Lieutenant Jesse Sumlin remembers the exchange like it was yesterday.
In the late 90s and with a few years under his belt as an officer with the Huntsville Police Department (HPD), he received a call to head to a nearby shopping center. Business owners were reporting a shoplifter.
And the perpetrator was on the run.
“I was running behind him and wound up catching him under a Parkway overpass,” Sumlin said. “We ended up having a little talk.”
Sumlin is being humble. It was more than a talk. It was a conversation that would have reverberations for decades.
“Years went by,” Sumlin said. “One day I was at the car wash and this car pulls up to mine, rolls down the window and says, ‘Hey – do you remember me?’”
Sumlin looked at the driver and – despite the nearly two decades of time that had passed – immediately recognized him as the man he caught under the overpass, the man he had that talk with.
Fast forward to the scene at the car wash and the one-time shoplifter is taking his own trip down memory lane.
“’Man, let me tell you something,” Sumlin recalls him saying. “The day you stopped me, you changed my whole life. I was on drugs real bad and the way you talked to me on the drive to the jail was a wakeup call.’”
Sumlin says the man told him he stopped using drugs shortly after. Now, he now had two children in college.
“I thank you,” he told Sumlin.
“That’s what makes us do what we do,” Sumlin said. “You realize during your career you are reaching people and you don’t realize the extent of it. It’s a powerful thing. I don’t think a lot of people know their power – no matter what job you do. When you come in contact with a person, you have the ability to have a tremendous impact.”
On His New Role
Lt. Sumlin, a 25-year employee of the police department and a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel with over 28 years of service, was recently named HPD’s Public Information Officer (PIO). A role previously filled by then Lt. Michael Johnson, who has since been promoted to Captain and now serves as Commander of the West Precinct.
The PIO role for HPD is an important one. A liaison between the media, citizens and police, HPD’s PIO is tasked with providing transparent and credible information in a timely manner to keep Huntsville citizens informed. They are responsible for transmitting information – often urgent in nature – to keep residents safe.
And Sumlin is especially well versed in keeping people safe – even in war zones.
As a two-tour veteran of the war in Iraq, Sumlin oversaw the logistical movement and safe transportation of soldiers and equipment. Later, he served as liaison to Iraqi Generals, working with them to develop and train Iraqi forces to stabilize the country.
Growing up in Harlem New York, it was Alabama A&M that first drew Sumlin to Huntsville, but it was the broader culture of the City that made him want to stay.
“The environment – living here – it’s just a pleasant place to be,” he said. “It’s very peaceful. It’s one of those things coming from [New York City] and you go to a place like Huntsville and say, ‘Man, this is nice.’”
Protecting that peace is what Sumlin says motivates him to serve. Partnership, he says, is an essential building block of that protection.
“We want that partnership with citizens,” Sumlin said. “The more we partner, everybody will play a part in doing the things we need to do to make this a safe city, to make this a city you can come to and feel comfortable, a city you want to move your family to, a city you want to visit and attend events, a city where you’d like to build your business.”
A global health pandemic and a nationwide protest on systemic racism – specifically as it relates to law enforcement – have made 2020 a difficult year for police and the people they serve.
Sumlin has a direct message to Huntsville citizens as it relates to those tensions.
“I would like for citizens to know we are trying to do what we need to do, but we know it’s harder because if you wear the badge in California, if you wear the badge in Minneapolis, Chicago, New York or Huntsville, you all are grouped into one,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard for citizens to separate our local team from what’s gone on in police departments elsewhere in the nation, but I would ask citizens to give us an opportunity to show we are trying to do the right thing.”
He says both citizens and his fellow officers need to be ready to have difficult conversations.
“We are going to have to have tough conversations, and you know nobody’s feelings can be hurt – and that includes our own,” he said. “It is just going to be tough conversations that need to be had and that’s the only way we can solve problems, by knowing what the other one thinks, what the other one feels in order to come to agreement.”
Self-policing and a strict adherence to excellence within the department are what Sumlin says sets HPD apart.
It’s a quality captured in the department’s tag line for its recent recruitment campaigns – “A call to be the best.”
“I tell my officers all the time, ‘Let’s try to get 1% better today,” he said. “Do what you need to do to get there. Just do that 1% and see how you feel and every day do another 1%.”
Accountability starts within one’s self, Sumlin says. And that’s the message HPD command staff reinforces with officers daily.
“We tell our officers – ‘We’re not writing your resume. You are writing your resume. If you want your resume to look good, you need to do the things you need to do for your resume to shine when it goes in front of somebody,” he said. “You must be accountable for the things you do.”
On Empathy & Mental Health
Sumlin recalls a time early on in his career when officers were trained very differently than they are today as it relates to mental health calls.
“The focus used to be to go into a situation, take control of it, make it yours.” Sumlin said. “Now, we are actively listening to see what’s going on to deescalate the situation. It’s a whole flip of how things used to be. Safety first, of course – get citizens, yourself and your fellow officers out of harm’s way, but we are constantly learning other tools that will make us successful and will be helpful to individuals involved because now we are going to get them the help they need versus jail being the primary destination.”
The Huntsville Police Department requires its officers to complete 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training or “CIT.” This training helps officers understand mental health behaviors and appropriate de-escalation strategies. The State of Alabama requires only eight hours.
This training focuses in large part on helping officers better understand the plight of those dealing with severe mental health issues.
“You’ve got to have empathy,” Sumlin said. “You know we are already intimidating. We’ve got a badge and gun on. Who doesn’t get intimidated when they see someone with a badge and gun on?”
That badge and the uniform it adorns represents a responsibility Sumlin takes very seriously.
Because the women and men wearing it have the opportunity to make an incredible impact on the lives of their fellow community members.
“I take so much pride in what my uniform represents, because it represents something bigger than me,” Sumlin said. “Every officer should always feel that way when they put on the uniform and leave their house. This is a calling. It’s a calling to serve and a calling to be the best.”