To serve and protect (and serve again)

March 21, 2015

JCCC Chief of Police Gregory Russell, raised in the Bahamas, nearly shot dead while at KCPD, has new police focus

Gregory Russell might have been a professional ballplayer with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He might have been a doctor.

But, almost by chance, he became a police officer. And now, after retiring from a distinguished 30-year career with the Kansas City Police Department, Russell is chief of police at Johnson County Community College.

“This is a huge responsibility, and I absorb myself in my work because I am attached to JCCC and it is my goal to shape us into a community police agency,” Russell said.

“We are here to serve and protect, but we lean more toward serving students than arresting them.”

Growing up in the Bahamas

Russell was born in New York City, where his mother was working temporarily for a wealthy family. After her contract ended, she returned to Nassau in the Bahamas.

At the age of 3, Russell visited his grandmother.

“I don’t know what it was – if it was divine intervention or what, – but I had an unexplainable feeling that was instantaneous,” Russell said. “When my mother took me home to her house I cried and said I wanted to live with Mama Lidi,” which is what he sometimes called his grandmother.

Russell grew up in his grandmother’s house.

“She welcomed me with open arms,” said Russell, who has a photo of her on his office wall.

Learning lessons from his father

His father believed in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” philosophy.

“I was hard-headed and defiant, so I took a lot of whipping. My grandmother said, ‘If you don’t listen to your dad, he is going to whip you terrible.’ And that day did come … It’s how we were raised. I just think it had a lot to do with learning right from wrong.”

During high school, Russell asked his father if he could take a Saturday off from working in the family’s restaurant so he could try out with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were in town recruiting. “Is that going to put money on the table this Saturday?” his father asked. Of course that answer was no.

Russell also was a finalist in a program that would have allowed him to study in England for free to become a doctor as long as he returned to Nassau. When the sponsors found out that he was a U.S. citizen, they chose a Bahamian instead.

Joining the Kansas City Police Department

Russell landed in Kansas City, where an aunt lived. While working as a parking control officer, a police sergeant noticed him and asked if he might be interested in becoming a police officer. Russell initially said no. But the sergeant, who was recruiting African-Americans, persuaded him to join.

Russell started out in 1976 at the East Patrol division. From there, he spent three years in narcotics as an undercover agent and then did a dozen years in the forgery unit. After returning to the narcotics unit, he was adopted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, earning the right to operate as a federal agent throughout the United States.

He worked flights arriving into Kansas City International Airport and collaborated with the Kansas Highway Patrol. It was dangerous work, and his unit won national awards for their drug seizures and arrests.

Russell remembers entering a drug house and encountering a Jamaican national. The guy pulled out a gun, pushed it into Russell’s stomach and fired. The gun jammed.

“I shouldn’t even be sitting here,” Russell said, reflecting on how he got out of that jam. “I do believe that my grandmother is sitting in the heavens watching over me.”

Switching to community policing

Russell said he was “just looking for something to do” when he joined the JCCC department in 2008 as a public safety officer. He was promoted to sergeant three years later and became interim chief in January 2014. The board of trustees named Russell chief in June.

When Russell took over the campus police department, JCCC President Joe Sopcich suggested that he adopt community policing, a strategy for fostering trust in a community to enhance crime prevention.

Since then, Russell has resurrected the bike patrol and encouraged all officers on patrol to become more involved with the campus community. Dan Robles, the department’s crime prevention officer, is “very engaging” with the student body, Russell said. And officer Ryan Futrell, who has been trained and certified on bike patrol and now trains other officers, often draws students who want to chat.

“With community policing,” Russell said, “we are now more of a big brother. We want to engage students and not have them afraid to approach us.”