Deeply personal conversations with Detroit police Chief James White: ‘The core of who I am’

Loss had a tremendous impact on his life

Police Chief James White dreamt of becoming a trash collector in his neighborhood when he was growing up -- because that’s what his grandfather did. Read:

DETROITPolice Chief James White dreamt of becoming a trash collector in his neighborhood when he was growing up -- because that’s what his grandfather did.

After losing both his mother and uncle as a young boy, that dream changed. White took Local 4 back to his childhood home in Detroit’s Boston-Edison District to talk about his history.

“My mom was the youngest of nine children, four girls and give boys and they all lived in this home,” White said.

White’s mother died when she was 36 years old.

“What she gave me in the short amount of time that she was here, is not what everybody gets. So, I’m privileged and blessed to have had her for that short amount of time,” White said.

White said losing her had a tremendous impact.

“It really is the core of who I am. I mean, my mother was an amazing woman. She read to us every day. That was something that she made sure she did. I didn’t understand it at the time,” White said. “When I, you know, think about her, it’s always with fond memories.”

The tragedy ultimately shaped him as a father, and later, as a leader.

“I recognize that we are here on this earth for a finite amount of time and we have a tremendous responsibility with the time that we have. I grew up not believing in coincidence and I think everything, and every space, that we find ourselves in is for a reason. And we’re privileged and blessed to be in these positions of authority and responsibility and you must use them appropriately so and the life lessons that I got from mom are, you know, very simple. I mean, just treat people right,” White said.

Then, more heartbreak. Shortly after White’s grandfather died and the family moved into a new house in the Arden Park District, White’s beloved uncle was murdered at home.

“There was an amazing moment in my life where, when my grandmother was notified that her son, the oldest son, had died -- she started crying uncontrollably and I had never seen my grandmother cry. I was a little kid and when it happened, I started crying -- and the officer, he picked me up and he, he felt like a giant. I’m sure he’s probably my height. But, back then it felt like he was a giant who reached down and picked me up because I was crying and they console my grandmother and, and that just -- that made that imprint,” White said.

White was 11 years old at the time.

“I remember my grandmother dropping to her knees and wailing. What literally sounded like you could hear her heartbreak. And every single time I’m talking to a member of our community that has lost someone or at one of those crime scenes and that wailing -- that sound is so familiar to me because of my grandmother. And then you just know that pain, I mean, that’s what you hear those moms crying and screaming for their children’s, you know, it reminds you of when it was in your own family and how tragic it is. And, you know, the victimology of it. I mean, it changes everything. It literally changed my entire family dynamic,” White said. “I didn’t know what murder was and I didn’t know any of that stuff, you know. Hearing all of the detectives talk to my family, and talk to my grandmother and then watching it kill her. It literally killed her. You know, she died two years later -- and, of course, the family says she died of a broken heart. Her oldest son being murdered in this home and, you know, still standing here right now. You know, just, it’s sad and just brings back all those feelings and all those emotions.”

Extended interview: Personal conversations about family and the tragedy that changed the trajectory of his life

Police Chief James White dreamt of becoming a trash collector in his neighborhood when he was growing up -- because that’s what his grandfather did.

White’s staffers will say he is data-driven. He likes statistics and charts. He takes an analytical approach to fighting crime, but he says it will always be personal.

“You have to hope, No. 1, that people make better decisions and not use weapons to resolve simple conflicts. But, you also have to have an accountability metric to it as well. Where, when people do that, you know, they have to be arrested, and certainly, we’re only one part of the process. There has to be prosecution and there has to be some form of attention and penalty,” White said.

What is it that keeps White up at night? What is it that makes his job so difficult?

“Children. The children that are being shot and killed and the violence and, you know, it’s my hope that we never accept that as a way of life. That it’s not OK for our babies to be shot. It’s not OK for our children to find weapons that are unsecure. Either use them on themselves or use them on others. You know, I’m very concerned about that. I’m concerned about young people. Young people who are destroying their lives with impulse decision-making very much concerns me understanding that. You know, where I come from and I’m, you know, very proud to talk about, you know, being the only son of a single parent and being fortunate and blessed to have the opportunities. But the mentors and the positive role models in my uncle and others that have helped me become who I am and looking at young people from our community that may not have those opportunities and understanding. They make a poor choice, they’re likely to end up in jail. I want them to have other opportunities,” White said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke about the reduced crime rate recently. So, does White worry about the pressure on him right now and the department to perform?

“You know, you use the analogy earlier about the quarterback -- and that type of thing. This isn’t a sporting event. This isn’t. I’m not a hit coach for the Detroit Lions. So, the wins or losses aren’t something that I can control. You know, the wins are when we don’t have to lock somebody up and somebody doesn’t become dead in our city. That’s a win. I will put as many officers on dots as I can, looking at data. I will make sure that we have the appropriate number of officers on the street, that we’re addressing the issues. But this job comes with pressure, you know, it’s 24/7. This is not an eight-hour-day job,” White said.

“I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can. No one’s going to outwork me. You may be smarter than me. You may have better ideas. But you’re not going to outwork me. I’m going to work hard for the city. I’m going to work hard for these officers. And I’m going to do my very best. And when the opportunity opens, and you think you can do better -- you know -- I’ll help you transition to the role,” White said. “It’s not a popularity contest. It really isn’t. It’s about running this department fairly, constitutionally, standing up, and being transparent. And when you get it wrong, being transparent and making the commitment to get it right by looking at what you got wrong.”

“What you see is what you get, you know, there’s no hidden agenda. I’m not a politician. I’m about running this department constitutionally, supporting our officers, I’m being transparent with them, and giving them a city that’s safe, and doing absolutely everything I can to provide a layer of safety in the areas that I can control. That’s it. Nothing else. It’s it really is as simple as all of that. We want you to feel safe in your community. And I, I have a responsibility to do that. And I take that responsibility very seriously. I’m a person that believes that wearing this badge is an honor, it’s an absolute honor and a privilege. It is not a right. To wear a badge in this city, at this time, is one of the most honorable things you can do. And those who have died in his uniform, I have a responsibility, those who have sat in the seat before me, and those that will sit in the seat after me, it’s imperative that I keep the seat pristine, and that I do the very best I can to represent the city and this department with my best, and I don’t take that lightly,” White said.

Extended interview: White talks plan for city, answers tough questions about the job

Does White worry about the pressure on him right now and the department to perform?

About the Authors:

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.