When 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones died of a bullet to her neck during a Detroit police raid in May, then-Assistant Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. found himself the face of the department.
Because Chief Warren Evans was out of the country on vacation, Godbee fielded reporters’ questions about the girl’s death at an officer’s hand.
About two months later, he became the department’s face full-time when Evans was abruptly forced out.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Godbee, 42, said in an interview Friday with the Free Press. “There’s no one I can hand the baton off to.”
Godbee knows there are knocks against him: Some say he’s too young — and his boyish face and 5-foot-7-inch frame doesn’t necessarily work in his favor.
Others say he’s too much of an insider and not ready to run the Detroit Police Department.
But, he said, his career path has been marked with unorthodox jumps — sometimes controversial ones — that leapfrogged him from rookie patrol officer in 1987 to a chosen member of then-Chief William Hart’s staff division in 1988, to head of department recruiting in 1999, and to assistant chief in 2007.
“Did I expect to get it this soon in my career? No, I did not,” he said. “But I feel my career path and the assignments that I’ve had have prepared me to be, if not chief here, then chief someplace.”
His climb to the top
Godbee — a lifelong Detroiter and 1986 graduate of Cass Technical High School — applied at age 18 for the DPD “somewhat on a dare,” he said.
He and a friend agreed they would both apply. Godbee followed through; the friend didn’t. A few months later, Godbee was hired. He loved the job from the start.
“They advised us we had vacation days, and a number of officers didn’t want to take vacation time,” he said. “You were just that excited about being a police officer.
“Twenty-three years later, I still have that same excitement.”
Godbee started as a patrol officer in the 11th District, but within a year, he was asked to interview for a position on Hart’s staff division, a special unit under the direct supervision of the chief. He got the gig, and worked surveillance and undercover for nearly three years, he said.
“To this day, I have no idea why I was offered that interview,” he said. “It was an interesting time in my career. I was a fresh face, a new officer, getting pulled to do undercover work.”
After Hart was indicted in 1991 for stealing department money, Godbee was briefly sent back to patrol before being laid off for a year. He returned as a patrol officer.
Many assignments under many bosses followed: Under then-Mayor Dennis Archer, he became a member of the Executive Protection Unit. At age 26, in 1995, he was promoted by then-Chief Isaiah McKinnon to command the EPU. Under then-Chief Benny Napoleon, he headed up department recruiting, helping hire 1,200 officers in a three-year span, he said.
His appointment as command officer of the First Precinct under then-Chief Jerry Oliver stirred controversy; Godbee was a lieutenant, but an inspector or commander was supposed to hold the command officer post. Several grievances and one month later, he was pulled from the job.
It was as an assistant chief under former Chief Ella Bully-Cummings that Godbee came under public scrutiny for co-hosting what was portrayed as a birthday luncheon for then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in August 2008, months after the mayor was charged with perjury-related felonies in the text message scandal.
A dozen top police officials attended the event and gave cash as presents. Godbee, too, gave a cash gift. When Kilpatrick was ousted as mayor after his conviction, Bully-Cummings bowed out, too, and interim Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. appointed yet another chief.
James Barren took the reins of the department and demoted Godbee to commander, prompting him to retire.
Godbee said Friday that at the time of the birthday party, he had no idea Kilpatrick’s troubles would be so huge.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” he said, adding that since then, “I have made a very deliberate attempt to be as apolitical as I can be.”
Out and in again
During his time away from the department, Godbee took a stab at consulting, landing then-Detroit Pistons guard Allen Iverson as a client. Godbee’s job was to coordinate security for the NBA star.
“That venture into the private sector was the first time in my adult life I didn’t get a paycheck from the City of Detroit,” Godbee said.
But the business was short-lived: “Ironically, A.I. became a free agent … and I guess that made me a free agent again.”
About that time, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing tapped Evans to be the new chief, and Godbee was hired back as assistant chief.
Evans’ methods, while criticized by some as being too aggressive, lowered the crime rate, city officials said. According to Godbee, as of Friday, the city had tallied 57 fewer homicides this year compared with the same period in 2009. There have been 132 fewer nonfatal shootings, he said.
Last month, after Bing said some poor decisions warranted Evans’ ouster, Godbee became interim chief and a nationwide search for a permanent replacement began.
Deputy Mayor Saul Green said in an e-mail Friday that Godbee has been “an outstanding officer of law in several ranks.” The search for a full-time chief is still under way, he added, but no details were released about applicants.
‘It’s too inbred’
Whoever wins the permanent chief post will face huge issues: residents fed up with crime; the city’s image; a shortage of resources in a financially-strapped city, and federal oversight of the department stemming from civil rights violations years ago.
David Malhalab, a retired Detroit police sergeant, said the only way to fix the department is to hire an outsider.
“The problem with the Detroit Police is it’s too inbred,” he said. “Everything’s a product of nepotism, favoritism and cronyism.”
In more than three decades, only one outsider — Oliver — has been hired to head the department. He arrived in 2002 promising reform, and left within two years in a swirl of controversy.
Malhalab said by hiring from the outside, Detroit could see a crime turnaround similar to that in Los Angeles, where Chief William Bratton is credited with lowering the crime rate and reforming the department. Godbee is good police officer, he said, but still “an insider.”
“He doesn’t have the background or experience,” Malhalab said.
Godbee disagrees, but he said his primary focus is on being interim chief, not permanent chief.
“What I want to focus on … is making sure that the trajectory continues,” he said. “It’s completely different being the No. 1 person than the No. 2 person. Right now, it’s me.”
Ralph Godbee Jr.
Education: Associate’s degree from Wayne County Community College District, 2000; bachelor’s degree in criminal justice/law enforcement administration from Siena Heights University, 2000; master’s degree from Siena Heights University, 2006
Experience: Joined the Detroit Police Department in 1987; promoted to sergeant and assigned as commanding officer of the Executive Protection Unit in 1995; promoted to lieutenant and assigned as commanding officer of the recruiting unit in 1999; assigned as the acting commander of the First Precinct and subsequently appointed to the rank of inspector and then to the rank of commander assigned to oversee the Ninth Precinct in 2002; promoted to deputy chief in 2005; named assistant chief in 2007; retired from the department in September 2008 to pursue a career in consulting; rehired July 2009 as assistant chief.
Family: One daughter; wife Yolanda Godbee, an employee of the Detroit City Council.
A version of this story appears on page 8A of the Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010, print edition of the Detroit Free Press. Interim police chief Ralph Godbee had rapid rise | freep.com | Detroit Free Press http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100808/NEWS01/8080456/1322/Interim-police-chief-had-rapid-rise&template=fullarticle#ixzz0w1NLF6YT
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Category: The New Chief