Members of the Rice community and senior representatives of local law enforcement agencies turned out to pay tribute to Chief of Police Johnny Whitehead at a retirement reception Jan. 26 at Cohen House.
“We’re here to honor and celebrate an extraordinary citizen of Houston and of the country,” Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby said. Describing Whitehead as “the quintessential American story,” Kirby noted that in 1976 Whitehead joined the Baltimore City Police Department as a cadet doing clerical work at the base of his profession and over the years worked his way up. At the Baltimore County Police Department he became the first African-American captain and the first African-American colonel. He came to Rice in 2012 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was police chief.
“Johnny has completely rebuilt the department,” Kirby said. “It’s more professional, more competent and more diverse — one of the most diverse groups of people on the campus and in police departments around the country.
“He’s been performing community policing long before it became a national best practice. He’s done just about everything you can imagine in law enforcement,” Kirby said. “He would never ask his officers to do anything he wouldn’t personally do himself,” and that includes allowing himself to be pepper-sprayed just as the officers were during training for how to use the chemical compound.
Kirby commended Whitehead’s ability to effect change in “a smooth and calming manner.” He cited Whitehead’s “widespread set of relationships around Houston” as extraordinary. “He is quite well-networked everywhere he goes.” Among the professional organizations of which Whitehead is a member are the Texas Police Chiefs Association, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. On campus he was an adviser to the Black Student Association and attended BSA meetings regularly.
Kirby thanked Whitehead for his service and added, “There is a lot of love for you in this room today.”
President David Leebron said Whitehead has been referred to as “a great partner” by others on campus, and Leebron’s colleagues in higher ed were astounded when he told them that a group of Rice students reached out to Whitehead for advice when they were discussing what to do about the national unrest on campuses regarding race relations and police.
“That’s just an example of the kind of impact that Johnny had on people, that ability to develop trust and confidence,” Leebron said.
“Every decision that Johnny got involved in was a better decision,” Leebron said, adding that Whitehead is “thoughtful and sympathetic.” He said Whitehead’s impact was not just on the Rice campus, but on community relations. “After five years, to have that level of impact and build the trust that you have built in an extraordinary group of women and men who serve the university, who serve to protect us, that is a great legacy to leave behind. We will miss you.”
Jim Tate, chief of university police at the University of St. Thomas, said he’s been a friend and colleague of Whitehead since meeting him three years ago, when Whitehead offered assistance upon learning that Tate was building a police department from the ground up. “He has been there for me anytime that I needed him,” Tate said.
Tate said local colleagues think of Whitehead as “approachable,” “a man of his word” and “an exceptional law enforcement officer.” He presented Whitehead with a certificate of appreciation from the University of St. Thomas Police Department for his “friendship, support and counsel.”
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and former Sheriff Adrian Garcia made Whitehead an honorary member of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and presented him with a western hat.
The Rice University Police Department also had gifts for Whitehead, including boots, a belt and a western shirt, which Capt. Paul Cordova described as “a Texas starter kit” as Whitehead prepares to move back to Massachusetts.
“We present these gifts on behalf of RUPD as a token of our heartfelt appreciation, for your dedication to the department, to the university and to the profession as a whole,” Cordova said. “We have watched you work tirelessly to make our agency what it is today — one of the premier university police departments in the region. Your vision and your fortitude are contagious. And because of that, we’ve helped develop new leaders inside the department who will carry on your legacy for years to come.”
Capt. Clemente Rodriguez also presented a plaque with Whitehead’s badge to the chief to honor his time and achievements at Rice. “This will commemorate his badge for many years to come, similar to the impact this department will feel for many years to come because of the chief’s accomplishments and his leadership in our department,” Rodriguez said. He noted that Whitehead has been “a huge mentor” and added that just as great sports players like Michael Jordan and Lebron James made others around them better, “I can truly say that the chief is one of those great officers who made everyone around him better.”
After receiving the gifts and accolades, Whitehead joked, “This Johnny Whitehead sounds like a pretty neat guy.”
He then shared “what the Rice community has done for me.”
One of the things that attracted him to Rice was its size because of his love for community policing and developing relationships — “the way I like to police,” he said. “Rice has turned out to be the environment that I actually was looking for. I feel like I know everybody on campus.”
He said Rice gave him a platform to have “some really serious conversations about social justice issues.” He was invited to participate with faculty in a campus panel discussion after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. The Baker Institute Student Forum invited him to be part of panels on overrepresentation of minorities in jail, drug policy and racial profiling. And he taught an undergraduate course, Policing and Trust, where students discussed the militarization of police and things that undermine or foster trust in police officers.
Whitehead thanked Leebron and Kirby for their support “in tough times and great times.” He added, “When you have the formidable support of Public Affairs, General Counsel and the Administration, you can actually go out and do the job.”
Whitehead said the partnerships and relationships beyond campus are important too because they provide “a network of support” locally and around the country.
He also thanked his RUPD team — from the command staff and officers to the administrative support staff and Emergency Medical Services. “A lot of people don’t realize that they deal with the same issues and are exposed to the same threats as officers at the Houston Police Department,” he said. “Most of the people our officers have to deal with are people not affiliated with the university. Some of them are on parole. Some are on probation. Some are wanted by other police departments. Occasionally they resist arrest.”
Whitehead said RUPD handles thousands of transactions each year, including parking enforcement, identification cards, dispatching officers to provide security escorts or investigate incidents, and key service for people locked out of their room. “We’re here to support and serve this community,” Whitehead said, “and our officers enjoy engaging with students on this campus. We’ve got a great team. I feel like I’ve benefited more personally and professionally at Rice.”
Whitehead said he has “no solid plans” for what he will do after moving back to his home in Pelham, Mass., to be with his wife, Kim, and his son, Josh. Possibilities include doing some consulting and teaching at one of the colleges in western Massachusetts that have a criminal justice program. He might also finish a book about policing and race that he started writing a few years ago. “A lot has happened in that area in the last five years,” he said.