J.V.

Sept. 14, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

When the North Little Rock Police Department hired J.V. Williams as an officer, he figured he would stay for 20 years, then take his pension and move on.

He stayed for those 20. Then he stayed for another 20. And after that, he stayed for another 10.

On Tuesday, Williams, 75, will mark 50 years with the department. Such longevity is more than unusual. Williams, now a sergeant, may be the longest-serving law-enforcement officer with one department in Arkansas history.

There is no way to know for sure. State records don’t go back far enough.

“How about this,” North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley said. “Until somebody proves us different, we’re going to claim he’s got the record.”

Record or not, it’s an extraordinary occurrence.

Glynn Martin, a retired Los Angeles police sergeant who works as executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, estimated that 40,000 people have worn a Los Angeles police uniform since 1869. “And I believe there have been more that our records don’t show us, but we know of one officer here who has done what your officer has done,” Martin said. “That’s a rare and special thing.”

Since Williams was hired Sept. 15, 1959, he has become as much a part of the department as the decal on the side of a patrol car or the cloth patch on each officer’s sleeve. Inside the department, from the chief ’s office on down, one of the most common answers to a question about how to do something or why something must be done a certain way has become a reflex: “Ask J.V.”

They can do so only a little longer. Williams submitted his retirement papers last week. His last day is set for Sept. 30.

The department has changed in Williams’ half century in police work. The laws have changed. Society itself has changed.

The integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School occurred two years before Williams got his badge. He was on the job seven years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda decision, which compels police officers to read suspects their rights. Williams had been working in North Little Rock 19 years when the state mandated minimum training requirements for officers.

Bradley is the sixth chief Williams has worked for, and the chief’s office is in its third location since he joined the force.

Not everyone was willing to adapt to every new reality. Gene Barentine started as a North Little Rock police officer the same day as Williams. He retired as captain of the patrol division in 1983.

“The new officers coming in were not of the old school,” Barentine said. “They were the now generation. They didn’t want to pay their dues, couldn’t wait their turn. There were all these new rules, and police work just wasn’t the same anymore.”

With his pension vested and another job offer, Barentine left. Today he works as a bailiff in Sherwood District Court.

THE EARLY YEARS

Williams’ career almost ended before it could start. Chief Ray Vick told Williams in 1959 that he couldn’t hire him because Williams was too short.

“You had to be 5’10” at least,” Williams said. “I was in the chief’s office in City Hall, and he told me I was 5’9”. I said, ‘no,’ that ‘I’m 5’11”. It got a little heated, and finally the chief stood up and I stood up, and I was about an inch taller than him. He sort of smiled and said, ‘Well, OK. Welcome to the department.’”

The job paid $245 a month.

“At that time, it was enough to pay your rent, your living expenses and that’s about it,” Williams said.

Originally from Farmington in Northwest Arkansas, Williams spent four years in the Air Force, receiving his discharge while he was stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base. He took a job at Arkla, the gas company, for a few months until he decided to try police work.

Back then, it took Williams two weeks from the time he submitted his application to when he got hired.

“I’d be happy if we could get that done in two months now, and it takes much longer than that,” Bradley said. “That’s amazing to me.”

Williams chose North Little Rock over Fayetteville, where he also applied, he said, because he was already in central Arkansas and the job paid $10 more a month.

A supervisor told Williams where to go to get his two uniforms, his leather utility belt and holster.

“We had to buy our own guns,” Williams said.

His first was a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with a four-inch barrel.

Williams went to a two week police training session at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where he learned “Just the basics,” he said, and went to work.

North Little Rock then had roughly the same population it has now, about 60,000, according to U.S. Census records. The department had about 50 sworn police officers – it has roughly 190 now – and a total of six cars, all 1957 Fords. They all had steel plates welded to the bottoms because they were low enough to the ground that they scraped on the train tracks.

