Garthia Burnett: Chief McQueen


Garthia Elena Burnett



Selvain McQueen reclined in his seat Monday night after the City Council meeting. 


A handful of pictures on the wall -- all work-related -- offered evidence he'd moved into the chief's office but not quite claimed it as his own. 


That will change soon. 




"You don't have a clock on the wall," I observed, asking what time it was. 


It was about 6 p.m. 




In the few minutes it took us to walk from the main lobby of the Columbus Municipal Complex to the Police Department -- interrupted at every turn by someone else offering congratulations --┬áhis BlackBerry didn't stop vibrating. Phone calls. Text messages. 


The messages, he took a moment to read. The calls, he'd field later, if they weren't about work. 




One call he took immediately. 


"Hello, sweetheart," he beamed, then delivering the bad news: He had to go; he was in an interview. 


"I was calling to congratulate you," his daughter, Shambria, said, disappointed she didn't have his undivided attention. 




McQueen has four children; in addition to Shambria, a 17-year-old New Hope High graduate, there is Toya, 16, a New Hope sophomore; Selvain II, 26, who lives in Columbus; and Antonio, 21, who is in the Air Force and deployed to Diego Garcia. And there is his wife of 27 years, Terisa, and grandson, Selvain III, who is 10 months old. 




Officers passed the office, offering thumbs up, mouthing congratulations and saluting McQueen as they went. Some opened the door to offer more than passing well wishes. 


"People don't know this, but the department is happy," McQueen said. "They are ecstatic. The department has been my biggest support." 




Officer Lance Luckey meandered by, with a handful of paperwork to ask McQueen about. 


"Talk to her," McQueen said. "Tell her anything you want. You know I don't care." 


"Of course he's going to say something good; you're his boss," I smiled, as McQueen left the room to talk to other officers, some with official business, others with more well wishes. 


Luckey fulfilled my prediction. 


"I think it's great," he said of McQueen being named chief of police. "He knows the streets. He's been where we are. He understands what we go through on the streets." 


Luckey has been on the police force for four years and serves as a warrant officer. 


He stepped out to ask McQueen about an affidavit. 




McQueen returned to his seat, his phone still buzzing incessantly. He continued to check it, "just in case." 


"We've already hit the ground running," he said. 


"I have taken the liberty to ..." 


He trailed off, thumbing through a legal pad and a folder. In the folder were questionnaires he'd given to all the police department employees. Their main concerns, he said, had to do with supervision. So tackling that is one of his first orders of business. 




Officer George Harris opened the door, announcing four simple words: "I told you so." 


Harris has been with the department for 14 years. 


His cryptic message referred to a working lunch the two had been on: A man asked McQueen why he was running for sheriff when he had unfinished business at the police department. 


It's almost like he was a prophet, Harris said; McQueen shook his head and smiled. 




By 6:30, another veteran officer made his way into the office; it's an office he has called his own more than once. McQueen met another group of officers at the entrance to the police department, as Joe Johnson and I chatted. 


Johnson, assistant police chief, has served as interim chief twice, once before J.D. Sanders was hired in 2003 and again before Joseph St. John was hired in 2007. Both times, Johnson was passed over for the full-time job. 




This time, Johnson applied and was passed over again. Despite that and his 37-year tenure on the Columbus police force, he's not going anywhere. 


"I've been here all my life. Other than the four years I left after high school ... to attend Jackson State University, I have never left," Johnson said. 


"There's no animosity. ... This department will return to the greatness that it once was." 


In the mid-1970s, when Johnson joined the police force, the department was the envy of the Golden Triangle area, he said. Everyone wanted to work for the Columbus Police Department. 




Earlier, James Richardson, a coach at Columbus High and a minister, noted McQueen was the first black police chief he's seen in the last 25 years. He was "pretty sure" he is the first, period. 


"He is the first black police chief in the city of Columbus," Johnson affirmed. "But it just so happens that he's black. There's no difference. People invent things because of color ... I like to judge a person by them ... not by the color of their skin." 


Johnson supervised McQueen when they both worked in patrol and again in the Criminal Investigation Division. 


He's fair, qualified and "an excellent choice," Johnson said. 




(Re-enter McQueen.) 


McQueen put his hand on Johnson's shoulder. 


"I want you to know it's because of people like him, who blazed the trail, that I'm here today," he said. 


Though the council vote for police chief was divided along racial lines, McQueen doesn't see things in black and white. In law enforcement, the only color that matters is blue. 


"That's not the concept," he said of being the city's first black police chief. "The concept is that we are the men and women in blue ... It's not a matter of color. ... We're going to be colorblind." 


The concept, he said, is protecting the citizens, catching the perpetrators and finding solace for the victims. 




Like Johnson, McQueen can retire today if he wants, but he plans to stay around for a long time. 


"I just want to give all the glory and praise to God," he said, pausing and looking at me curiously. 


"Why aren't you writing that down?" he asked. "You're not going to use it?" 


"I didn't plan on it," I replied. 


"Well, anytime I talk, I have to talk about God. I want people to know that, too."



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