HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - The second largest police force in Alabama belongs to Huntsville, and the responsibility for leading the more than 200 officers belongs to Chief Lewis Morris.
He joined us for this week's edition of Leadership Perspectives, our in-depth interview segment with local community leaders.
Morris has been with the Huntsville Police Department for 38 years, working his way up through the ranks. He is a graduate of Jacksonville State University and Huntsville High School.
We talked with him about a variety of topics, including staffing, school safety, and how technology has changed police work.
First -- does Huntsville have enough police officers?
"Steve, we never have enough," Chief Morris replied. "We can always use more officers. There's always things we can do. If we have more personnel we can be a little more proactive. Police departments are largely reactive, we respond to reports of crime. If we reached a staffing level where we could afford the luxury of assigning people to proactive measures, then we certainly would do that."
For example, he said he would love to put more officers in Huntsville schools.
"We have 18 officers in the school resource officer program and one sergeant supervises them. Would we like to expand on that? Yeah. We have two community resource officers in each precinct. They do a tremendous amount of work individually with the community for their specific needs, operating within the precinct. If we had more people, perhaps we could have three and do even more."
We asked Chief Morris if he believes our schools are safe.
"Schools are safe," he said. "The schools that they're building have an environmental design to make them safe. Police officers are well-trained. Every officer in the police department is trained to respond to incidents specific to schools or specific to malls -- large instances. But yes, schools are safe."
Several things have changed since Morris joined the police department 38 years ago. Technology, first and foremost.
"When I started, you had a radio that talked to a dispatcher, and you wrote a report by hand. Now in the digital age, it's all electronic. When I started you had three radio frequencies that you talked on, now we have over 30. We have computers in the cards, we have automatic vehicle, AVL's in the cars, GPS systems. Technology is a good thing, and expensive thing sometimes, but it's something you have that's constantly evolving, and it's hard to get in front of that," said Morris.
Morris says technology has its downfalls, though.
"What you lose with technology is something that I think every parent could tell you. Your kids don't talk to you, they'll text you, or they'll send you a message. In my opinion, sometimes you lose the art of conversation, and that's what police work is about, that one-on-one interaction, and talking to people to see what you can do to help them," Morris said. "You always lose something through an email or a text, or just typing. And it presents some other issues in that people can get on the internet and say whatever they want and they're not accountable for it, because they don't use their real name."
Las Vegas officers killed
Last week, two Las Vegas police officers were shot and killed while they were eating lunch. It's a horrible thing for any American to hear about, but especially for police officers.
"It's just tragic, senseless, it's devastating," said Chief Morris. "It makes you wonder... it just makes you think. You know that's not the first time police officers have been in a restaurant, while they're eating... have been ambushed or attacked. I recall several years ago there were three officers in a department out west that were...that that happened to. you know, it's just a tragic event."
We asked how he keeps his officers from dwelling on things like that.
"You just have to tell them to be alert, be vigilant, pay attention... much like the public when we tell them not to be victims... what they can do to lessen their chances of being victims of crime. But you have to look at things today. Alabama has an open carry law. I've been reading in the news... Texas I think, people actually want to carry long guns into stores and restaurants, and some stores have prohibited that policy. Police officers sitting in a restaurant and somebody walks in and they can see they're obviously armed, well, that's not against the law. Sometimes the interaction between that officer and that individual results in an exchange where the individual wants to complain on the police officer, but the officer is going to check and make sure that everybody is safe and everything."
Is it tough to get enough officers, we asked?
"It's tough. You have to ask yourself, why do you want to be a police officer? Why...it's a tough competition in the job market out there, and it is... recruiting police officers can be a tough thing," Morris replied.
Morris said making it through the police academy is a real challenge.
"Some people get an appointment to the academy and they drop out of the academy, or they're not able to complete some of the requirements, academically or physically. And after the academy they have a 14-week field officer training program where they ride with an officer that continues their training on so that they can observe the practical application of what they've learned in the academy. Sometimes that's difficult to make through."
Look for new Leadership Perspectives segments every Friday on WHNT.com. Portions of these interviews also air on WHNT News 19 This Morning on weekends.