Mike James has retired as Leland’s police chief, but he’s confident that the town is good hands with new Chief Brad Shirley.
When Mike James was 8 years old, he slipped into a movie theater with his parents and saw Walking Tall, an R-rated 1973 film about Sheriff Buford Pusser’s determination to rid a small town in McNairy County, Tennessee, of corruption and crime. Many of the R parts eluded him, but the message stuck.
“Looking back, it probably was too violent a movie for an 8-year-old to see, by today’s standards,” he says. “But for some reason, I wanted to be in law enforcement once I saw that movie. It’s all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
The movie impacted James’ career choice to the extent that he later became pen-pals with Pusser’s mother, who sent him photographs he keeps in a scrapbook at home.
James was a police officer for 38 years, the last eight in Leland. He officially retired as Leland’s chief of police on February 1. His last workday was Friday, January 31, his 55th birthday. There was a luncheon, a reception and the swearing in of Officer Brad Shirley, successor to the man who calls Leland his second home.
Unlike Walking Tall’s storyline of gruesome fights, gambling and killings, James filled his career with scenes of compassion, a heart for children and general concern for the people he served.
James grew up in Mayodan, a town of 2,500 in Rockingham County, where he’d chase his elementary school buddies through the woods, plastic pistol by his side. In high school he worked second shift as a 911 dispatcher. He was police chief in nearby Stoneville, led the Rockingham County Bureau of Forensic Services and worked with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office.
Twenty years after high school graduation, he took online college classes so he could teach the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Alcohol Resistance Education) to second-graders. He has a master’s degree from South University and an Advanced Law Enforcement certificate from N.C. Criminal Justice Training and Standards and the Sheriff Department’s Training and Standards. “If only I’d been raised in the computer age,” he says. “We had great encyclopedias, but 20 years after high school the internet was wonderful.”
James collected a few stories during his nearly four decades in law enforcement, from humorous (“It’s unbelievable what people will do in cars while driving down the road”) to heartwarming.
“I remember one call I got that turned out to be a blessing,” he says. “It was in the late ’80s and I was working Christmas Eve and had the scanner on in the car. I heard about a person in the Dumpster behind K-mart. It was a lady looking for broken toys that had been thrown in the Dumpster. A couple of (police) guys heard it and went over there, and we talked on the scanner, and before the night was over, there were people dropping off toys. Someone in the family was sick, the father had lost his job. … That’s one story I’ll never forget.”
The purpose of his time with Rockingham’s Forensic/Gang Prevention Bureau was to teach ways to keep school children safe.
“I’m an instructor in that, and back years ago when there was the situation in Columbine [Colorado, in 1999], law enforcement, your front-line guys, were trained to set a perimeter and wait for the S.W.A.T. guys to come,” he says. “And of course that failed terribly during Columbine. So they started a situation where the first four guys on the scene would confront the threat and try to put the threat down. So we learned rapid deployment and how to put a threat down, and that’s what we practice now.”
James now must learn to practice being a civilian. He says his wife, Susie, an elementary school teacher, asked him: “You’ve been doing this so long, are you going to be able to exist?” But James says he knew the signs.
A friend told him that one morning he’d wake up and know it was time to go. He did.
James and Susie are moving back to Mayodan. He has seven grandchildren, one on the way. He needs to be near his father, who has medical concerns. He needs to be near his children.
He believes he’s leaving the Leland Police Department in capable hands.
“I was really lucky for [Town Manager] David Hollis to have enough faith in me to give me this job,” he says.
“He’s very conscious of us trying to provide the best service. He’s a very good manager and very conscious about the money and tax-payer dollars. He’s probably the best boss man to work for.”
James is confident in the new chief’s ability as well. “We hit a home run when we got Brad. I feel really good with Brad stepping in. He’s a smart guy.”
Shirley is the former police chief of Boiling Spring Lakes and was Leland’s deputy chief before James’ retirement.
Someday, James says, he may find an urge to work again. But it won’t be as a police officer.
“I think I’m going to be OK,” he says. “I’ll miss the people I work with and the people across the hall. But the job? I don’t know. I’m 55. I may go back to work. It may be stocking shelves at Lowe’s, but it won’t be carrying a gun. I’m not going to be in charge of anything but me.”