“The duty lieutenant had one, a sergeant had one, and the rest were in patrol,” Williams said. “I don’t have to tell you that most of us walked a beat back then.”

A beat was an area of four or five square blocks. There were no police radios to speak of, so most officers had to check in using one of the call boxes on the sidewalks.

While the population was similar, the city was different. McCain Mall was a wooded hill. JFK Boulevard was nothing more than narrow, two lane Arkansas 107. John F. Kennedy himself was still a congressman from Massachusetts.

The department had no black nor any female officers. There wasn’t even room for women in the North Little Rock city jail in the basement of City Hall. Any woman arrested had to go to the Pulaski County jail across the Arkansas River.

There was more willingness then, Williams said, to solve certain problems creatively.

“We don’t do this anymore, OK, you couldn’t do this now,” he said. “We have taken many, many people across the river and dumped them in Little Rock just to be rid of them, to let them know they weren’t welcome in North Little Rock. It was a two-way street. Little Rock officers did the same to us.”

The rivalry with the Little Rock officers could be fierce, regardless of whether they wore police uniforms or football uniforms. The two departments used to play a Copper Bowl every year for bragging rights and to raise money for charity.

The first was in 1959. Williams wore No. 43 and played linebacker. North Little Rock won 26-0 in front of 7,000 fans.

The departments played the next four Copper Bowls at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock to handle the crowds.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE

Even though Williams has been with the department 50 years, that doesn’t mean everyone knows everything about him. Most people don’t know what J.V. stands for. He’s J.V. Ditto on the department roster and the sergeants’ seniority list.

“I feel like I should know that, but I don’t,” said Sgt. Terry Kuykendall, the department’s spokesman. “I mean, he’d been here 10 years when I was born. I guess I’ll never find out either because I’m too scared to ask him.”

Williams thought that was funny.

“James Victor,” he said.

Kuykendall is not the first to find Williams intimidating.

“I used to be scared of him,” Bradley said. “I was a kid when I met him.” Williams was already a detective sergeant with 14 years of service when Bradley first joined the force as a 19-year-old cadet in 1973.

“Even then, if I had a question, somebody would tell me to ask J.V.,” Bradley said.

At that point, the department had 96 officers, 14 patrol cars and seven motorcycles, and a sergeant’s salary was $800 a month.

Longevity has something,but not everything, to do with so many in the department turning to Williams. He worked in patrol, rode a police motorcycle, became a sergeant and detective sergeant, worked in investigations twice, narcotics twice, was a desk sergeant and a patrol sergeant “a couple of times.”

He took the lieutenant’s test a few times but didn’t score high enough against other sergeants for a promotion.

“So I figured a sergeant is what I’m meant to be,” he said.

For the past 10 years, Williams has worked in support services, supervising a desk officer, court bailiffs, the department’s warrants and property sections, and the maintenance of North Little Rock police buildings.

Bradley said too many people in law enforcement stay longer than they should just to get their pensions.

“They’ve lost the fire for it, and it shows,” he said. “They don’t want to change with the times, and they simply no longer want to work in what their environment has become.”

Williams is not in that category, he said.

“Heck, I still want him to stay,” Bradley said.

Williams still takes – and passes – the department’s physical abilities test, Bradley said. And Bradley said he learned from Williams how to manage both his supervisors and his subordinates.

“Anywhere he is, he’s in charge of it,” Bradley said. “He was always fair, always probably a little stern, but he also always did a good job adjusting. He’s an example for a lot of people.”

But Williams has other plans now. He said he knew it was time to retire the way a man knows a woman will be his wife.

“It’s in your mind and your body that it’s the exact right thing to do,” he said.

He and his wife of 53 years, Lea, bought a travel trailer.

“I’m going to do some hunting, some fishing and whatever my wife tells me to do,” he said. “It’s just my time.”

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Comments
  1. […] a sergeant in North Little Rock who is about to hit his 50th anniversary with the department. Far as anyone can tell, that’s some kind of record in […]

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