Mt. Juliet police Chief James Hambrick’s journey to serving as the first African-American police chief in Mt. Juliet’s history was not his vision when he became a dispatcher in 1995, but he believes it was fate.
“I didn’t envision it. The opportunity [to become chief] came and – I don’t want it to make it a negative light – but I was told don’t try to look for advancing up because I was told Mt. Juliet would probably never have a person of color in a leadership position. God knows what he’s doing,” Hambrick said.
Hambrick said another reason he believed his chances were slim to become chief was because he didn’t enter law enforcement until his mid-30s, but his journey prepared him for his position as the helm of Mt. Juliet law enforcement.
Hambrick grew up in the Settle Court housing development in Nashville and said he had to “grow up fast” during his adolescence. His parents were divorced, and his mother died when he was 11 years old, which forced Hambrick, his brother and sister to live with relatives, sometimes in rough neighborhoods.
The siblings lived with several cousins, which Hambrick said was motivation for him to get a full-time job at 13.
“If you wanted something, you had to work for it,” said Hambrick, who joined the Navy after he graduated Stratford High School in 1979.
“One thing the Navy stressed was pride and professionalism. That’s something that’s carried with me to this day. That was engrained in me,” Hambrick said.
Although the Navy stressed pride and professionalism, Hambrick said other aspects of military life were instilled in him as a child.
“On Saturday when most people were sleeping in, we were up waxing floors and everything, because we knew it we wanted to go to the theater or anything like that, you’d better have those chores done,” he said.
Hambrick said the Navy also taught him to relate to other people throughout the country and world as he traveled to Africa, Australia, England, Germany and other countries. He said the experience also made him realize how blessed Americans are compared to other countries.
Hambrick returned to Nashville from the Navy in 1985, where he started his own janitorial service, drove school buses for Metro Nashville and started in ministry. He said he enjoyed his time as a bus driver and focused on consistency when dealing with students.
“From day one, if you set the rules and parameters and you’re consistent in those, you won’t have any problems,” he said.
At the same time, Hambrick started going to church.
“People had been telling me, ‘James you need to get back in church.’ We grew up in the church. I was thinking there has to be something different,” said Hambrick, who said he felt a calling to ministry as young as 17, but ran away from the feeling.
He said, ironically, he was often called “Preach” while stationed in Philadelphia.
“It wasn’t any doubt about what was in my spirit,” he said.
By 1994, Hambrick was a licensed ordained minister and started working at Jim Dandy, which is currently Mapco in Mt. Juliet.
Hambrick said while there, then-Mt. Juliet officer and current City Manager Kenny Martin and the late Jerry Mundy recruited him to join the police force.
“Jerry was the first one. He said, ‘James, you’d make a good officer. Let’s talk to the chief about getting you on,’” said Hambrick, who said he was hesitant at first, but eventually joined the department as a dispatcher in 1995.
He was hired as a patrolman a year later.
In 2003, he opened his own private counseling service, but remained with the department as a reserve officer and chaplain. He returned full time to the force a few months later after Mundy died while on duty.
He became deputy chief in 2005 and was named police chief in 2012.
Hambrick said although his life intersects in many ways, one word has helped guide him throughout the years.
“One word, servant. I don’t care what I’m doing, I see myself as a servant,” he said. “It intersects at that one spot. That’s where I see law enforcement. That’s where I see ministry. I’m a servant. I’m just blessed to be in my position and understand God has something for my life.”
Hambrick said one instance while he substituted a route while driving buses helped highlight the importance of connecting with people. He said the route went through his old Settle Court neighborhood, and students were rowdy before and after they got on the bus, which led to an exchange.
“I remember it. One guy said, ‘Man, it’s just where we’re from.’ I said, ‘Who lives in 362?’ The guy raised his hand, and I said, ‘You’re living in my old house. Don’t talk to me about where we’re from. I used to live here.’ I was able to connect, and in doing that, the whole bus quieted down,” Hambrick said.
Hambrick said the same respect could be shown between police officers and the community.
“I think, especially in this day and time with high-profile cases we see between officers and the black community, if that respect factor was given on both sides of the aisle, I know we’d be better off,” he said.
Hambrick, who often dons a suit and opened Brick’s Fashion in Murfreesboro last year, said his family helped influence his life and his fashion sense, which he said he got from his father.
“I’ve always enjoyed suits. I would see my father in one and say, ‘Where’d you get that?’ I wore a suit everyday my senior year of high school,” Hambrick said.
He credited his uncle, Fred Thomas, as one of his major influences in life.
“He used to really harp on applying yourself. Even after I got into different things and here at the police station, my wife knew if I went over there I would be gone awhile because me and Uncle Fred would get to talking,” Hambrick said.
“He was a big influence because it wasn’t someone I read about or saw on TV. It was somebody that I lived under the roof with and watched. He has poured mightily into my life, and I’m grateful.”
Hambrick and his wife, Denise, have five children and 14 grandchildren. The couple moved to Mt. Juliet from Antioch after Hambrick said he watched a change happening to Antioch. He said he wants to maintain that lifestyle while as chief.
“I don’t want our way of life to change,” he said. “We’re going to grow, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose our quality of life.”
By Xavier Smith