David Glisson: Living with restraint (Aug. 2004)

Staff writer in Aug. 2004December 9, 2013 

Editor's note:This story was published in the Aug. 30, 2004, Ledger-Enquirer.

Something is missing in David Glisson. Could be the eyes that have forgotten how to dance or the soft voice that fades away before it puts the period at the end of a sentence. Could be the way he moves, carefully measuring every step. Nothing about this soft-spoken man hints that this was a lawman who thought of police work as a family business, a lifer who wanted to be the first officer through the door even when he didn't know what was on the other side.

Simply put, he was a cop. That was Glisson's life for more than 20 years. He was a strutting member of two elite units. He taught people to shoot but didn't have a gun at home. He wore a badge but drew a line at wearing an earring. If the telephone rang in the middle of the night, he always answered. This was what he did and this was all he ever wanted to be.

He was a cop.

Putting this career in the past tense hurts him, but he knows he's no longer a cop and, somewhere inside, accepts the fact he never will be again. At age 47, he seems hollow and bruised, a man whose dreams were rewritten in the time it takes two fingers to snap.

It's easy to trace these changes in this strapping sheriff's deputy to last Dec. 10, the night Glisson shot Kenny Walker in the southbound lane of I-185.

Only there's more.

> There was a heart attack that killed him three times.

> There is the aneurysm that hides in his body.

> There is the unborn grandson he wants to hold.

> There is the fact that, even if he could, he isn't able to be the cop he always thought he would be.

These are some of the things David and Becky Glisson wanted to talk about when he agreed to an interview for the first time since the Walker shooting.

According to ground rules set by his attorney, Richard Hagler, questions about that night were off limits. But the conversation in Hagler's office still gave the Glissons a chance to deflect accusations leveled at the father of four.

This was the couple's way to make Glisson more than a nameless officer with a badge.

Born in Columbus

Glisson was born in Columbus and went to school at River Road Elementary, then Daniel Junior High and Jordan High. He laughs at the adage that every policeman and fireman in town went to Jordan.

"You were either a cop or you went to jail," he said.

As a young person he had two dreams: baseball and law enforcement. "And since the Braves never called, you know where I ended up."

When his family got together it seemed like everybody had a badge. His Uncle Bobby was both a Columbus police captain and a Muscogee County sheriff's deputy, and three cousins were lawmen.

As a child, he would listen to their stories when they got together. "It was like guys telling fishing stories," Glisson recalled.

After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He wasn't a flyer. He was a lawman.

Back home, he was looking for a job when he got a call from then Muscogee County Sheriff Jack Rutledge. Rutledge looked like a sheriff out of Hollywood casting. He was big with a voice to match. He had a presence, as a public official and as a public performer. Since he often sang at events all over town, he was known as "The Singing Sheriff."

It was hard for people to say "no" to Rutledge, but Glisson did. He turned Rutledge down and took a job with Coca-Cola. When the second call came, however, he listened.

"I guess the reason I went into law enforcement is the same as the others in my family. It sounds kind of corny, but we were all born and raised here and we all love Columbus. This is something we felt like we were born to do," he said.

Glisson joined the department and, like every other newcomer, he was assigned to jail duty. Within a few months, he was a deputy.

"I had rookie-itis like everybody else. At first you think you are going to clear the streets of crime single-handedly. You soon learn," he said.

Glisson had plenty of teachers right in his family. Bobby Glisson, his uncle, was the founder of the police department's Youth Services department. After he retired, he was a bailiff at the Government Center. He died in 2002. It was Uncle Bobby that gave David Glisson advice that he used long after his mentor was gone.

"My uncle said always treat people like you want to be treated, and never do anything with your badge on that you wouldn't do with it off. I tried to live by that and to teach it to the young officers that came in," he said.

Thrived on training

By 1989, drug use in the U.S. had become a legal issue as well as a social problem. Muscogee County was not immune. Taking a cue from other locales, the Metro Narcotics Task Force was formed.

Pooling resources, it was composed of eight men representing the police departments of Columbus and Phenix City and the sheriff's departments of Muscogee, Harris and Russell counties. County and state lines would mean nothing to these guys. They could work both sides of the Chattahoochee River.

Then-Sgt. Russell Traino was the leader of the unit. Second in command was then-Sgt. Ralph Johnson, a Muscogee County sheriff's deputy. They would depend on grant money, special training and an attitude that they could do anything.

David Glisson was part of that unit.

"I had the long hair and everything," he said. "But I wouldn't wear the earring. I had a fake one I could take in and out."

Nothing like this had been done before in this community. Others saw them as prima donnas, which in many ways they were. No one knew what to make of this undercover squad --- including old-school officers like Uncle Bobby.

