Thirty-seven years ago, Tommy Culpepper was handed the keys to a Cartersville police cruiser and told to cover the west side of town.
“When I started, when they hired you, you went to work. Before you went to the academy, you started working as a police officer. I think about my first night working,” Culpepper said. “I walked in the door and they threw me a set of keys and said, ‘You take the west side.’ I said, ‘OK, where is it?’ I had been to Cartersville twice in my life at that point — to apply and to get hired. So this was my third trip to Cartersville and I was working as a police officer. I had never been in the front seat of a police car. ... I knew how to talk on the radio in the military, but I didn’t know their protocol here. I didn’t know where I was going; there was no training program. They just said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’”
Figure it out he did. In November 2007, the Cartersville City Council appointed Culpepper police chief.
Since then, Cartersville Police Department gained state certification and joined the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office in creating the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force.
“You look at the place when he took over compared to now. There’s been huge accomplishments, everything from this building — which was no easy feat; take-home patrol cars; state certification; all that stuff,” Assistant Chief Frank McCann said. “He’s not going to say this, but this place wouldn’t be state certified if it wasn’t for him because, prior to him being chief of police, he put it all together.”
Effective Nov. 25, Culpepper will retire from CPD.
“I’m being led in other directions spiritually. I believe God has placed me in this time and this place for a purpose, and now it’s time to move me somewhere else,” Culpepper said. “What he wants out of me for that I haven’t the foggiest. Noah had no idea what was going on when he built the ark; he just knew he was supposed to build an ark. That’s kind of where I am right now. I am going to follow that leading wherever it takes me, whether it takes me to another job like this or it takes me to picking up cans on the side of the road, so be it. I’ll go wherever he wants me to go.”
A celebration Thursday marked the end of Culpepper’s tenure.
“What I tell people that don’t know Tommy Culpepper, what I say about him is, there is a lot of people who care about what they do and put everything they have into their job, and then there is Tommy Culpepper,” Mayor Matt Santini said. “There are people that have a passion for what they do and carry words like honor and integrity with them every day, and then there are people who, like Tommy Culpepper, take it to another level. There are people who have been dedicated to this city and for the good of the common man for a long, long time, and then there is Tommy Culpepper, who, again, does that at a different level than others.”
McCann called the chief a “survivor.”
“Basically, he’s been a mentor to me. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned patience. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from him,” he said. “I’ve learned patience, don’t react too quickly, think about your decision, talk about your decisions with people you trust. Basically, as the chief of police in a police department, you have the most power; you have to be careful how you use that power, as far as the employees are concerned.”
Culpepper reached a turning point with those employees during a training session years ago.
“Probably, for me, professionally, I was always interested in training, and I attended a defensive tactics ... instructor course and I began to understand how important training is to law enforcement or any job for that matter. If you don’t train people correctly coming in, why should you expect them to perform correctly when you put them out there on their own? The expectation has been lowered if you don’t train them right,” he said. “... I saw training as a way to have an impact on the entire agency, not just on a shift or in one section, but I could have impact, I could have contact with everybody in that agency and offer them something to make them better than they were the day before.”
Thanking a list of those who helped him along the way during Thursday’s ceremony, Culpepper becomes emotional twice. First thanking his wife, Vivian.
“She serves as my closest confidante and sometimes as my toughest critic. She helps me to stay on the right path. Quite often she was the only person to tell me the unvarnished truth. It’s very clear I could have accomplished nothing on my own for my wife has played and continues to play an indispensable role in my life’s decisions,” he said. “Without her wisdom I would have undoubtedly made some tragic errors, though I did manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory a time or two on my own. Vivian has kept my feet on the ground, reminding me of what I believe and why I do this job, especially on those days when frustration is the order of the day. Without her I would have been nothing.”
And again while thanking the men and women of CPD.
“I had the honor of working with you. When speaking publicly, I always took delight in the opportunity to tell people, tell the public, that you are my heroes,” Culpepper said. “When no one else is willing to stand on the wall, you’re there. When it’s raining, when it’s cold, when it’s blistering hot, you’re there. You serve the community day and night. When others run from trouble, you run to it. ... I, for one, will sleep better knowing you are out there.”
On Thursday, city manager Sam Grove will recommend McCann be named police chief. The council is expected to approve the recommendation.
“Frank’s very intelligent. He’s a good officer; he was very good at the drug work. He stayed assigned to the [Drug Enforcement Administration] for 20 years,” Culpepper said. “... Frank’s one of those, he likes a challenge. He likes when he goes to something new, he understands he has to start learning that and become very proficient in that, and then it’s, by the time you finish that, it’s time to move on to another position and you become proficient in that. He understands the progression of leadership.
“Frank is different from me. ... Quite honestly, that’s what has allowed us to work as a team very well because we are so different.”
McCann’s 32 years in law enforcement have been a “Cinderella story.”
“... It seems like yesterday I started and one thing led to another. Never thought I would spend 20 years working narcotics but I did. Never thought I would run the criminal investigations division but I did,” he said. “It’s gone by quick; it really has. It seems like yesterday I was patrolman in the middle of the night here thinking, ‘Man.’”
His administration will continue with Culpepper’s programs, focusing on the crimes most prevalent in Cartersville and Bartow County: theft and drugs.
“They’re interrelated, and that’s what we need to focus on. That’s what we spend most of our time doing,” McCann said. “If people are addicted to drugs, they’re going to steal stuff to support their drug habit. We need to address those issues hard.”
CPD will use uniform and plainclothes officers to “proactively go after these people.”
“We have databases that we are using now that we can utilize to go after these people before they break into people’s and steal. That’s what we are looking at. Instead of being on the defensive, we are going on the offensive,” McCann said.
Cartersville City Council will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. on the third floor of city hall.
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