A police officer was a pillar in the Bankhead and Grove Park communities until, one day, he vanished
IT WAS A SIMPLE QUESTION.
At a Grove Park Neighborhood Association meeting earlier this year, residents voiced their concerns about the turnover rate for the Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers in the area. Coupled with the concern that the APD has failed to provide the area with officers trained in community policing, other public safety issues—a worrisome crime rate, speeders at North Avenue and Baker Road, two homicides after Christmas—were top of mind.
“Do you have an objective way of measuring success for Zone 1?” asked Leah LaRue, a Grove Park resident.
Major Reginald Moorman, the Zone 1 commander, responded.
“Overall reduced crime, people feeling safe, their community and relationship with the police department has improved, we’re responsive to your needs, and [the police are] patrolling your community like they patrol the community where they lay their head,” he said.
I was listening to the meeting to do research on another story, but the grievances reminded me of similar feelings voiced during discussions with Bankhead and Grove Park’s Community Editorial Board.
I kept hearing about a man named Officer Gray—how he was a pillar in the community, how everybody had an endearing story about him, how he made everyone feel seen and respected. From answering domestic calls to checking in on every business on his route, Officer Gray lived to serve this sometimes overlooked Westside community, until one day he seemed to have vanished altogether. In his place, there has been a revolving door of police officers that have yet to live or walk in his giant footsteps. I knew I had to find him. But where to start?
The Search Begins
TOWARD THE END OF 2021, the week of my 37th birthday, I had finally been accepted into a journalism fellowship and I was assigned my first story: finding a missing person. I thought there must be someone within my community circle that had heard of Officer Gray. I made a few phone calls, the first of which led to a moment of pause when my friend Richard Dunn, a Westside resident, said, “Yes, I know the name officer Gray—I believe he’s retired or dead.”
My heart skipped a few beats. Was I looking for a dead man? How would I report this heartbreak back to his beloved community? Has no one in this eight miles of Donald Lee Hollowell (formerly Bankhead Highway), been in contact with someone that so many consider a community mainstay? More questions, no answers—I knew I was in for a ride.
Within the first week, my curiosity drove me to call most of the people I knew that had grown up on the Westside of Atlanta. Most remembered the name but couldn’t give me a description or his last known whereabouts. One police officer I spoke to said that he had spent his early days on the force training with Officer Gray in Zone 1. He was unable to recall his first name, but told me that he was absolutely sure that Officer Gray had retired and that he was still alive. So, my search continued, and so did my research on the past, present, and future of community policing in Atlanta.
What Community Policing Looks Like
IN 1967, PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON established his Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice to study community distrust of police. This was done partly in response to the race riots of the 1960s. The Commission suggested that police spend more time in the community than in their patrol cars; so began the first iteration of “community policing.”
Community policing commonly appeared in legal documentation in the early 1980s. The concept allows officers to continuously operate in the same area in order to create a stronger bond with citizens. This bond, in turn, allows law enforcement officers to engage with local residents and prevent crime from happening instead of having to respond to incidents after they occur.
The idea of community policing appeared again in 1981 when the National Police Foundation—began experimenting with the concepts of community policing after their research showed a disconnect between the community and law enforcement. Community policing was adopted nationally in a new strategy outlined by Georgia State University professor Robert R. Friedmann, who, in his 1992 book, Community Policing: Comparative Perspectives and Prospects, described community policing as, “a policy and a strategy aimed at achieving more effective and efficient crime control, reduced fear of crime, improved quality of life, improved police services and police legitimacy, through a proactive reliance on community resources that seeks to change crime causing conditions. This assumes a need for greater accountability of police, greater public share in decision making, and greater concern for civil rights and liberties.”
The model’s national introduction came as Atlanta endured one of its darkest moments. The highs celebrated during the election of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, came with the lows of the violent crime that rocked the community, including the Atlanta child murders and the Bowen Homes Daycare explosion.
In November 2021, following national unrest tied to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP) adopted a resolution to formally accept, acknowledge, support, and use Friedmann’s 1992 definition (with minor adjustments) as the formal definition of community policing in the State of Georgia.
As I thought back to the way community members had described Officer Gray at the neighborhood meetings I had attended, it became clear that he had embodied the spirit of community policing well before the statewide adoption.
A Red Herring at the Beauty Shop
THE SECOND WEEK OF MY SEARCH, I decided to do an open records request with the APD. They asked for a date range, any information about the person—including the personnel department—maybe a case number, location. I spelled Officer Gray two different ways: “Gray” and “Grey.” I didn’t know his first name. I said he was located in Zone 1 and wanted to check if he had been transferred and had any corresponding paperwork. They responded to my request about a month later with a generic message about the fee, saying nothing had been found. I went down to the City’s Public Safety Annex building on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, as directed by my longtime friend and Atlanta native Lance Irvin. The building, a record-keeping facility for the APD, did not yield any clues. Another roadblock. I spoke to a few more community members, spreading myself outside of the Grove Park neighborhood into Adamsville. I ventured into a few barbershops and beauty salons asking if anyone knew of Officer Gray.