"He was like a lot of others. He didn't like it much at first, but he finally realized that times were changing," Glisson remembered.

For David Glisson, being part of Metro was a highlight of his career. He jumped right into it with Traino and the other six.

Traino is now a police major in charge of Investigative Services. Like Glisson, he looks back on that time with pride.

"It took us two months to get started," Traino said. "They gave us a dilapidated office in the Government Center. There was nothing there. We had to appropriate desks and equipment. We had to paint the office ourselves. We bonded by working together."

With their beards, long hair and blue jeans, they didn't look like other lawmen but they worked as hard or harder than the old line officers. Traino was a taskmaster. He put them in the weight room and on the running track.

Though baseball never saw his gifts as an athlete, Glisson thrived on the training. He became an obsessive worker in the gym and found he even liked running.

This work was required, for Metro wasn't going to arrest the person buying a joint. They fished at the deep end of the pond, looking for dealers and suppliers. They worked in a world that didn't keep banker's hours.

"We were going after people that no one else had ever gone after," Glisson said.

And it took a special kind of officer.

"It took somebody who wanted to be there, someone willing to spend personal time away from their families. It was not a typical eight-hour day. Not only that, you had to be ready to roll in 30 minutes," Traino said.

Glisson was that kind of cop, Traino said.

"He was a team player. If you had to come in at 2 o'clock in the morning, he came. He was a gung-ho kind of guy, very dedicated."

Glisson also had an unusual trait that endeared him to the man in charge.

"When we were out on the streets, he was very protective of me and protective of our unit," Traino said.

Glisson insisted on being out front. "Every time an entry was made, he wanted to be first."

Stress was as much a part of that assignment as the guns they carried. It was not only the stress that came during a raid or when a suspect was cornered. It was also the nights when the rush of adrenaline came and the phone didn't ring.

So, like others, Glisson rotated out of Metro after a couple of years. He served warrants. He rode patrol. He did some time working in the courts. But when the department organized its Special Response Team, Glisson raised his hand. He became the weapons expert, the person others looked to for pointers.

He also became a teacher, providing marksmanship training for a number of city officials --- including District Attorney Gray Conger. Weapons were part of his job but not his life. At home, with four children in and out of the house, Glisson never kept a gun. Nor did he own one other than the one he was issued by the county.

"That was the first weapon I ever owned," he said. "My father never owned one, either. My son, he was a typical boy, he was real curious. I sat him down and said, 'Now, son, this isn't a toy. This is the real thing. When it goes up that barrel, you can't take it back.' "

Like soldiers' wives, police wives are a special breed. When their husbands go to work, they know the reality that he might not come home.

Becky understood his work better than most spouses. She worked for lawyers Bobby Peters and John Allen --- the first biracial law firm in the city. Both Peters and Allen moved on to other callings. Peters was a two-term mayor of Columbus and recently was elected to the Superior Court. Allen became first a state court judge and then a judge of Superior Court.

"At least we spoke the same language," Becky said, "but we couldn't talk about things much at home."

"She was working for the enemy," her husband laughed, confessing that he even had to arrest some of Peters' and Allen's clients.

Worked back from heart attack

As a member of the SRT, Glisson took care of himself. He played softball. He coached his son in Little League. He was obsessive about pumping iron, working out in the gym three times a week. Five days a week, he was running.

Then came the heart attack.

"We didn't know anything was wrong with me. But it knocked me to the floor. Becky said she was calling an ambulance. I was macho. I said don't worry. It was a good thing she did," he said.

Three times technicians and doctors brought him back to life. There was 100 percent blockage in one of his main arteries.

Glisson knew nothing about any of this. Two days later, he opened his eyes. Becky told him all that had happened to him.

"She said I died three times," he said.

Doctors told him he would never fully recover, that he would never be able to pick up anything over 30 pounds.

"I decided if I am going to go, I am going to go. So I got up and started walking. Very slow at first, but I was up. Then I started to run. I even made it back to the gym," he said.

Glisson, ignoring what the doctors said, wanted to regain his spot on the SRT. As his physical strength returned, he talked to his doctor and requested a stress test --- which he passed. Then he told his superiors at the sheriff's department that he was ready to go back to his former duty.

Other wives might have pleaded with their husband to sell insurance or paint houses. Not Becky.

"He wouldn't be happy," she said. "He's a cop."

Circumstances have taken that away.

On the night of Dec. 10, Glisson and three others on the SRT unit were backing up Metro Narcotics in a drug raid in an apartment complex on Armour Road.

Attention shifted to a GMC Yukon that had left the apartments. The SRT joined Metro to trail the SUV. They'd been told the men inside the vehicle were armed.

