Police chief sets his retirement date

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  • Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley. STEVE LEIMBERG
    Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley. STEVE LEIMBERG
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Steve Gibbs / For the News-Leader

Fernandina Beach Police Chief James “Jim” Hurley knew he wanted to be a cop when he was in second grade.

“I was born and raised in tiny Rehoboth Beach, Delaware,” Hurley told the News-Leader recently. “I knew I wanted to be a cop since I was a child.

“When I graduated from high school, my mom showed me a paper I had written in second grade. We had been asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Of course I wrote that I wanted to be a policeman.”

After starring as a quarterback in high school, he studied criminal justice at the University of Delaware and Delaware State, where he earned a degree in criminology in 1974, and a master’s degree at St. Thomas University in Miami some years later.

Now, after a 42-year career that took him through the heated drug wars and home invasions of 1980s and 1990s in Fort Lauderdale to different challenges in Fernandina Beach, Hurley has entered his final year at the helm here.

Looking back on his career, Hurley said that as his professional experience grew he discovered being a cop was more than walking a beat and cuffing criminals. He found the police must partner with the community if they are to be successful.

“Early on, I learned that I was in the relationship business,” he said.

But budget cuts, worldwide social unrest, competition for hiring quality officers and many other issues, mostly unseen by the public, continue to make policing a constant challenge.

“I am saddened that we have become too comfortable with dishonesty in this society,” he lamented. “Facts don’t matter; the rule of law is imperiled. I worry about my law enforcement people, what their lives will be like in 20 years.”

Hurley bristles at emotional reactions, including revenge, before investigations are performed and all the facts are known. “We need to allow an investigation before we pass judgment. Things are done too quickly out of the rule of law based upon what people see on videos,” he points out. “The optics alone are bad enough to cause emotional rage. There has to be change in society where people do not scream or spit at officers. There is a lot of frustration so there needs to be meaningful discussion.”

After almost 25 years of “hard core” policing experience as a Fort Lauderdale cop, including work that earned him South Florida’s “Officer of the Year” in 1986 and 1987, he arrived in Fernandina Beach 14 years ago.

“When I first came here on May 1, 2006, just before the Shrimp Festival, we had 35 officers. Our budget, like many others, was cut during that time so I had to pare that down to 30 over the next seven or eight years,” Hurley said through his face mask, as he sat in his office. But the economic situation eventually improved, as did the diversity among his officers. He now has five women, three Hispanic men, three African American men, one Asian man, and one male Pacific Islander among a force of 37.

“These local officers are the finest officers I have ever known,” he says proudly.

Hurley adds that he “has always been anti-racism” and long ago initiated inclusive leadership training for all sworn officers.

“You have to want a diverse force. I challenge people to find sensible alternatives,” he said.

Hurley also initiated protocols to prevent racial profiling of citizens.

“The next class is in August and it is mandatory for all officers. We also routinely check traffic stops to make sure officers aren’t stopping individuals for a specific reason outside law enforcement,” he said.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is his mantra, part of the advice he passes on to his officers, but he also recognizes cops are “in the confrontation business.” With that in mind, he initiated 16 steps to keep confrontation from escalating into violence.

“We work on de-escalation. We want our officers to be a nice person, not a jerk. Sometimes you just have to let people vent in order to allow for de-escalation.

“We value human life, so the first step is to be on the scene, then to use verbal commands and then, if necessary, hands on (including handcuffs), followed by a continuum, up the ladder.

“We exhaust all other means before using deadly force.”

Hurley recalled an incident he worked several years ago: “This was an armed hostage situation. Instead of breaking down the door, we waited. We staked out the area and waited all night. By morning, the man was sober and surrendered peacefully. Many of those incidents involve drugs or alcohol. If we wait, they are usually sober by morning.”

Hurley says officers have a responsibility to do the right thing, even to stop another officer from going too far.

“It is an officer’s duty to intervene if another officer is exerting excessive and unnecessary force. Our officers have a duty to intervene and report it. We don’t accept unlawful behavior by any officer. That serves the presumed perpetrator, the community as well as the department,” Hurley points out.

He is incredulous that some police departments around the country have been lagging behind or are just getting around to implementing policies that have been standard here for many years.

“Why some departments still allow choke holds and do not teach deactivation techniques (as we do) makes me wonder,” he told the News-Leader.

“We banned choke holds 20 years ago,” he points out. “We value human life.” He points out that this department banned shooting into an occupied car, whether sitting or in motion, 20 years ago.

Hurley is proud that his department has been proactive for many years.

“We’ve had in-car cameras for over 20 years and we installed body cameras in 2016 at a huge cost. After an incident where there has been confrontation, the body cameras are uploaded into the in-car camera and then onto the police department’s server so that we get all the information before the shift is over,” he said.

Asked about street drugs, he says meth is not as big a problem as he thought it would be, but there are greater dangers.

“Now we find meth and heroin laced with fentanyl. Our officers carry naloxone for (overdose) cases,” he pointed out. “We still get DUI’s, and since the COVID-19, we have found more speeding cases since the roads are not being used.”

Hurley said the most gratifying aspect of his job is knowing “we are providing a difficult service and doing it well, a level of service this community demands.”

At a robust 65, he is retiring the weekend of next year’s Shrimp Festival. He said he will miss riding in the parade but has other projects to stay in tune with the community.

“I may do some consulting in Jacksonville but I plan to stay here,” he said.

As a golfer, he also plans to work on his short game.