Where the badge meets the cross

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Selma Times Journal

Selma Police Chief Jimmy Martin wears a badge and carries a cross.

A charismatic and personable man, he doesn’t fit the mold of your stereotypical police chief. He is a snazzy dresser, friendly, approachable, open and compassionate.

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He puts criminals behind bars during the week, and preaches to his church in Bibb County on Sunday.

For some, patrolling and preaching may seem peculiar, but Martin says working in law enforcement is part of his ministry and calling in life. For him, fighting crime in the streets is as much a spiritual battle as it is a physical one. To prepare himself, he starts his day by spending time alone with God in prayer.

“Being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t have to fight. But any fight that you go into with God on your side, eventually you will win,” he said.

On a daily basis, in dealing with hardened criminals, police officers gaze into the black hole of the collective human soul. They must interact with murderers, rapists, thieves and people who many would consider the worst society has to offer.

Martin admits he once had a reputation for being a fierce and cold-blooded man. As a Christian, Martin acknowledges that God protects him from becoming that which he fights and that God has used his past experience for the good and to understand what breeds hostility.

“Show me a violent man, and I’ll show you a man scared to death inside,” he said.

Even the most hardened of criminals can relate to him. Although witnessing the same criminals revolve in and out of the prison system can be disheartening, Martin said he holds fast to his faith and the rewards protect him from losing hope in mankind or growing cynical.

For example, he recalled Marion James Wilson, who recently turned himself in for murdering his stepdaughter. Wilson had specifically requested to speak to Martin when he came into the police station and for nearly 20 minutes they talked about what happened. Martin saw Wilson was hurting inside and because of that pain inflamed by passion, Wilson hurt someone close to him.

“I gathered from him that he was someone looking for help … He had a lot of regret and was willing to accept whatever punishment society might impose on him,” he said.

Before taking Wilson to Dallas County jail, Martin recalled asking him if there was anything that he needed. Wilson replied that all he wanted was a Bible and a sheet of paper. Martin promised to deliver it and then, he embraced Wilson.

On another occasion, Selma police and Dallas County deputies were working on a case and they had a man who they knew had committed the crime, but did not have enough evidence to make a conviction stick. Martin recalled that during the course of talking with him and sharing his faith, he eventually convinced the man to do the right thing. Facing his guilt, the man confessed. After his preliminary hearing and sentencing, the man thanked Martin for being there for him. “Those were two of the most emotional events I’ve ever experienced. That gave me hope and let me know that I’m doing something right,” he said.

Grace under pressure

Martin retired from the military after over 20 years of service, where he was awarded twice for exemplary leadership. He was a United States marshall for seven years, and worked as an undercover narcotics agent for nearly 15 years.

Prior to becoming chief, Martin worked his way up through the ranks at the Selma Police Department for 15 years.

After spending a lifetime in law enforcement, Martin officially took the helm of the department in May 2005. For the most part, Martin is apolitical, and prefers to focus on police work rather than get caught up in politics.

Martin’s motives are simple: “I’m here to help people. My greatest motivation in law enforcement is being able to serve the community and to make it a safe place for the citizens of Selma.”

But, politics is just part of the package in any position of power. In his brief tenure as chief, Martin has already been faced with a couple of political land mines. For one, there have been rumblings in the community and among rank and file officers that Martin is on his way out.

He’s also received criticism from members of the community who claim that he does not live in Selma. These critics proclaim that any effective police chief should live where he serves.

Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr., suggested the rumor that he is looking for a replacement for Martin is unfounded.

“It is critical that the chief and mayor have a trusting relationship. That is most certainly the case between the chief and me. I have confidence in his performance and in his integrity,” he said.

Martin indicated that he admires Perkins and believes him to be a man of his word who could move Selma forward. He’s not concerned about job security, however, because he said he’s motivated by personal goals and helping people.

“I’m not in this job for the money. I’ve turned down offers in other cities that pay a lot more. My ties are here in Selma and I’ve established roots. But, if I do leave, it will be with no regrets,” he said.

As for the rumor that Martin lives in Tuscaloosa, Montgomery or other locations outside Selma – Martin says that is untrue. He said he has lived within the city limits of Selma for more than 12 years, holds a voter registration card here, and pays local taxes, although he does own other property outside the area and has family that lives elsewhere.

Martin doesn’t reveal the location of his Selma home to many people because during his long-time career as a police officer he said he has had contracts put out on him and numerous threats to his life. His decision to keep the location of his home private is something he said he chose to do mainly for the safety of himself and those who are near and dear to him.

Whenever Dallas County deputies and Selma police have teamed up, Sheriff Harris Huffman Jr. said the two police agencies have always worked well as a team. Huffman said he’s known Martin since the mid-1980s and suspects as leaders they both face some of the same difficulties.

“Martin’s like me, he’s doing the best he can with what he’s got. His problems are probably a lot like my problems – personnel and money – the lack of both. But, that’s in anything you do,” Huffman said.

Average citizens have also expressed confidence in this veteran police officer’s abilities. Betty Bostick, a 74-year-old white woman who has lived in Selma for 50 years, said, “I believe he is doing a good job – he just needs some help.”

Offering some constructive criticism, Bostick said she thinks the neighborhoods could be patrolled better because “too many folks my age are having their purses snatched.”

Statistics collected by the FBI suggest that violent and theft-related crimes in Selma are well above the national average. These statistics, however, aren’t necessarily accurate, contends Martin, because it all depends on what information is submitted by individual precincts and if they include areas of responsibility that extend beyond the city limits. For example, Martin said that the city limits of Selma only encompasses about 20,000 people, but his police jurisdiction extends well beyond the city limits, and includes about 30,000 people.

According to Bettie Ervin, a black lady who has lived in Selma for 35 years, the crime rate here is about the same as it is everywhere else. Ervin also commended Martin’s efforts.

As far as public safety, Ervin cautioned people to use common sense and be alert.

“You have to keep yourself aware of where to go and where not to go,” she said.

The scourge of drugs contributes to a lot of the criminal activity in Selma, noted Ervin. “If we could get all the drug dealers out of the way, it would be a lot better,” she said.

Despite what the FBI crime statistics may say, Martin remains optimistic. “No one will stand in my way of seeing the day we can all feel safe, no matter where we go. No one can take away my hope that there are better days ahead,” he said.