They stopped the vehicle on I-185 and as the four men inside were being secured, 39-year-old Kenny Walker was shot and killed. For the next weeks, Sheriff Ralph Johnson declined to identify the deputy.

It was David Glisson.

Then, in February, Johnson fired his former Metro colleague. Johnson didn't fire him for his actions on Dec. 10. He fired him because he said Glisson had declined to be interviewed as part of the sheriff's investigation.

Until last week, Glisson had not spoken publicly since the shooting. Hagler had spoken on his behalf.

Glisson's character defended

Hagler listened attentively during the interview, occasionally offering asides. But as more questions were asked about his client's health, the attorney leaned forward.

Glisson was emotionally describing how his heart attack had changed him and about his current health status. He was then asked about what he wanted the public to know about him.

At that point, Hagler politely ended the interview. From there, he would provide the answers.

"I can't let him answer anything that might be subject to review of the criminal investigation. It's not David's decision. It's not Becky's decision. It's my decision," Hagler said.

Not that he wanted anyone to think Glisson has anything to hide.

"If it were up to David, he would be sitting at your doorstep waiting to tell the truth because he feels he has absolutely nothing to hide. Unfortunately, he has a mean old lawyer looking over his shoulder. It is part of my job to keep him from stepping into something that isn't what he thinks it is," said the veteran attorney.

Hagler said that he didn't want his cases tried in the media. He bent that principle for Glisson because he felt the public should know there was a family going through its own heartaches.

"Don't take this to mean I don't sympathize with the Walkers because I do. I know they've had a terrible loss," Hagler said.

Glisson, he said, is a decent man devastated by all that has happened. He has felt the trauma and so have his children. The economic impact is tough. The Glissons suddenly are a one-income family.

Then, there is the physical side.

In the nine months that have passed since the shooting, Glisson has developed an aneurysm. Doctors say his health must improve before they can operate. He is on heavy medication.

"He can't get a job digging ditches. It might kill him," Hagler said.

As the interview shifted from Glisson to Hagler, David and Becky could only listen. They had been holding hands but now they were clutching one another. Tears were in their eyes and on their cheeks.

It was awkward. Apologies were offered. Others were talking as if the Glissons weren't there, as if they were invisible.

"This is something David has had to endure," Hagler explained. "People do talk about him as if he isn't there. He's had to get used to me saying, 'Sit back and keep your mouth shut.' And I tell you, that's not his nature. His nature is to sit down and talk, to answer any questions anybody wants to ask. But that's not the nature of the legal system."

For Glisson and this case, the legal system has moved like an old car trying to climb a mountain highway. The case has been investigated internally by the sheriff's department as well as by the GBI and FBI.

Findings have been in the hands of Kenneth Hodges, the Dougherty County district attorney that Georgia Attorney Thurbert Baker appointed as special prosecutor when Muscogee district attorney Gray Conger stepped aside.

Hodges, who was involved in a serious automobile accident on Aug. 11, ultimately will decide whether the case will be taken to a grand jury for potential criminal indictments. He also will then decide whether to request that the case be moved out of Muscogee County because of the attention the case has drawn.

In addition, Hagler said Glisson could face a civil suit filed on the Walkers' behalf. Also pending is the wrongful firing complaint Glisson has lodged with the city, which may be heard by the city's Personnel Review Board.

A public matter

The case already has been heard in the public arena, Hagler said. Glisson was made a "punching bag" in early media coverage, the attorney said. Then Hagler dealt with the allegations of racism that stemmed from the shooting of a black suspect by a white officer.

Glisson is not a racist, Hagler said, telling a story he said a black officer told him about the former deputy.

"If David saw a young man walking in the rain, that person told me, it wouldn't matter if his skin was black or white, David would stop and give him his raincoat," Hagler said.

While others have slammed him, a measure of understanding came from an unexpected source --- the widow of Kenny Walker.

In an interview the day after the one with the Glissons, Cheryl Walker talked about the former sheriff's deputy.

"When I pray, I pray for all parties involved. One lady said, 'How on earth for somebody that killed your husband?' " Walker said. "I said, 'You know, I didn't ask for my husband to be shot out there, and I'm sure Mr. Glisson's family didn't ask for him to be the person there. I'm sure they didn't ask to be put in this.' "

"You can't say you're a Christian if you can't feel sympathy," she said. "I have had people say, 'Pray that this man doesn't have another good day in his life.' I say back to them, why do you pray for bad things to happen to people? You don't do that as a Christian. You pray for God's will."

For Glisson, the waiting continues, and so do questions about his health. He's no longer that lawman bursting through doorways or the gung-ho cop protecting his unit.

"He has to sit on the sidelines and be talked about as if he is an object rather than a human being," Hagler said.

A human being who just wanted to be a cop.

Staff writer Kelli Esters contributed to this report.

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