Frank Hooper has lived with the Gainesville Police Department his whole life.
Now 52, he can remember his father, Officer Roy Franklin Hooper Sr., plopping him down on the counter of the tiny station in the old Gainesville city hall when he was just a toddler.
As a teenager, there were the Saturday night ride-alongs with his dad where he saw firsthand what it took to be a good patrol officer.
At 20, he was a rookie, two months after the senior Hooper retired as a captain so that his son could join a department where nepotism policies prevented them from working together. By 30, the younger Hooper was on an administrative track, and at 40 he was named police chief.
Now, just days from his retirement, Hooper faces a future without the familiar dark navy uniform or badge.
"It’s bittersweet," he acknowledges, looking around the bare office walls pocked with nail holes where plaques and photos once hung.
But even as his department is less than a year away from moving into much larger, more modern headquarters, a project the chief spearheaded, he knows the time is right.
"I’ve worked my whole career right here," Hooper said of the 34-year-old public safety building on Jesse Jewell Parkway. "That new building is going to be very nice, but I kind of wanted to finish out here. My dad ended his career in this building.
"You just have to know when it’s time to leave," he said. "You want to go out on top, and I feel like I have."
‘Where my heart was’
Frank Hooper remembers the last thing his mother would tell his father when he left to go out on patrol: "be careful."
"That was something that was ingrained in me since childhood, and I even say it to the officers here a lot," Hooper said.
When the younger Hooper, at age 14, asked his father if he could ride along on Saturday nights, he was offered his first glimpse into patrol work and what effective policing required. He stayed behind in the car when his father got called out on drunk calls or fight calls or burglary calls. He sat and watched.
"The thing I’ll always remember was his interaction with the public," Hooper said. "How he could diffuse the situation — he was very good at that — but he could be physical if it called for that, also.
"It seemed like my dad was respected all over town. He was the type of person who could get along with anybody, had a great personality. He kind of taught me how to be a police officer. My mom taught me how to treat people."
Hooper didn’t join the ranks straight out of North Hall High School. He spent more than two years as a land surveyor for a civil engineer before he felt the inevitable draw to law enforcement work in 1978.
"I guess that’s always where my heart was," he said.
Hooper looked into working for the Georgia State Patrol or Hall County Sheriff’s Office, but was most interested in a job at the department he knew so well. The nepotism policy stood in his way, so his father, with 25 years of service, retired.
Roy Hooper may have retired from daily police work, but he gave his son plenty of advice that continued on until his death in 2001.
"I could always go to my dad if I was dealing with a tough issue and just ask him what he thought," Hooper said. "He would be up-front and honest with me. He wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to hear; he would tell me what he thought was right. I could always use him for a sounding board, and I really miss that."
Other mentors early in the chief’s career included the late Capt. Ray Medlin and Harold Black. From them he learned about the "second sense" a good officer needs — the ability to pick up on things others might not notice and read between the lines.
"Ray Medlin used to say it took you five years to learn to be a police officer, that you were a rookie until you’d been here five years," Hooper said.
Hooper looked to people more of his generation for guidance, too, including David Frazier and James Lattimer.
"At that time there was a new breed of law enforcement, because it was all becoming more technological," Hooper said. "So there were a lot of younger officers I learned from, too."
A career divided into thirds
After 10 years on the patrol beat, Hooper volunteered to work in the city jail. He wanted to get a closer understanding of the "regulars" he saw out on the streets, and noticed that officers with jail experience had a better rapport with the repeat offenders whom they dealt with regularly.
After a year and half working at the jail, Hooper was on the department’s administrative track, starting as a firearms instructor and range master. In 1987, at age 29, he wrote the department’s first firearms policy and was soon involved in the department’s first accreditation efforts. He served as accreditation manager when the department was first nationally accredited in 1993, then went on to supervise criminal investigations for two years.
By the time the chief’s position became open in 1997, Hooper had worked as the administrative services supervisor and been promoted to lieutenant.
