The plan more than 40 years ago was for Ricky Boren, Columbus College degree in hand, to become an accountant.
That was before he interviewed for a job with the Columbus Police Department in 1971.
More than 42 years later, Boren is now in his 10th year as chief of a department with almost 500 officers. As a young detective, he was involved in investigating many of the city’s most notorious crimes, including the Stocking Stranglings. Boren sat down for an interview with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams.
Here are excerpts of that interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
You were raised in Columbus, right?
I was. I went to Jordan, Class of ’68.
What was your first job?
I worked at a store/service station and we worked 12-hour shifts, plus going to school.
So, you were never drafted?
No. I stayed 1-A. Vietnam was rolling and I always drew a high number in the lottery system. I was going to Columbus State, plus I was working every day.
Did you think you would work for the police department for more than four decades?
I did not. I came onboard the department through a friend who brought me down to meet Lt. C.T. Kirkland, who was the personnel manager for the department. My four-year degree is in business administration. I started off studying to be an accountant. At some point, they gave me a choice of getting out of school right then with a business degree or staying another two quarters and getting an accounting degree. I decided it was time to go. Came here, and have been here ever since.
You have a 24/7 job. Has it been that way for 42 years?
All my life. I am so acclimated to working 24/7. We get 20 vacation days a year. I usually take about five. And it has been that way for as long as I have been chief, and probably before then. We got holidays. I usually try and plan a family trip around the first of the year. The daughters are tied up heavily in traveling tennis. I try and take some of those out-of-town trips with them when I can. I am a working person, and I have always been a working person.
You have been a patrolman, a detective and now chief. What’s the job — I won’t say best job — but the job you enjoyed the most?
I enjoy being the chief of police, but the best street job I had was working in robbery/homicide. I worked homicides for about 11 years.
What about being a homicide detective makes it such a good job?
I guess it is the magnitude of the crime and dealing with families on both sides, either the suspect or victim. ... Some of those friendships have developed even until today.
What skills are needed to be an effective homicide detective?
You have to be extremely curious. You have to be extremely inquisitive. And you have to be able to stay the course once you get involved in a case. A case today that seems open and shut when you get to the scene, may not be open and shut. And you may still be working those cases some 30 years later.
Which brings us to Carlton Gary. You were on the witness stand earlier this month in a hearing in which Gary has asked for a new trial. You testified about work you did as a detective almost 30 years ago in the Stocking Strangler case.
It is still under appeal. There are motions still being heard in those cases. And we are required to testify and give accurate information on something that happened in 1984 — the very first night we saw and actually put hands on Carlton down in Albany, Ga. And you get that by accurately documenting what you do, I will even bring up the Curry case in 1985. In the past year we tried Michael Curry for that case. You have to give accurate information not only to the judge and the DA, but to the jury. ... You can’t depend on your mind. You have to depend on the way you have documented cases to refresh your mind.
Carlton Gary has been a constant throughout most of your career, right?
The cases happened in September ’77 through April of ’78. Seven victims, plus other crimes. They were cases I had knowledge of, but didn’t know a lot about because in ’77 and ’78, I was working drugs on the streets in Columbus. I started working homicides in 1980 and happened to be in the group that was selected to pick that case up and go with it. It was a lot of work. Still is. A lot of documentation. When I first looked at that case file — some 14,000 pages at the time — I made the statement to some people in the office that I would hate to know I was the detective that would have to pick that case up and start over.
You are talking about a possible retrial?
We’re talking about whatever comes out of this hearing. And we won’t know until the judge makes his ruling.
Interestingly, when you talk about Carlton Gary, you always refer to him as Carlton. You are on a first-name basis with him?
I call him Mike, believe it or not. During the time that we became familiar with Carlton and started sitting down and talking with him, at some point I asked him what he wanted to be called, and he told me Mike. I will revert back and forth. If I am sitting there looking at him, it might be Mike. But as I am talking to you, you are not as familiar with him as I am, so I call him Carlton so people will know who I am talking about.
Is Mike one of his names?
That is one of the names he used.
What are the advantages or disadvantages of having a police chief who comes up through the ranks?
I think it is good to know the department, but it is better to know the citizens. It is good to know the political groups within the community in which you work. I think someone from the outside may not have that advantage. Citizens and the concerns within this community is a top priority in this department. We need to know who our citizens are. We need to know the different areas in the community and we need to know what the problems are and what the perceptions are. That’s the way we approach the problems in their community.
