30 years…no regrets
MURFREESBORO – Chris Sumner vividly remembers the first-ever arrest he made.
It was an unseasonably warm day in late November, 1989. Sumner, two years removed from graduating from Northampton County High School-East, had just joined the Murfreesboro Police Department. He was patrolling Lakeview Drive when he met a car on his side of the road.
“I was so nervous that I had a hard time turning my patrol car around in the street in order to make a traffic stop,” Sumner recalled. “I was shaking like I was about to freeze to death and it was 80 degrees outside. Low and behold, the driver was impaired. I arrested him for DWI….it was a shocker to do that for the first time.”
Now, nearly 30 years later, Sumner reflects back on his career in law enforcement with pride, one where he protected the citizens of Murfreesboro by finding that precise balance of doling out equal amounts of justice and fair play.
When his shift ended on Friday, March 2, Sumner retired as Murfreesboro’s Police Chief.
“I tried always to do my very best,” Sumner said, taking a brief break from cleaning out his office located at the back of the Murfreesboro Municipal Building. “I feel like I made a difference. I can honestly say that I’ve had a number of people come to me over the years and thank me for the way I treated them with respect, even though I had to do my job and arrest them. I always tried to treat people right.”
Sumner graduated with an associate’s degree in Criminology from Halifax Community College, but did not immediately use that education to land a job in law enforcement.
“While taking classes at HCC, I also worked as the assistant manager at IGA (grocery store) in Rich Square in the afternoons and on weekends,” Sumner recalled. “Ed Harris (then the Murfreesboro Police Chief) got word that I wanted to become a police officer and told me to come and see him. I went and talked to Ed and he hired me on the spot on Nov. 27, 1989.”
The rest, as they say, is history. However, one needs to realize Sumner family history to truly appreciate how Chris landed a job in law enforcement without any “formal” training.
His father, Ted Sumner, spent 16 years as a Northampton Deputy Sheriff, 15 years as the county’s ABC Officer and the final three years of his career as Chief of the Gaston Police Department. That vein of public service runs deeper in the fact that his mother, Rose, worked 30 years for Northampton County local government, 25 of which were as the Clerk to the County Board of Commissioners.
“I guess it was an easy decision for me to go into serving the public,” smiled Chris. “I was pointed in the right direction by both parents. It was second nature to me; I never saw my parents do anything else but work in public service. There was never a question in my mind to do anything else.”
He recalled tagging along with his dad at a time where he was just big enough to crawl his way into the front seat.
“Chief Harris sent me to Pitt Community College for my BLET (Basic Law Enforcement Training),” Sumner said.
Except for one brief stint as a Probation Officer in Hertford County from 1996-99, Sumner has been a mainstay with the Murfreesboro Police.
“I maintained my certification here (MPD) and was still a sworn officer while working those three years with the Probation Office,” he said.
He returned in 1999, rehired by new Chief Darrell Rowe. From there he worked his way up the ladder as a Lieutenant, Captain, and then as Police Chief when Rowe retired early last year.
“Now I’m at the point of going home; now it’s time to turn it over to a younger man,” Sumner said somber tone.
“This town has been mighty good to me over the years,” he continued. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my job; if given the chance I’d do it all again the exact same way, I wouldn’t change a thing….I’d be right here working for the same department.”
What’s different today than when Sumner initially went to work as a law enforcement officer is the technology and the advanced levels of skilled training.
“Heck, when I first got started you thought you were somebody if you had a pager,” Sumner laughed. “We were high class with a pager. But even with that if you received a page, you had to stop at a pay phone and make a call.
“Now, a cell phone is life of a police officer….you can do more with that little gadget than anything else, and it has more memory than my desktop computer,” he added. “Computers are an investigator’s dream.”
Sumner can remember the days when police car radios only had one channel, that belonging to the Hertford County Sheriff’s Office.
“It was a ‘talk-around’ system, meaning if the Sheriff’s deputies were using that channel, we couldn’t until they stopped talking,” he chuckled. “Then we went to three channels and scanners (cross channel monitoring of other law enforcement departments and the Highway Patrol). We thought we were something with three channels.
“Now we have laptop computers in each of our patrol vehicles; we can run vehicle registrations, criminal background, check for arrest warrants and the like at the touch of a button,” Sumner said.
As for training, Sumner continued to grow and learn better law enforcement techniques over the course of his career. He received his Intermediate Law Enforcement Training Certificate in 1994 and the Advanced level of that training in 2002.
“Another thing that really helped me in my career was working to gain a certificate in Senior Level Management Training,” Sumner said, referencing seven months worth of extra work he put in during 2001. “That was a labor intensive school. It was well worth the time and effort.
“Over the years, I enrolled in every specialized school/course that I could fit into my schedule,” he added. “All of that training pays off.”
He is quick to credit his peers in law enforcement for the guidance they provided. Other than his father, Chief Harris and Chief Rowe, Sumner praised the work of retired Hertford County Deputy Sheriff Wesley Liverman, retired Ahoskie Police Chief Steve Hoggard, and Sheriffs Jack Smith (Northampton County) and Jack Stutts (Southampton County, VA).
“I’ve always looked up to those men. I could call on those guys and they would give me their best advice, and you could count on that advice being the correct action to take,” Sumner stressed.
Now, Sumner, even at age 49, is one of the “old guys.”
“I don’t have any regrets in working as a law enforcement officer….I’ve only had to fire my weapon once in 29 years and thank goodness that shot was not fatal,” he recalled. “If there’s any drawback, it’s the hours you have to put into this job. Looking back I wish I could have spent more time with my family; my two children (Ciara, 14, and Cash, 4) and my wife (Leslee).”
MPD Lt. David Griffith has been appointed by the Murfreesboro Town Council as the Interim Chief.
“I’m tickled to death with that decision,” Sumner noted. “We’ve got a great group here, any of them could have stepped up and filled this job, but I stand behind the council’s decision 100 percent. David will do a heck of a job.”
And for others looking to go into the field of law enforcement, Sumner offered up some advice.
“Whatever agency you choose, give them your all; give them their money’s worth,” he sternly remarked.
He’s still under age 50, so is there another job in Sumner’s life?
“If it comes down to having to work again to make ends meet, then yes, I’ll look for another job…..I prefer it not be in law enforcement,” he stated. “Today’s law enforcement is not for a 50-year-old man….it’s different today than when I got started. Today’s bad guys don’t think twice about pulling a gun and shooting a police officer.
“When I first got started, I thought I could save the world by locking everybody up who committed a crime. I’ll be the first to tell you today that’s not the way to deter criminal activity. Education is the key….that’s where you develop your ethics, your morals, and that’s what changes things. If folks don’t respect themselves, they’re not going to respect you, no matter if you’re wearing a badge or not,” Sumner concluded.