By Joel Hall
Clayton County Police Sgt. Robert Joel Babb originally wanted to be a forest ranger, but destiny steered the Forest Park High School graduate toward a career in law enforcement in the county of his upbringing.
Since 1980, when Babb joined the police force, his actions have spoken louder than his perpetually calm, soft-spoken demeanor suggests.
"[For] the first six or seven years, I worked without a bullet-proof vest," Babb said. "There were very few officer-involved shootings back then. In contrast, now everybody is issued a vest before they hit the road and everybody is issued equipment that used to be scarce."
Babb worked his way up from a patrolman to a training officer. On Thanksgiving morning in 1992, while training a rookie officer, Babb responded to a distress call involving an escaped convict from Arizona who had reportedly traveled to Riverdale in an attempt to kidnap his daughter from his ex-wife.
When Babb approached the suspect, the convict pulled out a gun, which forced Babb to respond with deadly force. For his bravery, Babb was awarded the police department's highest recognition, the Medal of Honor, becoming the only officer on the force, to this day, to be bestowed with the honor.
Only a week after the deadly shootout, Babb responded to a report of a 2-year-old boy wandering alone near the intersection of Tara Boulevard and Ga. Highway 138. Babb reportedly ran into traffic, carried the boy to safety, and eventually was able to deliver the boy back to his residence.
Babb was eventually promoted to sergeant and, for the past 14 years, has had a supervisor's role over the police department's morning watch, responding to incidents in Clayton County between the hours of 10 p.m., and 6 a.m.
On Friday at 6 a.m., Babb completed his last shift in preparation for retirement. Later that morning, more than 100 law enforcement officials and their families gathered at Clayton County Police Headquarters in Jonesboro to honor Babb's years of service.
"Honor, courage and integrity are traits that are desirable in any profession, however, they are absolutely essential in the law enforcement profession," Interim Police Chief Tim Robinson said during Babb's retirement ceremony. "Sgt. Babb has certainly displayed these attributes during his 30-year career.
"He's always had a calming presence," he added. "Anytime he would go into a situation, by being calm, he is able to calm the situation ... He's very friendly, very personal, and one of those people everybody likes to have around."
Emotional police officers showered Babb with praise on Friday, many of them describing him as a friend and personal mentor.
"Joel [Babb] is a very, very kind-hearted, soft-spoken man, but has the heart of a fierce lion," said Maj. Rick Webster, who worked with Babb as a patrolman in the 1980s. "Joel always knew when to and [when] not to use that side of him. He was very well-respected. He was very open to being approached by younger officers. I've never seen him turn anybody down for assistance."
"I've never seen him angry," said Lt. Tina Daniel, an officer on the force for 15 years. "I've seen him in a lot of trying situations ... He is the epitome of calm. I've seen a lot of officers try to mirror him because of his professionalism."
Babb's second wife and spouse of 22 years, Karen Babb, was a patrolwoman for the police department in the mid-1980s. Sgt. Babb, she said, was her first training officer.
"From the first time meeting him, I knew he was somebody I could trust," Karen Babb said. "How can you help marrying somebody who you know will have your back in any situation? After 22 years, with all the drama of police life, that still holds true."
Joel Babb, who lives in southeast Spalding County, said he plans to use his retirement to spend more time with his family and to tend to his land.
"I'm excited about it, but I hate to leave," he said. "I've spent such a chunk of my life here. I've got 34 acres I've lived on that I've never been able to turn into a farm ... that is first priority. I've got a to-do list about 30 years long."