Did the 32 years you spent on the streets before you became chief give you a working knowledge of the city?
Yes. I managed to come up through the ranks at a time where I could work the streets pretty hard all the way up to the rank of captain. On major crimes and major incidents, I could go to the scene and I could observe the scene and talk to the individuals about the cases. As chief, I will still go out on most major crimes. I will at least have firsthand knowledge of what is going on. So, when the staff or investigators come in and bring me up to speed, I have a working knowledge what they are talking about.
Let me ask you this: Is the chief of police a cop or politician?
I am a police officer first. And then comes whatever parts of the job that comes with it. I know who I can call and who I can talk to to get things accomplished.
And that is knowing the political landscape?
That is knowing the political landscape within Columbus. I have an ability to get things done at the cheapest possible cost to our citizens. I don’t mind calling Atlanta or calling an area if we need speciality vehicles, if we need things that will make it easier for our guys to do the job. I will call and ask for it, rather than go through the budget process to get it.
Explain that a little more.
The state of Georgia has what they call an excess property program. And some of that excess property is brand new. If you are looking for speciality equipment, rather than paying the big bucks, call the contacts in Atlanta, tell them what you need, put your name on the list, and you would be amazed at what you can benefit from with that. ... We have been extremely lucky in our community with the community support for the police department in getting what we need. We have a strong relationship with our Council. We have a strong working relationship with our mayor. We have a strong working relationship with our neighborhood support groups in Columbus. Whatever we need we can get most of the time.
Talk about the perception of a crime problem in Columbus. Crime has been here since 1828 when the city was founded, right? There will always be crime in a city this size, right?
Columbus has some 200,000 people and the MSA is somewhere around 325,000 to 350,000. With that comes crime. I would like to sit here today and tell you we can stop all crime, but that would be a fictitious statement. I would be fooling myself and I would be fooling the citizens. But we are going to be with them and we are going to walk with them every step of the way in order to try and do away with crime in this community. If you have one burglary, one armed robbery, one auto theft or one homicide, that is one too many. We are like a pawn in a game. We play the game that is dealt to us. And we play the part that is dealt to us. We are very proactive now. We have a crime intelligence unit — a crime analysis unit — developing and showing hot spots. We are getting that information out to the beats — the sergeants, the captains on those shifts. And we are basically telling them the areas where they need to put extra cars, what time they need to put extra cars out and what they are going to look for once they get out there. And it is working very well.
That is a preventative measure?
Can you explain how the trends in crime have changed over your career?
If you are dealing with homicides, we have been fortunate the last two or three years to see a downward trend. But back when I was working homicides, I can remember as many as 38 homicides in one year. I can remember because a lot of the homicides that particular year happened in December. When we would get out, we would have virtually nothing to go on. We have had an upward and downward trend in all crimes.
We had 23 homicides last year ...
I think we carried 22.
The discrepancy is the one in the jail where an inmate is accused of killing another inmate, right?
Montgomery, a similar size city, had more than twice that many.
I don’t ever remember 50 homicides in Columbus. I don’t ever remember 40. I do remember the 38 number, but that is the highest I can even remember in Columbus. You can’t run around in circles and pat yourself on the back if you do well. Because the next year it could be more. We take what we have and work as hard as we can to try and solve those cases and try and prevent those cases from happening again in Columbus.
Why do people kill people?
I think at some point in time it is just anger management. The anger just gets carried away. A lot of times it’s turf battles. And I am not talking about physically on the street. I am talking about I bump into you, and rather than saying, “Hey man, I am sorry,” the shoving starts and somebody pulls a weapon. I am seeing more weapons involved than I have seen before in violent crime. It has just progressed. But if you take all the guns away, you still have the knives. And we are seeing a lot of stabbings within the past few months. It can be something as simple as a ball bat or a car. The tools to take a life are there.
You are hearing a lot of talk in this political season about crime stats. Are they overrated?
Crime stats are something good you can judge basically what is going on in the area. I think putting all of your eggs in one basket with crime stats ... I don’t think it gives you an accurate picture and perceptions can get carried away with crime stats.
There seems to be a rise in property crimes in Columbus. Do you agree with that?
