Jane Nichols says she never got into police work with the goal of becoming chief, but that she’s also up for the job.
Nichols, the Gainesville Police Department’s deputy chief since 2007, became the first woman to head the agency when she was named interim police chief effective Jan. 1.
Nichols, 51, succeeds her longtime friend and colleague, Frank Hooper, who retired after 32 years in the department, the last 12 as police chief.
While Nichols is the department’s most senior officer, with nearly 28 years on the force, police work was not her first career choice.
The oldest of five children and the first in her family to graduate either high school or college, Nichols at first pursued a career as a teacher at the urging of her mother, who gave birth to her at age 17.
“It didn’t work, because that wasn’t me, that was my mother,” she said.
When she decided to become a police officer, her father, whom she laughingly described as “a scoundrel – a bootlegger and a gambler,” was thrilled.
“He told me he was prouder when he saw me in uniform than when he saw me graduate from college,” Nichols recalled.
“Big Bill” Nichols died in 1998 at age 56.
“My father’s probably getting a heckuva kick out of this up in heaven,” Nichols said.
Nichols sat down for questions with The Times last week. Below are a few of her responses, some of which have been edited for space.
Question: What can you say about the city manager’s decision to name you interim police chief?
Answer: I’m flattered, I’m humbled. I can honestly say that the position of police chief is not one I ever sought. I didn’t come in the door like Frank with the aspiration of ever being the police chief. I just came in with the aspiration of being a good person and helping folks, and I had that opportunity. I’ve been blessed throughout my career to be at the right place at the right time for promotions and job appointments. So, I’m excited. It’s not like I’m taking over in the middle of a crisis. The job’s really not going to change that much. ... I think we can certainly be better. Everybody can be better. But I also think we’re doggone good, too. So, I’m looking forward to it.
Q: What can you say about being the first female police chief in the history of the Gainesville Police Department?
A: Well, it’s pretty exciting from that standpoint, but I’ve been asked before, ‘How do you feel about that?’ I was the first female lieutenant, first female captain, first female deputy chief, and now first female chief. All my career, especially during my supervisory career, I’ve tried to be gender-blind. I just see police officers. And although this certainly has been and still is a male-dominated profession, I don’t try to use gender or anything else to get ahead. I think the way you get ahead is to do your job. And while I’m flattered, I hope it has nothing to do with my gender, it has to do with the job I’ve done for the last 28 years.
Q: What is your philosophy toward policing?
A: I think we’re service first, and our job is to go out and do for folks what they can’t do for themselves. People call us when they’re at the end of their rope. When they’ve done everything they know how to do. And our job is to go out and try to help folks as best we can. To provide them with the resources, the information and the assistance that’s available, and be there. Not necessarily as a cure-all, but certainly at least as a band-aid to get them through the night.
We are all community-oriented police officers. We need to know the folks we work for, and the folks we work for are the citizens of this city who pay our salaries. We need to remember that it’s their money that we’re spending, and we need to spend it wisely, and we need to give them the best possible return on their investment. ... We need the tools necessary to do our jobs to the best of our abilities, but my focus is definitely on our folks. We’re not a factory, we don’t produce a product. We’re only as good as our weakest employee. So I really believe in support, especially for our first responders.
The patrol is the backbone of any police department. They’re the face of the Gainesville Police Department. And I believe in giving them the best equipment available ... not the newest toys, but the best equipment available, to allow them to do their jobs. And that’s my job, to make sure they have what they need to do their jobs. And provide the support and the encouragement and the leadership that they need.
Q: What approach do you take as a supervisor?
A: Well, I hold folks accountable. And I think anybody in this agency will tell you that I expect them to do their best. I certainly understand that we’re all human and we’re all going to make mistakes. But if they make a mistake, it better be because they were doing the best they could with what they were working with, and it just didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to. I don’t tolerate misconduct. There’s no gray area for me for a police officer. I hold our folks to the highest of standards. And I hold myself to the same standards. And I expect when our folks are on-duty and when they’re off-duty, that they represent the city in a professional, ethical, stand-up kind of way. ...
My goal is the same as the Chief’s (Hooper). And that’s to have a transparent police department. We’re the city’s police department. We welcome the citizens to come in and do ride-alongs, we have our police academies for the purpose of letting folks know who we are and what we do and how we do it. What we do is not a secret. It’s written on the side of our car: we protect and serve, that’s what we’re here for.
Occasionally we have to lock folks up. But believe it or not, that’s our last resort. We would much rather mediate the situations so that nobody has to go to jail, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Typically everything we do is suspect-driven. We have to respond to whatever the individuals we’re dealing with do. And sometimes they don’t give us a lot of options.
Q: What are your goals for 2010?
A: Well, certainly, we want to get into that new building (the Gainesville Public Safety Facility), and that’s going to be a major undertaking. I don’t know that we’re on schedule with the construction. I hope we’re not too far behind, but the wet winter we’ve had has really put their backs against the wall. So we’ll move as soon as they give us the go-ahead. And on a personal-slash-professional note, it’s my goal to have Chief Hooper unlock that door and walk us in. That’s his building — he did the work on that building and he deserves that. So that’s a very specific thing that I would like to see happen. And I intend to do everything I can to make that happen.
Q: How will a weak economy and the city’s furlough program affect operations?
A: It’s a challenge, but we know we have to do our part to help the city stay fiscally solvent and stay in the black. So it’s a challenge, but it’s one that we’ll meet and do everything we can to make it work. ...
Revenues are down, but the cost of doing business is up. So we’re going to be forced to do the same with much less. That’s going to necessitate keeping cars longer, driving higher mileage cars.
So there’s the fiscal challenge, and also the logistical challenge of moving into the building and getting all the property and evidence and records moved. There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that the public never sees that will have to be transported from this building to that building. It will be something that will be overwhelming for about two or three days. But we’ve got to get out of this building, because it’s scheduled for demolition. So everything’s got to go. And it’s exciting, but it’s kind of scary, too.
Q: Would you like to see the “interim” removed from your title eventually?
A: Yeah, yeah, that would be fine. It’s like I said the other day — I’m ready when they are. And I understand the reasons for the interim stuff. But if that’s the direction they choose to go in, that’s fine with me.
Q: Do you see the next few months as an opportunity to show why you should be named permanent chief?
A: Yeah, I think that’s one way to look at it, sure. They know me. I’ve worked with the council and the city manager for most of my career. I know them professionally and personally. So there’s not a lot I can show them in four or five months that they don’t already know. And their goal is the same as mine and Frank’s — a smooth transition. ...
Frank told me we’re not going to miss a beat. And I said, ‘No, sir, we won’t miss a beat.’ We may be marching to a different drummer, but we won’t miss a beat.