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Duluth's police chief now in 30th year

Duluth Chief of Police Randy Belcher talks about his 40 year career in law enforcement.


Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher is in his 40th year working in law enforcement, 30 of those years serving as Duluth’s chief. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher is in his 40th year working in law enforcement, 30 of those years serving as Duluth’s chief. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

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Duluth Chief of Police Randy Belcher

Duluth Chief of Police Randy Belcher talks about his 40 year career in law enforcement.

Duluth Chief of Police Randy Belcher talks about his 40 year career in law enforcement.

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Duluth Police Chief Randy Belcher laughs during his interview with the Daily Post. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

DULUTH — Randy Belcher’s new boss pulled down a gravelly Rogers Bridge Road, stopping at what had become an unofficial garbage dump. The city of Duluth’s police chief, he got out of the squad car, brushed an Elvis Presley curl aside and pulled out his nickel-plated .38 Special.

Belcher, a young cop fresh from working icy Ohio accident scenes, asked what he was doing.

Shooting rats, came the response.

The Great Rodent Massacre of 1976 came shortly after breakfast at Rexall Grill. It was followed by lunch at Rexall Grill, a little driving around and, around 3 p.m., coffee and pie at Rexall Grill.

That was it.

“That was my first day,” Belcher said.

Things have changed a bit since then. Now in the 30th year of his own stint as the department’s leader, Belcher is believed to be the longest-tenured police chief in Georgia.

As he sits behind his desk — which is a rarity — any number of the 84 officers under his charge are patrolling a city with a diverse population creeping toward 30,000. They stay busy with the department’s policy of aggressive traffic enforcement, and use things like electronic ticketing systems and rapid ID thumbprint readers and video platforms that automatically upload once they pull into the PD parking lot.

There’s no time for shooting rats. Even if you’re the boss.

“It seems like just yesterday I was 21,” Belcher said.

•••

Belcher, now 59, prides himself on a lot of things.

Constantly in motion, he’s a hands-on, hands-off type of leader. On the one hand, Belcher loves walking the halls and chatting up department leadership and patrol officers, staying abreast of what’s going on and pontificating on what could be done differently. He’s known to assist on traffic stops and other calls — but always in a support role.

No micro-managing here.

“Even as recently as a few months ago,” Lt. Jackie Hood said, “chief jumped out on an accident scene and helped the officers drag a female to safety from a burning car.”

Most important, though, has been Belcher’s steadfastness in keeping an open mind.

Perhaps moreso (and more quickly) than any other municipal department in Gwinnett County, Duluth police have embraced technology. Belcher personally started the city’s neighborhood watch program and the department’s Operation Drive Smart, a safe driving project aimed at teens, has gone statewide.

Plenty of agencies have Community Oriented Police Services, or COPS, programs, but Duluth once had six officers dedicated exclusively to spending time in schools. With Gwinnett’s population boom came a burgeoning Asian population in Duluth — Belcher’s police department now has multiple Korean officers and works closely with a citywide task force to improve relations.

Years ago when local drivers weren’t getting out of the way of squad cars fast enough, Belcher added red to his department’s solid-blue light bars, making them look more like ambulances.

It worked.

“If you’re not fluid, if you just sit here and do the same thing every single day, by the book just like everybody else is doing it, your crime’s gonna go up and you’re just gonna be left behind,” Belcher said.

Maj. Don Woodruff has worked alongside Belcher for 25 years.

“There’s no question about the fact that he’s the leader,” Woodruff said. “But at the same time, he will bring all of us in command staff together and say, ‘OK, here’s an issue, here’s the goal, how do we all think we need to get there?’”

•••

Fresh out of high school, Belcher had a good gig at an Ohio brass foundry. He was trained on every machine in the place, and pretty darn good at it — making 100 foot-long fireplug bolts an hour.

He was already making more money than his father.

One winter night, he took the long walk across the wood-floored foundry, hundreds of machines humming perpetual hellos. He sat down at the lathe, lit only by a swinging 60-watt light bulb. Everything was wet: oils and waters and lubricants.

“I went on break and I’m thinking, ‘Is this really what I want to do for the next 40 years?’”

Nope.

“I never went back,” Belcher said. “I walked away.”

He joined the Mansfield, Ohio, police department for two years, then worked undercover narcotics for the nearby Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

In January of 1972 or ’73, Belcher helped his in-laws move down to Norcross, leaving three feet of snow for temperatures in the low 60s and a “bluebird sky.” After heading back north, he was working an accident scene when, moments apart from each other, two cars slid on the surrounding ice and joined the crash.

“I said, ‘That’s it, I’m out of here,’” Belcher said.

•••

In 1983, soon-to-be-Mayor Willie Jones ran on a platform calling Duluth’s police department a “financial octopus,” claiming it was draining the city’s revenue. After he was elected, he summoned Belcher — then the interim chief — to a 3 a.m. meeting at Waffle House.

He wanted to go through with his promises. He wanted Belcher to be the town marshal.

“He said, ‘They’re going to give you a car, they’re going to give you a county radio,’” Belcher recalls. “He said, ‘I want you to put your fishing poles in the trunk, and I don’t want to see you until I need you.’”

Then came the first city council meeting of 1984. Residents and TV cameras flooded city hall. The gathering was heated.

Belcher still doesn’t know exactly what happened — or won’t say — but a councilmember eventually made a motion to appoint him police chief. It got the votes.

In the 30 years since, little has changed. At least in terms of the man in charge.

“I’ve literally built this from a little hole in the wall at the corner of (Duluth and Buford highways), where the whole police department was three rooms,” Belcher said. “To me that’s amazing. I never dreamt this would happen.”

Woodruff, one of Belcher’s right-hand men, gets the questions often: Being in law enforcement as long as you have, why don’t you leave Duluth? Why don’t you get out of Belcher’s shadow, and go be a chief somewhere?

More or less, it’s just not something he’s interested in. If he was, though …

“I certainly could do the job,” Woodruff said. “And the reason I say that is because I’ve learned from the best.”