Ellis Jackson never dreamed he would one day be police chief when he joined Thomasville Police Department 38 years ago.
Jackson — chief since 2007 — will retire June 30.
He rose through the ranks from jailer, to patrol officer, to shift commander, to criminal investigations division commander to operations division commander, to chief, and from corporal, to sergeant, to lieutenant, to captain, to chief.
Jackson would not reveal his age. He said he is “of age” and born in Pavo in the 1950s. His birthday day is Jan. 1.
“I was always a celebrated child,” Jackson quipped.
Prior to joining the police force in 1976, he was employed by Dawes sand mine and sold insurance. A fellow insurance employee, who been a police officer and returned to the work, encouraged Jackson to apply.
Jackson filled out an application, was interviewed by then-Chief John Perry and was hired as a jailer at the old city-county jail on Stevens Street.
“The city had two jailers, and the county had two jailers,” Jackson recalled. The jailer jobs was tough, hard work in a small building under “terrible working conditions,” he added.
Several inmates escaped while Jackson was a jailer, but not on his watch.
Jackson went directly from jail work to the police patrol division with no patrol experience. “I had no idea what was involved in being a police officer,” he said.
On his first Friday night as a patrol officer, Jackson responded to a physical altercation at the old Ritz Theater on West Jackson Street, where the suspect resisted arrest — the new patrol officer’s first experience with unwilling subjects.
Police dealt with many challenging situations in combative communities and clubs, he explained. Officers responding to incidents had to make their way through unruly crowds to find the person responsible for the fracas.
“We had lots of clubs then all over town,” Jackson said.
Police responded to many calls involving alcoholic beverage-related incidents on Friday, Saturday and Wednesday nights. Sunnyland employees were paid on Wednesdays, and partying began as soon as some employees received their pay checks.
Jackson recalled a particularly scary incident at the old bus station in the 200 block of West Jefferson Street, where the public library is today.
A man at the bus station had a firearm. When Jackson arrived, he saw people running everywhere. The armed man was at a counter arguing with someone.
Jackson drew his weapon on the man, who was drunk. “I’m at a point, ‘What do I do now?’ “ he recalled thinking.
Two other officers arrived to assist. An officer struck the man on the arm, and the firearm, which did not discharge, fell to the floor.
“That was my first introduction to the dangers of this job,” Jackson said, adding that he wondered if he should quit and return to the sand pit.
On another occasion, an officer responding with Jackson to a home invasion shot a man, who survived. An elderly woman lived alone at the house where police saw a man attempting to break in.
“The unknown is a frightening thing,” Jackson said. “We did not know if he had a weapon. It was dark.”
Although training was scarce when Jackson became a cop, that is not the case today. He said there is no comparison to the extent of training officers receive today.
No longer are officers given a uniform and equipment and sent out on the job. Advanced training is the rule today.
The agency has gone from hand-written reports to all electronically generated and stored data.
TPD radios have progressed from an analog system in which other agencies bled over into police frequencies. “That was a nightmare,” the chief said. Police now have a digital private channel and a wireless reporting system that shows the locations of patrol units.
Technology has helped, but it has not removed the work, Jackson said.
He explained that as he climbed the career ladder in police work, he wanted to be a “difference maker,” and he feels good about his tenure.
Jackson has been pastor at Bethel CME Church in Valdosta for eight years. After retirement, he wants to spend more time in church ministries to strengthen communities.
Jackson is fond of cars, hot rods, “the agricultural life” and fishing. He has a part-time lawn service and has begun vegetable and flower gardening.
Jackson and his wife, Flora, have two sons, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“I have to spend more time with family,” the retiring chief said.
And, he will attempt to go on “a real vacation” without worries about police duties.
Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-400, ext. 1820.