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Ingram reflects on 31 years of service

Greenville Police Department chief Lonzo Ingram announced his retirement following 31 years of service to the Camellia City.

Greenville Police Department chief Lonzo Ingram announced his retirement following 31 years of service to the Camellia City.

By Gregg Fuller

On Nov. 7, Lonzo Ingram attended the Greenville City Council meeting just like he has done every other Monday for 31 years.

He took his seat along the east wall of the council chamber and listened as Mayor Dexter McLendon and the city’s other elected leaders conducted business. But when he left the building that night he left something behind — the title of police chief.

After a career that has spanned five decades Ingram is retiring as a law enforcement officer and the only police chief some residents of Greenville have ever known. He’ll walk away with memories, both good and bad, as well as the satisfaction that since 1985 he’s helped lead and improve a department that was a shell of its current self when he arrived.

“A couple of weeks after I took the job, Jim Rhodes, who was an officer with us at the time, and I were talking and I said ‘so what do you think,’” Ingram said. “Jim looked at me and said ‘I think you need get back in your car and go back to Dale County because you don’t know what the hell you’ve got yourself into.’ He was right.”

What Ingram had gotten himself into was a department that

needed to head in a new direction. “We had black and white cars with more than 200,000 miles on them that were still in service,” he explained. “Before I got here the mayor (Larry Jones) and council had disbanded the investigation division. Coming from a progressive area of the state (the Wiregrass) I was surprised at what I found but there was no question the department was way behind the times.”

Progress didn’t come overnight. Ingram had to carefully evaluate his personnel and convince his fellow officers he was in it for the long haul. “I think when they realized I wasn’t going to stay six months and leave most of them decided to help me make it work,” he stated. “There was still some resistance to change but that happens. However, when the majority starts buying into your vision, that’s when things begin to change.

“The first thing I had to do was get the right people in the right positions where we could be more effective,” he continued. “Then we had to upgrade equipment and start rebuilding our investigation division. Our record keeping also had to improve and we were able to do that as well.”

Ingram came to Greenville from Daleville where he served as the director of public safety for three years overseeing the police department, fire department and a volunteer rescue squad. But it was Ozark where his career began in 1971 as an entry level patrol officer.

According to Ingram, starting a career in law enforcement was a lot different back then than it is today. “There was no police academy, no formal training,” he said. “If you got hired they put you with another officer and that was your training. We bought our own service firearms, handcuffs, everything. All they gave us was a uniform.”

That’s a stark contrast to today when police department budgets at most levels are in the millions of dollars as law enforcement nationwide has embraced a technology driven approach to performing the job. Ingram said watching and being a part of the “modernization” of police work from decade to decade has been eye opening and fascinating as the Greenville Police Department worked hard to keep pace and give officers the tools they needed to perform their job.

But he said it’s his early experience working for $400 a month with no benefits, no sick leave and no vacation, as well as paying for his own equipment, which helped make him most sensitive to the needs of police officers as his career progressed. That’s why he feels one of the best things to happen to the department during his tenure came when current mayor Dexter McLendon initiated a significant pay raise for officers as one of his first acts in office in 2000. “We had a revolving door,” Ingram explained. “We’d hire an officer, train him and a year later he’d be gone. We couldn’t keep people. Through Dexter’s efforts, and that of the council, we were able to close that door. It stabilized our department like never before. Now people don’t leave until they retire or find a much better job.”

As for events that stand out during his tenure Ingram said there are some he’ll never forget like the hostage situation at the Butler County Courthouse in the late 80s. Butler County Sheriff Joe Sanders was wounded and held at gunpoint during that incident which was resolved peacefully after a six-hour standoff. He said another that sticks in his mind was a robbery gone bad that lead to hostages being held for 14 hours at what was then Winn Dixie in 1996. It was also resolved peacefully and the suspect taken into custody.

In 1993 Greenville Police officers along with state fire marshals were involved in a shootout on I-65 with two fugitive brothers that resulted in one suspect wounded and another on the run. For 36 hours, local, state and federal authorities searched for him throughout the city just days before Christmas until he was captured behind what is now the Greenville YMCA.

