Sorry, Mr. Gordon. Despite you, despite the fire department, despite maybe his own hardheaded, righteous obstinacy, that former captain is Columbus’s chief of police. And James G. Jackson is still putting out fires, except now they’re in his own department.


 The Columbus police department is in turmoil. Resonating from the aftershocks of two expensive civil rights suits by black and female officers, the atmosphere there ranges from grim to resentful to resigned. Some officers say they’ve never seen morale so low, but others scoff and say they’ve never known a time when some officers weren’t saying they’ve never seen morale so low. Rumors around the department are as numerous as lice in a hen house. At least three recent policy decisions have been greeted either with public yelps of dismay or barely stifled muttering.

“I hate it,” says one officer. “I hate coming to work anymore. And I love this job.”

And then there was the front page story of the prostitute who accused Chief Jackson of propositioning her.

Two patrol officers said Jackson drove up to them one night this past September as they talked to a prostitute on the street. He chided them for jawing with her. As the chief drove off in his unmarked car, they reported, the prostitute identified him as a man who had tried to pick her up a few minutes before.

Dubious as the charge may have been, it did damage all around. It raised questions about who might be out to get the chief. It raised criticism of how the subsequent investigation, which exonerated Jackson, was handled by safety director Larry James. It raised resentment about Jackson’s management decision to go out at night and patrol his own patrollers—or spy on them, as some cops put it. It threw Jackson before the slavering media under the worst possible circumstances while he might have expected to be in the honeymoon period of his new job. And, inevitably, despite Jackson’s voiced contempt for the charge against him, it must have raised doubt in some minds about his integrity.

Since Jackson is Columbus’s first black police chief, some cops are sure that the gossip and complaining is racism, pure and simple. Sgt. James Moss, the president of the group that instigated the black officers’ civil rights suit against the department, says, “They wouldn’t do that to a Caucasian chief. It’s color. They hide behind all kinds of false excuses, but it’s color.” He says he thinks that racism in the department is so entrenched that, even though black police support Jackson “100 percent, and a lot of white officers support him,” Jackson alone can’t change the system.

Some white officers lash back. They tell outsiders that the racism issue has been overblown, that it never was as bad as Police Officers for Equal Rights (P.O.E.R.), Moss’s group, would have you believe and that the civil rights suit has warped the promotions process, caused resentment and penalized innocent officers. “To me, it was a brotherhood until all this started,” says one. They contend that rampant unhappiness in the department comes directly from the insensitive policies of a new chief who treats officers as children.

Sounds as if Jackson has walked into a mine field. But has he himself set off the explosions with his hang-tough attitude and his political and public relations naiveté? The success or failure of his reign as chief will depend to some degree on his personal management style. No question some people—some of his own colleagues—aren’t going to make it easy, but will he make it harder?

In the tough world of cops, where you don’t flinch at the worst life has to offer, Jackson is among the toughest. In the latest police annual report, produced when Jackson was still a deputy chief, there are photos of the 24 top brass in the  department. Jackson’s is the only black face. He didn’t get his mug shot on that page by being Mr. Conviviality. That’s not his style.

The word people use most often when describing him is “military.” If a police department is a quasi-military organization, Jackson falls on the military side of the quasi. He is a big ex-Marine with a thick neck and body that seem to be cut out of one solid chunk with few movable parts. When he is un-relaxed and unsmiling, as he was at his press conference on the prostitute’s accusation, he looks as formidable as an armored truck or an angry rhino. His voice comes out in a low growl. No bellowing, no phony public anger, but a tight-jawed impassivity, as if long ago he decided on principle never to give an opponent the satisfaction.

He is a man who apparently has decided many things on principle and held to those decisions with an iron grip. Even his home address is a matter of principle. In a variation on the Realtor’s doctrine of location, location, location, he has lived for the past 15 years in a house he personally rehabbed on the city’s Near East Side, in the general area where he has spent his entire life. His reason for being there is more than mere sentiment.

“I got to thinking,” he says, “that all blacks relatively successful were leaving the black community and leaving the black community no models.”

