JONESBORO—Police Chief Cliff Kelker first came to Clayton County as a Gulf War veteran working on the old Ford assembly line in Hapeville.
“I replaced hoses on the Taurus SHO,” he said. “That was the police car. They’re coming back with it.”
But Kelker’s qualifications for the job far outrank his experience at Ford.
A native of Utica, Miss., Kelker joined the 101st Airborne, first stationed at Ft. Campbell, Ky., then with the Third Infantry Division in Germany, then back to Ft. Campbell. The weekend he was to be discharged, Desert Shield broke out, and he was called back to duty there and in Desert Storm.
After the war, “We threw a dart,” and landed in Marietta, relatively near his nephew in Riverdale and that first civilian job in Hapeville.
“I had been in the military since I was 18,” Kelker recalls. “The real world was very different. Weird.” But then, he said, he got the call to policing. “I applied to some agencies, Marietta hired me, and the rest is history.”
Kelker served with the Marietta Police Department for about 27 years. During that time, he also completed a bachelor’s in political and social science and a master’s in public administration at Kennesaw State. According to a Nixle release from the Marietta Police Department, Kelker was “endearingly referred to as ‘Robocop’ and eventually just ‘Robo” by Marietta residents,” and worked in the patrol investigations, community outreach and administration divisions. He also was involved in the Police Athletic League. As the 12th Marietta cop to become chief of another department, according to the release, Kelker “has made immeasurable contributions to public safety in Marietta.”
When the Jonesboro chief’s job came open, he said, “They sold me as much as I sold them. There’s very interesting stuff happening here.” He was appointed Aug. 20 and sworn in Sept. 11, replacing Chief Frankie Allen.
Allen resigned in June, saying city officials told him they wanted to “move in a ‘different direction.’”
“We are so excited to have Chief Kelker here with us in Jonesboro to build upon the great foundation by which the agency sits upon,” said City Manager Ricky Clark. “His leadership abilities, analytical skills and relatable personality will help further our strategic objective of building a Connected and Engaged Community. We welcome him with open arms to Jonesboro.”
Asked about his policing philosophy, Kelker explained, “There are a lot of different philosophies out there,” adding that police chiefs have different approaches. His is “procedural justice,” which the Department of Justice describes as “the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources.” It’s also a policing philosophy he has taught in Marietta, and which Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn called “Kelker’s most important and lasting contribution.”
Kelker said procedural justice is based on four principles: “Fairness in the processes, transparency in actions, opportunities for voice and impartiality in decision-making.”
“My philosophy is very strong as to dealing with citizens and dealing with the public in general. Every unique environment I work in, the citizens, different cities, unique cultures, I really believe in getting to know that city’s culture and to become part of that community.” That means treating citizens as human beings and making sure that officers hear what people have to say, whether during a routine traffic stop or during an arrest. According to Kelker, active listening is also a safety precaution for officers.
In addition, Kelker is a graduate of the 55th Session of the Senior Management Institute for Police (SMIP) at Boston University and the 106th Session of the Administrative Officers Course at the Southern Police Institute on the campus of the University of Louisville, as well as the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Governance-Management Development Program, the International Association of Chiefs of Police-Leadership in Police Organizations course and the Dale Carnegie Leadership course, where he earned the top award.
Kelker acknowledged that sometimes people in a community are wary of change. “We can’t go back. So how do we move forward? John Maxwell (an evangelical leadership speaker) said, ‘Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.’”
Just as it’s impossible to legislate morality, Kelker pointed out that it’s impossible to zone crimes like human trafficking and drug dealing out of existence. “Keeping things safe is my primary responsibility,” he said. “The development aspect of it we don’t get into — that’s for the elected officials and (City Manager) Mr. (Ricky) Clark. Changing the landscape isn’t really something the police department does.”
However, Kelker added, “My hope is to provide input into the safety aspect of any designs.” For example, if a proposed development included an alley-like structure, Kelker said it’s possible to deter criminals by adding lighting or even false windows. Kelker pointed to Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, as one example of how city planners and design teams can incorporate crime deterrence into the built environment.
“Jonesboro is not plagued with murders and rapes because the city is not big,” he said, “but we are in an area with a lot of through traffic.” That means Jonesboro is ripe for crimes of opportunity, he explained. “Car break-ins are the number one problem, and other small theft.” He urges residents to “lock, take, hide” when leaving their vehicles.
Beyond car break-ins, Kelker said the priority is “making sure these serious crimes don’t become a problem and finding ways to deal with places that quickly turn to that. Keeping an eye on motels because different crime groups take advantage of that. Crime groups will bring in prostitution, which brings drugs, which leads to violence and guns.”
It’s not that hotels or motels are problems in themselves, Kelker added. “I’m not saying that hotels are bad businesses. But if you’re not going to manage or care for your facility, they will be. Those that do take care of their facility tend to have higher prices. It’s what people inside the city want, not what people outside the city want.”
Right now, the force is at 22 officers out of a full complement of 26. “We’re hiring!” Kelker said.
Officers in Jonesboro are divided into four watches and work 12-hour shifts, two days on, two days off. Starting pay is about $40,000 a year, which Kelker says is comparable with other forces around metro Atlanta.
Although some agencies struggle with retention, where officers sometimes leave a few years after the department has invested in their training and development, Kelker doesn’t see this as an issue for Jonesboro.
“The opportunity for (learning) things is what keeps officers. We’ll give you the most excellent training we can give you. We’ll teach you leadership and put quality into your profession. You can take that, leave, go somewhere else. We’re not hurt by that. We hope you leave a better officer because you’ll be marketing for our agency.”
Kelker’s main goal as chief is to “make the citizens happy and keep them safe. The fact is, this is a great bunch of men and women in this department who would do anything to take care of the people, and who have a committed heart for this job. It’s an honor to be here with them.”