In January 2005 officers Lionel Davidson and John Bass suffered gunshot wounds after answering a call of suspicious behavior at the Comfort Inn. After a standoff with police the suspect in that case committed suicide. “That was actually the first time we used our SRT (Special Response Team),” Ingram said. “That group formed a year earlier and we put them into action that night.” Both Bass and Davidson recovered from their injuries.

While those compelling events had happy endings others did not. In June of 1994 Greenville Police Officer Gary Heath was gunned down along with convenience store clerk Pamela Scruggs inside a store at the Interstate 128 exit. Over the course of 14 days their assailant, Jimmy Earl Whitt of Mobile, would kill two more law enforcement officers in Alabama and Mississippi before taking his own life in Baldwin County with authorities closing in on him.

“That’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Ingram said. “I ride by that store on my way home every day and I can’t forget how awful those two weeks were. It was a tragic loss for our department.”

Ingram said the robbery/shooting death of local high school student Michael Mora a few years later is another incident that haunts him. “He was two weeks from graduating from high school,” Ingram explained. “The kid worked part time at Winn Dixie and was basically killed for nothing.”

And then there were lighter moments like the “emu incident.” Arriving to find one of the full grown birds wandering down Government Street patrolmen attempted to corral the six-foot tall emu. Their plan didn’t work out so well. “We ended up with three officers in the ER,” Ingram said. “They eventually caught it but a cord got caught around its neck and cut its throat. To this day we don’t know where the thing came from. Mayor (Ernie) Smith wanted to know why we didn’t just shoot it and I told him ‘we weren’t about to shoot Big Bird with children out here on the street watching us.’”

With just days left in his career, Ingram said for the most part his time leading the department has been a great experience. He’s thankful for the loyal staff members as well as the council members and mayors he’s worked with. Watching his department and Greenville move forward is something he’s proud to see.

“I didn’t get to work with (Mayor) Larry (Jones) very long but Ernie Smith came in and I think he made the first real attempt to modernize Greenville,” Ingram stated. “He began what I consider to be a progressive movement in city government.

“But during my 31 years here the last 16 have been the nothing but a pleasure,” he continued. “In Dexter we have someone who doesn’t try to micro-manage each department. We have a supportive council and a mayor whose goal since day one has been to make things better. It’s a team concept with all the departments that has worked remarkably well.”

McLendon said the hard work Ingram has put in during his four terms in office is something that can’t be overlooked. He said not only has the chief done a great job as leader of the police department; he’s done it with an approach and attitude that you don’t find in others in similar positions. “Lonzo is so laid back and is such a funny guy,” McLendon said. “He makes my job easier because of the type person he is. He’s always in a good mood and brings so much personality to that job.

“He’s really going to be missed,” the Mayor continued. “He’s done a fantastic job and has helped that department grow.”

While the name of his successor has not been made public, Ingram said that the best advice he could offer to them is to focus on improving their people skills. “Crime is not the biggest problem you have to deal with,” he explained. “Personnel is not the biggest problem. It’s the collateral issues you have to deal with outside of those two areas. A person in this job has to work well with the public and above all have a lot of patience.

“Law enforcement has changed significantly since I started in 1971,” he continued. “Where we were once ‘peace officers’ society and politicians have turned us into ‘police officers’. I personally think there’s a huge difference in those two terms. But that’s the times we live in and that’s forced us do so many other things besides focusing on keeping the peace.”

So what lies ahead for Ingram after he puts his gun and badge down next Monday? The Chief said that’s a good question but not one he’s in a hurry to answer. A long-time singer and songwriter in his spare time, Ingram said he may devote more time to that hobby. He said starting a business is something he’s also contemplated.

But before making a final decision he plans to simply relax and spend more time with his wife Tanya and other members of his family.

“My children and four grandchildren live here which is truly a blessing for me,” he said. “When I came here 31 years ago I didn’t plan on being here that long but I, and the rest of my family, just sort of got plugged into Greenville.

“But I know things are about to change for me. I’ll walked into that council meeting as chief and I walked out as Lonzo. I’ve been a chief for 35 years so that’s going to be different but I can truthfully say it’s been a long and good career.

“Not bad for an old country boy that came out of the peanut fields of Dale County.”