Athens Police Chief Wayne Harper won’t miss the crime he has seen over the past four decades, but he will miss the people and the colleagues he has befriended.
After nearly 46 years in law enforcement, including 23 years as head of the Athens department, he will retire Jan. 1, 2012.
“I had been thinking about it for a while and just decided it was time,” Harper said Friday. “It’s a tough decision. I still enjoy going to work, so I’m not really raring to go, but I would like to leave while my health is good and I can do things. My wife, Vonette, wanted me to retire for a while now. She looks forward to traveling. She has been very supportive of me.”
He will miss the people who have come to be his work family.
“I started in law enforcement when I had just turned 21, so I am going to miss people,” he said. “When you work, you spend more time with the people you work with than you do your family, so I know I am going to miss people. I have hired most of those who are here. I have gone to weddings and seen babies born and grandkids born and they are almost like a family.”
Harper grew up in Jefferson County, in the Midfield area, and graduated from Hueytown High School. He earned an associate’s degree in law-enforcement from Jefferson State College and a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Montevallo.
In February 1965 — about two years after Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety used water cannons and dogs on black Civil Rights demonstrators and after someone had killed four black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church — Harper joined the Birmingham Police Department.
“The problems were winding down by the time I came on board,” Harper said.
He found his career in the city and in law-enforcement, retiring as a police lieutenant from the department then accepting the chief’s job in Athens in May 1988.
Athens, he said, could not have been more welcoming.
“I just appreciate how everyone treated us over the years,” Harper said of the community. “We came up here with our youngest, not knowing a soul, and everybody just sort of adopted us. We never felt like strangers. Everyone was so nice. We have really enjoyed it — not just the department but the whole community and the area.”
Time for family
Harper does not expect to be bored in retirement.
“I do like to fish, and my fishing buddy is retired,” he said. “I have a long list of projects around the house prepared for me, and we hope to travel some a little later. We’ve got kids all over the place, and we look forward to seeing the grandkids more. After I’m off a while, I may — if I get caught up — do a part-time job or some volunteer work.”
The Harpers have four children — Jennifer Cobb of Pellum; Laurie Vaughn of Huntsville; Len, who is in the Army at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; and Annette Mansel, who lives in New York. The Harpers also have a dozen grandchildren.
Years in review
The chief has seen many changes in law-enforcement since he began in 1965.
“I think one of the main things is the difference technologies — we are computerize — which is different than when I started. We didn’t have computers then.
The technology has been a good change, he believes because it has helped officers and administrators deal with the faster pace of law-enforcement. But there is also a downside.
“Back when I started, we were closer to the community,” Harper said. “We were on the street more but now we have so much paperwork. We fill out a report on everything. We also have more traffic, more incidents and arrests — there is a lot more volume.”
That is due mainly to growth in Athens since 1988, he said.
“It puts a strain on the officers,” he said. “They spend a lot more time answering calls and doing paperwork.”
There have been changes for the better in the more than four decades he has been an officer.
“Standards are higher for education and training, and equipment is so much better,” he said.
As for highs and lows during his tenure in Athens, Harper cites the January 2004 fatal shootings of two of his officers — Tony Mims and Sgt. Larry Russell — as the worst event in memory. The officers were ambush outside the Athens home of a man with a history of mental illness.
“It was a tragic,” he said simply.
The best part of his job has been the many friends he has made.
“If I had worked at a plant, I would not have met so many people,” he said. “But because I’m involved with a lot of organizations, meeting, municipalities and other (law-enforcement) jurisdictions, I have met a lot of good folks.”