There’s a new sheriff in town. Well, sorta. Sheriff Derrick Cunningham may have only won his first election in November 2014 (with 69 percent of voters choosing him), but he is no stranger to the area. In fact, every day of his 26-year career in law enforcement has been spent serving the citizens of Montgomery County.
After living his first 12 years in Tacoma, Wash., where his father worked on the pipeline, his parents (who are from Mississippi) brought the family back to the South and his father took a job in Tuscaloosa. A couple years after Derrick graduated Tuscaloosa High School, he spent some time with his brother in Wetumpka. That visit changed the course of his life forever. Derrick was 21, and he saw a TV commercial about careers within the Montgomery Police Department. In the ad, longtime Mayor Emory Folmar said in his notable gruff voice, “If you think you got what it takes, give us a call.” Subsequently, a young Derrick Cunningham picked up the phone.
After graduating from the police academy in 1989, he ended up 10 years later in the Detective Division investigating homicides. Then in 1999, Sheriff D.T. Marshall appointed Derrick as chief deputy, where he supervised MCSO’s day-to-day operations for 15 years — until he was sworn in this past January as the county’s 39th sheriff, and Montgomery’s first African-American sheriff. He sees law enforcement as his calling in life. “Growing up, everybody would play ‘cops and robbers,’ and all my friends knew I couldn’t be the bad guy. If I couldn’t be the police, I didn’t want to play,” he recalls with a chuckle.
With a bachelor’s degree from Troy University, and master’s in Security and Police Administration from the University of Phoenix, Sheriff Cunningham is also a 2007 graduate of the FBI National Academy, which is only open to the best police officers around the world. A true public servant, he also retired from the Alabama National Guard after 24 years. Sheriff Cunningham is jovial, but also sincere and intense. “I mean what I say, and say what I mean,” he adds. This top cop believes in being firm, but wants to always be approachable to his staff and to residents.
While he urges his employees and citizens to point out where improvements can be made, he also wants them to suggest solutions. The Next Generation One area where Sheriff Cunningham is constantly trying to improve relates to inspiring our youth and giving them tools to be successful in life. “I believe that our youth is 50 percent of our population, and 100 percent of our future,” he says emphatically. Mentoring our youth is critically important to the sheriff, as he wants them to have good role models, learn positive character traits, and become productive citizens. “Mentoring will aid in crime prevention too, as our youth will be less likely to make poor decisions, which in turn can lead to criminal activity,” he adds. To accomplish this, Sheriff Cunningham has championed numerous programs to reach students — from fishing outings, to an annual weeklong camp for 100 kids, an Explorers post, and a successful DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). He explains that some jurisdictions have eliminated DARE programs because of funding, but when a drug epidemic occurs, everyone scrambles to restart these initiatives. “I won’t stop it. If I can save one child, I’ll save that one child,” he says. “We’ve even added to our DARE program with GREAT (Gang Resistance Education Awareness Training) to talk to kids about bullying and facing peer pressure. You’ve got to go into the schools and teach prevention, and at those schools, we’re seeing fewer problems. It’s working.”
Evidence of its success came in June, when MCSO Corporal Kofee Anderson was named the 2015 DARE Officer of the Year for the state of Alabama. Sheriff Cunningham is very passionate about helping kids: “That’s our next generation, our future generation. If we don’t give them the tools necessary, and show them what it takes to [succeed], we’re doing an injustice to our children. We as leaders, if we can’t reach back and look at what’s coming up behind us and pave the way for them, we’re not doing our jobs.” It’s worth it to spend “that extra five or ten minutes to show a child that we’re human beings; we’re not just big-bully police officers. You’ve got to have that caring heart,” he adds.
He’s also concerned about the number of single-parent families in the community. “Many young men don’t have a male figure in the home,” the sheriff says. “You need that — to teach them how to be a man and be respectful. Being a mentor is important to fill those voids.” To Protect & Serve When asked about his favorite part of the job, he answers easily: The sheriff loves going out and meeting the community, and he wants his deputies to also connect with citizens. “Community policing means you ride around with your windows down. You speak to people working in their yards, or stop to help a motorist with a flat tire,” he explains. “It’s important for law enforcement to build those relationships in the community and show them we really do care. It may take five minutes to write a report and be gone, or you can take 15 minutes and listen to the concerns of a resident, and pass the info along.” “It takes the entire community working with law enforcement when it comes to preventing crime. I’m a strong advocate for building a bridge between the community and the sheriff’s office, and we’ve been successful at solving cases with assistance from citizens.” In fact, the agency has been stepping up a campaign to urge students and residents to partner with police. Hoping to chip away at the stigma of “snitching,” the sheriff explains, “It’s alright to tell. The life you save may be your own or a loved one.”
With law enforcement in a national spotlight, and officers already in an incredibly high-stress and often-unappreciated profession, Sheriff Cunningham reminds his deputies to put safety first. “Don’t make it personal. If you take it personally, you could be pushed to do something crazy. If a situation looks dangerous, back off and call for some help.” Life in the Fast Lane There are many facets of Sheriff Cunningham’s job, including the supervision of about 300 employees (including 179 corrections officers and 125 deputies), as well as an annual budget of $27 million. The MCSO also serves thousands of legal papers locally, and deputies patrol 643 square miles in Montgomery County (including Pike Road). Plus, Sheriff Cunningham is responsible for the inmates housed in the county jail. To assist with all of these critical duties, a few months ago he hired former MPD Chief Kevin Murphy as chief deputy for MCSO.
A fan of technology, Sheriff Cunningham is developing ways to use smart phones to better serve the community and reduce crime. A MCSO phone app that will be available soon can help share announcements with residents. Additionally, users can take photos of suspicious activity and submit information to officials anonymously, and the app will show who’s in jail, where sex offenders live in a neighborhood, and Smart 911 will be an option. Also, MCSO recently collaborated with nearby counties and received a grant for fingerprint technology to better identify burglars and thieves who cross county lines and commit crimes elsewhere. Supervisors have handheld machines that can quickly check a suspect’s fingerprints (even at a crime scene) to see if the person is in the system.
And if all of this wasn’t enough to fill a day, Sheriff Cunningham is also involved in numerous civic groups, such as the United Way, Tri-County Alzheimer’s Association, Boy Scouts, Exchange Club, Kiwanis Club, YMCA Downtown, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and Iron Men (which helps handicapped persons enjoy outdoor adventures). Plus, he’s a graduate of Leadership Montgomery XVII Class. But his family is very important to him. His wife Mattie is a nurse, and they have two daughters who are college students at Troy University and Auburn-Montgomery.
This dedicated public official occasionally finds some “down time” and says his favorite hobbies are fishing and drag-racing (he frequently goes to the speedway to watch the fun). Having spent his entire adult life here, Sheriff Cunningham fondly says: “I love Montgomery. This is my home, and I love what it has to offer. It’s the best place to live, and the best place to raise a family.” In response to that TV commercial from 26 years ago, yes, Sheriff Derrick Cunningham clearly has what it takes.