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New chief of the Gainesville Police Department gets to work
New Gainesville Police Chief Brian Kelly, right, and officer Erik Ellis browse through the department’s policy and procedure manual Friday afternoon.

Brian Kelly

Born: Fulton County

Raised: Spalding County, Warner Robins, Cairo

Home: North Hall

Education: Cairo High School; associate degree at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College; bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Georgia; graduate of FBI National Academy; master’s degree in public administration at Columbus State University

Family: Wife of 14 years, Lyn, and 8-year-old daughter

Career: University of Georgia Department of Public Safety, 1994-96; Gainesville Police Department, 1996-present

Hobbies: Home improvement, landscaping, fishing

With a father who was police chief in two Southwest Georgia towns, it might seem Brian Kelly was always on track to follow in his footsteps.

But Kelly, who last week was sworn in as Gainesville’s new police chief, didn’t decide on law enforcement as a career until nearly three years of college studies in wildlife management. After he “caught the criminal justice bug,” as he recalled, it was a fast track from there.

Kelly, who spent two years with the University of Georgia Department of Public Safety and another 14 as a Gainesville officer, seems to have done all the right things to be in the position of commanding a 100-officer department at age 37.

“Brian saw early on that you needed to get certain skills and education under your belt as quickly as you can to compete,” said UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson, who like Kelly, attended the FBI’s National Academy and supervised Kelly as a captain in the mid-1990s.

“Brian was one of those officers who carried himself with extreme professionalism,” Williamson said. “His dad was really polished, and you could tell Brian was going to be the same way.”

James Kelly retired as chief of police in Cairo, where his son graduated high school before attending Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton.

A native of Fulton County who spent his childhood years in Spalding County and Warner Robins, Brian Kelly decided to switch majors to criminal justice after transferring to UGA. It was a career option that had been in front of him the whole time.

“I’ve pretty much been around law enforcement my whole life,” Kelly said. “Watching my father and his service to the community had a lot to do with steering me toward a career in public service.”

Kelly’s career in the Gainesville Police Department has been a prime example of former Police Chief Frank Hooper’s personnel strategy. Hooper believed officers in supervisory positions should be moved around every few years to different divisions in order to be more well-rounded.

Kelly has been a patrol officer, a field training officer, a sergeant assigned to the community policing program, a commander of criminal investigations, a public spokesman for the department and most recently headed up the division that includes traffic services and special events.

While Kelly admits to some initial apprehension in some of the transfers, “it was definitely a good thing, to allow me to experience different facets of the department, and get to see what the different units do each and every day.”

Kelly won his new job over a field of more than 70 applicants, prompting several people inside and outside the department to commend City Manager Kip Padgett for selecting a chief from the internal ranks.

Kelly is Gainesville’s fourth police chief in five months after Hooper’s December retirement and the brief tenures of two interim chiefs. He acknowledges the stability of a permanent chief has brought relief among the rank and file.

“The fear of the unknown is always a concern for everybody,” Kelly said. “The people who have worked with me, they know me and they know what to expect. So I think that helps morale, and I think they’ve been very comfortable.”

Williamson noted police chiefs who are promoted from within don’t have to go through a learning curve.

“They understand the community, they’ve already got those relationships built,” Williamson said. “It’s not a new person coming to town who has to learn the people and relationships.”

Like Kelly, Williamson was 37 when he succeeded a respected police chief who retired at age 52. Williamson, who has served as chief of UGA police for six years, said age isn’t questioned in other professions.

“I would say look at how long Brian’s been working there,” Williamson said. “He’s seen what the city of Gainesville’s gone through and what it needs. While you might say he’s a little young, youth is going to bring forward thinking and progressive thinking that you want in a community like Gainesville.”

Williamson added, “If he hasn’t gained the experience in 14 years to be able to make the decisions that are needed by that agency, he wasn’t going to gain them in 25. I don’t think there’s going to be any problem with his maturity and his decision-making.”

Hooper was 40 years old, and like Kelly, promoted from the rank of lieutenant when he made chief in 1997.

In his first week as chief, Kelly has spent time taking stock of the department’s needs and priorities with his senior command staff, Capt. Chad White and Capt. Paul Sherman.

The big move into new headquarters on Queen City Parkway looms in September, with myriad logistical hurdles to overcome between now and then.

Economic challenges will require innovative thinking to maintain a high level of police services, Kelly said.

“I’m a big proponent of community policing, and I want to be able to challenge the public to engage and assist in those areas,” he said.

Kelly said he wants to hear from the community and maintain a transparent and open department. He also will seek the counsel of his employees, whom he says are the real strength of the department.

“I’m definitely open to new ideas,” he said. “We have over 100 employees, and I look at that as 100 different life experiences. I look to tap into those resources and get their ideas.”

Kelly said he’s “excited and exhilarated” by the job ahead of him.

“It’s a great agency, and I’m looking forward to a long tenure here as chief of police, working with the community to continue to improve the quality of life in Gainesville.”