He stays there as a policeman, too. If he had his druthers, police—and especially commanding officers—would be required to live in the city they serve, not just “pick up their check and leave” for a quiet suburb at the end of their shift. Which relates to another of his principles, that police should be police 24 hours a day, ready to serve the public at any time. Since police can’t act outside their jurisdiction, he points out, the police officer who goes home to Reynoldsburg effectively relieves himself of responsibility for the community after work. Jackson growls his disapproval.

As a man who says he grew up poor, whose mother once worked 70 hours a week for $7 a week, who got his first job carrying ice and coal at age 10, Jackson does not suffer crybabies gladly. Raise the subject of low morale in the police department, and he sweeps it aside impatiently. He’s been in the department for 33 years, he says, and hears about low morale at least twice a year. His voice holds no pity for the cops who earn average wages and benefits of $49,277 and have the opportunity to earn another $18.25 an hour for extra duty. They have roofs over their heads, food on their tables and uniforms provided free.

“What the hell have they got to complain about?”

This is the guy who announced at his swearing-in that, “We’re going to be more about public service and less about self-service.” He talks about pride in the force and “shining the badge,” and he uses words like “duty” and “courage” unabashedly. If there’s anything he wants his officers to know about his philosophy, it’s this: “I’m a people’s chief as opposed to a policeman’s chief. A policeman’s chief has a tendency to do those things that are good for the police—sometimes to the chagrin of the people. Later he qualifies this statement and adds, “You have to be a combination of both.”

These are the words of the ultimate outsider, the man who dares to disregard the Good Ol’ Boy system he never was a part of, the sort of man who would arrest a fire chief on a fine point of law. At worst, he is, as he describes himself mildly, “hardheaded and a little stubborn.” When safety director Larry James overruled (or “varied ... just a teeny-weeny bit,” as James would have it) Jackson’s unpopular policy that cruiser officers must eat meals and use restrooms in their patrol districts, Jackson grudgingly bowed to a higher authority like a good soldier. But he won’t admit he’s wrong on that issue any more than he gives an inch on the fire chief’s arrest.

‘‘I’m a friend of Jim’s,” says ex-president of City Council Jerry Hammond. “He can be one hell of a hard-nosed guy.”

Yet Jackson once indicated on a questionnaire that he opposes capital punishment. His assistant, officer Jane Lengel, calls him a “softy.” Are there hidden cracks in his armor?

“I am as kind as I can be—just don’t step on me,” says the chief.


To understand Jackson and where his principles come from, you have to understand the system in which he muscled his way to the top. Only then can you really appreciate how thick a hide he developed and what it cost him.

When he first took the test to join the police department three years after he got out of the Marines, he was mystified, he says, when his name didn’t appear on the list of successful candidates. He was told he had passed the written test but not the physical. He went to the doctor who flunked him and asked why not, and the doctor said his grip was impaired. Jackson offered to shake hands to retest his grip. The doctor, he says, made the mistake of offering his whole hand instead of just three fingers, and Jackson put him “on his knees.”

What really kept him off that list, he discovered, was the department’s unwritten policy of accepting only one or two black recruits a year. Jackson was out, grip or no grip, and had to wait another year for an opportunity to re-apply. When he did, he was made to jump through all the hoops again. He persisted, and he joined the force in 1958.

However, the brotherhood in blue was still a brotherhood of white men then. The force had only about 17 black officers spread over three shifts. As Jackson points out, black cops saw little of other black cops and were not invited to mix socially with white cops. So they were inevitably outsiders.

Even by the time Sgt. Bobby Eggleston joined the force in 1963, there were only three black detectives. Black patrolmen automatically were assigned to the Sixth Precinct on the near east side. “It was OK by me to work in black areas,” says Eggleston. He even preferred it. But Jackson chafed under the severe limitations of the black officer’s life.

He remembers that black and white officers never worked together except on jail duty. He recalls the chief saying that black officers couldn’t work the paddy wagons because a white woman might complain about one of them looking up her skirt. Ironically, he didn’t want to work in a paddy wagon after one ghastly experience helping a wagon crew evacuate a dead body. But that, of course, was hardly the point.

