Ask any Madison city official – and any resident at that – what the hot topic is in Madison, and they will almost always answer: the record expansion and transformation of the city in the last several years. And with a new minor league baseball stadium under construction, it isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
“It is great to be a part of a growing city – but it does have its challenges,” Chief of Police David Jernigan said.
Jernigan became chief in July 2017. And while he has spent his career in law enforcement, municipal policing was still a learning curve for the ex-FBI agent. Jernigan retired from the FBI in 2013 after 29 years and is a former program director for the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School on Redstone Arsenal. After retirement, Jernigan went to work as the chief deputy of enforcement operations for the Madison County Sheriff’s Office where he began familiarizing himself with the different aspects of the local versus federal court system, before moving into his current role.
As for the local community, Jernigan was already familiar with Madison, being a resident since 1996.
“I have lived here for 23 years, my kids went to school here, my wife worked here, we go to church here, we shop here and we are invested in the community,” he said.
Jernigan said he would often drive by city hall and think that in the future, he would like to take on the chief role. But he had promised Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning that he would stay with the county as long as Dorning was sheriff. After Madison Chief of Police Larry Muncey resigned at the end of 2016 and Dorning announced his retirement in 2017, the stars aligned for Jernigan to submit his name for the chief position. He was approved in summer 2017 by the Madison City Council in a unanimous vote.
Jernigan knew he had a challenge ahead, with the city’s record expansion.
“I am a person who looks two years out,” he said. “With the stadium coming, that will have very much of an impact on recreation traffic, security – those are things that are very important that we have to get a handle on.”
Industry continues to announce new jobs in Madison County and with those jobs come people. For parents, the nationally-ranked schools, “the crown jewels for our community,” Jernigan said, attract families to Madison, and those families are driving much of the growth of the city.
With the national conversation focusing on the rise of school shootings, Madison parents today want to be reassured that their children are safe when they send them to school. Jernigan said the police department is working closely with Madison City Schools to make its 13 schools as safe as possible. The department’s school resource officers and school administrators attended a school safety conference this summer. The SROs were tasked with making comprehensive and detailed information books of each of their schools to provide to officers called to the school for any incidents. Jernigan said their job does not end when the bell rings, but SROs are also present at afterschool activities and sporting events.
In addition to working closely with administrators, Jernigan said his SROs have made it a priority to build relationships with the students and the police department has empowered students to report any criminal activity, bullying or other safety concerns via the Text-To-Protect app.
“We want to be able to have kids know that if they have something they would like to talk to an officer about – about anything, it does not necessarily have to be anything about crime. Maybe they are concerned about somebody or maybe there might be some neglect, or child abuse. We have had those kinds of calls as well,” he said.
The other major challenge the department is facing is not unique to the community but an epidemic across the country – opioid addiction. Jernigan has made that and mental health – because he said they often go hand-in-hand – a top priority for the department. Jernigan is increasing training for officers dealing with citizens they encounter with mental health problems and the department is also active in a drug awareness program for teens. But the numbers are sobering.
“The largest mental health facility in North Alabama is the Madison County Jail,” Jernigan said.
While the chief role certainly keeps him busy, Jernigan does sometimes miss his former life with the FBI.
“You are exposed to so much information and intelligence that you really cannot talk about to anyone outside of your realm. I miss that, I absolutely do,” he said. “Because when I read about what is going on in the world, I was always thinking about how it would affect the United States and what small part am I going to do to protect from the next 9/11 … or the next Boston Marathon bombing. So I do miss being behind the yellow tape.”
Although Jernigan has replaced his FBI jacket with a uniform, he is still protecting the public, just a bit closer to home.
“It’s a great place to raise kids. It is the last little piece of Mayberry,” Jernigan said. “But I still recommend you lock your doors.”