Then-city manager Carlyle Cox recommended Hooper be appointed chief by the City Council.
"When the opening for police chief came up, I looked over the candidates inside and outside the department, and Frank was clearly the best candidate for the city of Gainesville," Cox said earlier this month. "I couldn’t see anyone else doing the job he did. He was always available, answering people’s calls and questions. He was visible in the community."
Hooper said his 32-year career at the department was "divided into thirds" — patrol, then administrative, then chief.
"I tell new officers that you need to diversify yourself in this profession," Hooper said. "It doesn’t mean you jump from job to job, but you’re always looking for opportunities to advance and increase your knowledge. That’s what I tried to do as I moved through the ranks, and it’s really served me well as chief."
Final goal realized
When Hooper was named chief, he had a list of goals, short term and long term. He wanted to establish a precinct at Lakeshore Mall. He wanted to help form a gang task force with the Hall County’s Sheriff’s Office. He wanted to improve pay and morale within the department.
Those goals were achieved within the first few years. Others took a little longer. Three years ago, a goal of improving communications equipment with a new radio system was realized, and ground was finally broken this year on a sales-tax-funded public safety facility.
"When I made chief, we needed to be out of this building, and it took a little longer than I planned," said Hooper, who added there were a few false starts along the way. "But that’s kind of the last piece of the puzzle."
Hooper said he planned on retiring two years ago, when he hit 30 years of service, but decided to stay until the facilities project was nailed down.
"I wanted to make sure it was going to happen," he said.
Along the way, Hooper has had the routine and not-so-routine challenges of being police chief: growth, an increasingly diverse population, an economy that has affected crime rates and threatens to cut government services.
He’s proud of the way the community handled the unwelcome intrusion of the Ku Klux Klan’s planned marches of the late 1990s. He points with pride to a newspaper photo of him talking with the late civil rights leader Hosea Williams during those challenging times.
"The people doing the marching were trying to provoke some kind of reaction, so we tried to work with the community and say, ‘We’re not going to have that kind of reaction here, and we’re not going to let you cause problems, not in our town.’ And we were successful in doing that."
There were also the lighter moments, like the night he and his wife accompanied the reigning Miss America to dinner and she asked to stop off at a local drug store afterward.
"Here I was 10 o’clock at night, standing in an aisle at Eckerd’s Pharmacy, helping Miss America pick out Pop-Tarts," Hooper recalled with his trademark booming laugh.
Hooper said he’s been fortunate that the city managers and council members he’s worked with have never "micromanaged" his department or looked over his shoulder.
"You always wonder when the honeymoon’s going to be over, and I can say in 12 years, it’s never ended. I know in talking with other chiefs that’s not always the case."
Across the state, Hooper gained a reputation as someone to turn to for advice through his work with the Georgia Association of Police Chiefs, which named him its outstanding chief of the year for 2007, the first time an honoree was elected unanimously.
Suwanee Police Chief Michael Jones is among those who have called him for advice.
"If he fell down and cut himself, he wouldn’t bleed red, he would bleed blue," Jones said. "The man knows and loves policing."
"The biggest thing you’re looking for is a police chief who has integrity," said former Hall County Sheriff Dick Mecum, now the U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Georgia. "He’s done this city and county proud."
Frank Hooper is looking forward to the things most people look forward to in retirement: spending more time with his wife of 34 years, Teresa, his children, his 89-year-old mother and, especially, his grandchildren.
A camping buff, this month Hooper bought a new Ford F-250 pick-up truck to haul his 32-foot camper.
"It’s going to be kind of fun to just be a citizen again, for a lack of a better term," Hooper said.
Asked about his philosophy as police chief, Hooper points to a framed verse of Scripture from the book of Matthew: "Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."
"If you’re put in a position of authority, don’t forget where you came from, and don’t forget that your primary purpose in life is to serve," Hooper said. "As the chief, I feel like I serve the public, and I feel like I serve my fellow employees."