“You resent being denied opportunities,” he says, and you resent being deprived of the “sense of community” that is part of the clubby atmosphere of police work. From the beginning, it was a club in which he had a sort of auxiliary membership.

Years’ worth of similar stories came out during testimony in the civil rights suit filed in 1978. Jackson testified that in 1969, as a sergeant, he tried to integrate an ambulance wagon. When the patrol was short a white officer one day, Jackson put a black officer in the wagon. As soon as Jackson’s captain found out, the ambulance was recalled from its run.

Then there was the “joke” white officers played on officer Rick Leigh when he was sent out on a domestic disturbance call only to find a cross burning on the lawn and his fellow officers around it dressed as Klan members. Some white officers maintain that no racism was intended, that the incident was just the common, locker-room-variety of police humor and that Leigh recognized it as such at the time. Leigh, nevertheless, testified otherwise at the trial.

Officer Jeff Leesburg, who is white, tells another story of one of his black partners from a south-end beat whom he describes as “a hell of a policeman and a hell of a nice guy.” The black officer wanted to join the SWAT team until its commander announced that there wasn’t going to be a [racial slur] on the team as long as he was in charge. “We were all stunned by that,” Leesburg says.

He also remembers crude watermelon jokes and, in particular, a remark by one white officer that black police were just more blacks to worry about on the street.

“I heard that, and it seared me,” he says.

The suit charged that blacks were underrepresented on all the elite units and overrepresented on patrol. They were more likely to work weekends and nights and less likely to get plummy overtime assignments. There was the simple fact that, even as late as 1984, the force had only 136 black officers to 1,074 white ones.

“There was a quota that excluded blacks,” says Sandy Spater, one of the P.O.E.R. lawyers in the suit. “The quota was zero [blacks].”

In 1985 Judge Robert Duncan ruled after a six-week trial that evidence “overwhelmingly” supported the charges of racism in the police department, especially in the areas of hiring, promotions, transfers and assignments. Earlier, in 1981 and ’84, the court had ruled against the department on charges of sexual discrimination and harassment. Spater’s partner, Fred Gittes, says, “Columbus is one of the few cities that have fought [such suits].”

Together, the suits cost the city $1.4 million in court-awarded settlements alone and left a legacy of bitterness and divisiveness.

Through all the years of discrimination that were described in court testimony, Jackson rose steadily in the ranks. He was made sergeant in 1967, lieutenant in 1971, captain in 1974 and deputy chief in 1977. He made deputy chief, in fact, just nine months after he arrested the assistant fire chief and was told he had jeopardized his chances for promotion. He earned each of his ranks by acing the promotional tests. He was the only person in the department ever to get the highest score on three exams. It apparently rankled him that he routinely had scored higher than the man who was appointed police chief in 1983, Dwight Joseph Jr., whose father, Dwight Sr., had been chief in the early ’70s.

Jackson said when Joseph was appointed that he himself had expected to get the job. But where there once had been a civil service test for chief, there was no longer. Jackson, who had hung back from identifying himself with the civil rights suit, joined it, saying that the failure to appoint him chief was the result of racial discrimination. Thereafter, whenever Joseph left town and appointed an acting chief from among his deputies, it was never Jackson.


If Jim stays in place, he’ll be very successful,” Jerry Hammond says. “It will mean he’s mastered the techniques of moving gradually, selling, as opposed to imposing, ideas.”

Although Jackson probably wouldn’t admit it, he hasn’t mastered those techniques yet. Even police officers who are well disposed toward hint say he is “probably not flexible enough,” to quote one.

He has strong feelings about police officers wearing their hats at all times, not carrying shotguns, staying in their districts, giving an hour’s work for an hour’s pay. Now, you might think hats would be a subject for humor, not anger, in a life-and-death job like police work. But it seems every cop on the force has a strong opinion on hats. Either they endanger your life by blocking your peripheral vision or they save your life by clearly marking you out as a cop. It’s an old, old controversy that Jackson has brought to the fore again by being a stickler on the subject and having officers written up for disciplinary action.