We have seen it fluctuate. We have gone back over the last 10 years and we have seen it much higher, and some lower. But over the past couple of years, we have seen more in ’13 than we did in ’12 as far as reported incidents of thefts and car thefts. But if you look at the stats and the investigations, we have cleared more cases and we have put more people in jail as a result of those cases.
What are you doing right now to develop young leadership — the future majors and chiefs — for 15, 20 years from now?
I think we have a strong staff. We have some strong captains within this department. We have some strong, upcoming lieutenants. Same thing with sergeants. If you go back and look at the emphasis that has been placed on education in this department, you are going to find out that most of the sergeants already have master’s degrees. Probably about 90 percent of the lieutenants have master’s degrees. All of the captains and of course all of the majors, the assistant chief and myself have master’s degrees. In order to compete in this department for promotions, those are one of the small things you are going to need to compete.
Your job requires thick skin, right?
It does. I have learned that with major issues, you deal with them and be able to walk away from it — not take it home, not sit there and stew over it. When you are dealing with the politics — and that is some of the issues — most of these folks are friends. You just got to take it as part of the job and move on.
Is politics your least favorite part of the job? No. Believe it or not, it is promotions and disciplinary actions. Sometimes I will have an individual that is a friend of mine and I will have to make a major decision as to disciplinary action. If a promotion comes up, you make a decision, and there are 10 people standing in that line, then you got nine people who are not happy with you and one person who is. And you deal with it.
A year ago you were accused of making a racial slur against Marshal Greg Countryman. An investigation absolutely proved it was falsified from the start. How bad did that hurt?
I never said it. And when I was asked about it, I told them up front I never said it. And when they said something about an investigation, I welcomed it with open arms. Go ahead and investigate. Do what you need to do. I do not like to see my name associated with something like that in the public. I didn’t like the fact that it was headlines in the paper. I didn’t like having to sit here and explain myself to someone after I had already told them that I had not done it. But that was part of the process and we have moved on.
Did you get a lot of support from people who know you well?
Oh, yeah. Some people who I would have never thought called and told me they were in my corner on the thing. They had been around and had known me a long, long time and had never heard anything like that from me.
You and your wife, Nancy, both have high-profile positions in the community. Nancy is director of elections. That creates its own juggling act, right?
There are a couple of things that we have agreed upon in our household. We don’t talk about politics and we don’t talk about religion. Those are the two things we don’t talk about. Because her political views may be different than mine and I don’t think our house or family is a place to discuss it.
You are a tennis dad?
I never knew anything in the past about tennis — nothing at all. Never watched it on TV. Never watched it in any venue until the girls got involved. They got involved at a young age, 4 and 5. We were very fortunate. We got a tennis coach, Diana Gherghi, who was at Columbus State University at the time. And she is still our coach. Madelyn is at Columbus High and Caroline will be at Columbus High next year. We went down to Jeykll Island last weekend and the Columbus High girls took the tournament, We are extremely proud of them. We are looking forward to the next step, which will be college.
You almost left Columbus in 1985, right?
The FBI hired me. I had gone through about a nine-month process and they offered me a job. At that time, the FBI told you where they wanted you to go. They don’t do that any more. They wait until after you graduate the academy. It looked like I was going to go to New York City and work there as a result of my experience here.
I got to checking how much money I would have to live and what I would have to do. There was no chance of living in the city. There was no vehicle issued. I would have had to commute and take a train back and forth.
You were not willing to do it?
Do you ever regret that decision?
I do not.
You have been with the department since consolidation. Communities now that are consolidating are going to one law enforcement agency. We have three. Do you think we will ever see one law enforcement agency in Muscogee County?
The way that is divvied up at this time, everybody has a role. Our role is criminal law enforcement and investigations. The Sheriff’s role is the jail, courts and civil process. The Marshal’s Office is the marshal of Municipal Court handing civil processes. Everybody has their own bailiwick, and I am going to handle ours.
So, you don’t want to weigh in on what you think?
No. That is a political issue that has to be handled by the voters. If the voters of this town vote — or even the council — if they vote one way and that is the marching orders, that’s the way we will go.
Fair enough. Anything I didn’t ask you?
The only thing I am not going to get involved in is a lot of politics. It is going to be a very heated political season. This job over here is not elected; it’s appointed. But when people come to you and say, “Aren’t you glad you don’t have to run or don’t have to run every four years?” I say, “I am. But I run every Tuesday.”