One controversy that raged in the newspaper and brought a delegation of wives to the chiefs office centered on whether or not a cruiser officer could leave his or her district to eat a meal or use a restroom. Some districts are in rough neighborhoods or areas where public facilities close down at night. Officers argued that they had a right to go to a decent place to eat or use the bathroom. Jackson’s purpose, however, was to keep them on the job as much of their eight-hour shift as he could.

He lost the argument when Larry James ruled that sergeants could make local decisions for their units. Jackson takes the loss stoically, if not gracefully.

He also has made rules about shotguns and backup squads that have had mixed reactions from the troops. His detractors argue that some of his policies show a lack of concern for officers’ safety or a lack of respect for their adulthood. Others say he is just trying to crack down on a force that has become maybe a bit lackadaisical.

“I can understand where he’s coming from and the bitches of the other guys,” Jeff Leesburg says diplomatically.

Still, the bitching comes from somewhere. Is it the mere fact of change during the inevitable adjustment period from one chief to another? Is it resentment of a black chief as well as the racial tensions that remain from years of lawsuits and discrimination? Is it Jackson’s sometimes heavy-handed way of doing things?

“Zilch charisma,” one detractor says in describing Jackson, adding, “He’s not a people person at all.”

Some police say it may be more a division of old cop-young cop than black cop-white cop. Jackson comes from the old school of police work with his military ways and his almost missionary devotion to his calling. Younger cops who grew up since the military draft was suspended, the police veterans tell you, often see policing as just another job, and they neither understand nor like Jackson’s quasi-military discipline.

Inevitably, racism raises its ugly head, although few white officers will admit to it in so many words. Police departments are a microcosm of society, so, Jackson says, “Obviously there’s discrimination in this organization.” Sgt. James Moss, who only recently went through what he regards as racial discrimination over a transfer request, describes the situation in the department as “grim.”

“The race relations are the worst I’ve ever seen there, and getting worse,” he says. He forecasts more lawsuits in the near future.

On the other hand, as Fred Gittes says, “A lot of police officers—white as well as black—know what’s going on … and don’t want it anymore.”

Jackson insists he carries no resentment from his past. “If I dwelt on those things,” he says, ‘‘I’d be in an institution.” And other officers seem to think that Jackson, by his nature, will be scrupulously fair. Indeed, he has been an equal-opportunity aggravation. If he stuck it to the white male power structure by testifying in the civil rights suits for black and women officers, he also has shown the black community his tough side. Back in 1982 he enraged NAACP director Edward Parks by refusing to talk about a criminal investigation. Parks found his attitude “appalling.”

Sgt. Eggleston says to the idea of a black chief, wonderful, “But you get back to square one—he’s a policeman.” Leesburg says he senses that to a man like Jackson “you’re all blue” in the brotherhood.

Jackson made it patently clear when he arrested the fire chief that he doesn’t go in for the usual forms of back-scratching. Everyone who knows him describes him as a by-the-book law and order man, whose worst failing may be an inability to temper justice with mercy. No one predicts he will be a black Good Ol’ Boy.

Columbus can’t really afford a disgruntled police force on top of the current budget cutbacks. As Jackson points out, the force already has fewer officers per capita and less police coverage per square mile than either Cleveland or Cincinnati. Racial disharmony, subversive rumormongering or open rebellion don’t exactly enhance the department’s reputation with civilians or its ability to do effective police work.

Jackson’s choices may be either to smooth over the gripes or to stifle them. Whether he calms things down by the sheer force of his character and deeply held value system or by tapping some hidden wellspring of diplomacy remains to be seen. Up till now he hasn’t been the kind of guy to throw oil on troubled waters. Perhaps all he can do is be himself and let the rest of the gang get on board, if they will.

For as Leesburg says, “He might be a son of a bitch, but he’s the head son of a bitch.”­

This story originally appeared in the March 1991 issue of Columbus Monthly.


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