Geralyne King, owner of GHK Salon in Adamsville, said an officer with a first name of “LJ” fit the description. She said if I waited a little while longer, he would be coming by.
LJ, a police officer who works as a resource officer at a few churches in the area, was not Officer Gray. He was Officer LJ Brown.
But Officer Brown did work with Officer Gray over 30 years ago, and said that he was a fixture in the Bankhead community and patrolled along the former Bankhead Highway.
As I continued to cold call other officers, some retired, some still active, many said they didn’t know anyone by the name Officer Gray. However, they did speak of the department being underfunded, and how funding could have resulted in what the community deemed Officer Gray’s “abrupt leaving.”
It was about three weeks into my search, and the challenge of finding Officer Gray was beginning to look like Mission Impossible.
I felt as if all of my roads were leading to dead ends and that I had no tangible evidence to prove that Officer Gray wasn’t just a figment of the community’s imagination. I found myself pulling into 2315 Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy NW, the Zone 1 Atlanta Police precinct, just sitting in the parking lot, trying my best to come up with new leads and ideas. Did he walk past as I pumped my gas at the Texaco on Hollowell? Was he in the parked car beside me at a stoplight as I turned on to Joseph E. Boone? Would I even know him if I saw him?
I stepped away from finding Officer Gray for a few days. I thought about what my granny would say: “Once you stop looking for something, it will eventually find you—because it’s looking for you, too.” So, I did just that. I stopped.
A Yearbook and a Phone Call
SEVEN WEEKS HAD PASSED.
I enlisted the people I knew to connect me with retired APD police officers. To my surprise, one of my Canopy co-fellows’ sisters is Thelma Denise Obie, a retired civilian employee. To add a little sweetness to the pot, Obie knew Officer Gray. Officer Melvin Gray is the name she remembers from her 32 years with the department. Finally, we were going to be able to get to know Officer Gray through someone that knew him and worked with him during his years of service. “He loved Zone 1. I never remembered Officer Gray getting promoted. He wasn’t tall. He had dark skin, salt and pepper hair, with a small build—Gray is probably in his 70s by now,” Obie said.
“He loved working on the streets,” she added. “If there was anyone that you needed to find in Zone 1, Officer Gray could tell you where to find them.”
Eventually, I went back to asking everyone who would listen: “Do you know Officer Gray?”
In mapping out my next steps, I decided to interview retired officers and cast a wide net. I enlisted help from the people I knew who might have connections to APD officers.
I reached back out to Dunn, who gave me a number to Officer John, who is still working with the APD, and was on former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ detail. I kept calling him, but I knew he would be over me at some point.
“You should look in the APD yearbook,” Obie told me over the phone. “Every year, the department prints a yearbook. Look in the mid-to-late ‘80s. I started at the department in ‘85. Officer Gray either started before me or around the same time.”
I went to the Atlanta History Center and had Serena McCracken, the research manager for the Kenan Research Center, pull every police department yearbook they had. They had every yearbook up until 1975. After that time, she explained, the police department decided to start their own archives. We found an Atlanta Constitution article about the Atlanta child murders, dated October 21,1980, that mentions “Officer M. H. Gray.”
I took the clip and made one last phone call to Officer John to ask where I could find an APD yearbook. He finally responded, pointing me to Sergeant Tonya Austin from the Atlanta Police Historical Society.
I left her a message. A few hours passed and my phone rang. I spoke briefly with Sergeant Austin to explain my mission. She confirmed my number and we hung up.
Seven days had passed since our conversation, and it had been 10 weeks since I started my search for Officer Gray. I was tired, overwhelmed, and feeling like I had hit another dead end. I laid down on my sofa, ready for a nap and ready to admit defeat.
I was snuggling in for a snooze with the perfect background noise and positioning myself to wander off to sleep when my phone rang. The caller ID read “Melvin Gray.”
The Man from Rikers Island
OFFICER GRAY HAS A WARM, fatherly tone to his voice—one that seems to favor redirection over discipline. He immediately mentioned that he heard that I had been looking for him (Sergeant Austin had passed the message along).
“Yes, I am looking for you because there are neighbors in Grove Park and Bankhead wondering where you went. Why did you leave?,” I asked him in my shy and shocked state. “They told me that they haven’t been able to replace you since you left the community,” I said. “They miss you, so I was assigned the task of looking for you.”
We paused. The next sound Officer Gray made was filled with weeping. He couldn’t believe they remembered him. With tears in my eyes, I said with the most comforting voice I could muster up, “Yes, they remember you.”
Officer Gray moved to Atlanta and joined the APD in 1988. His first assignment was working the Democratic National Convention in downtown Atlanta.
Before moving to Atlanta, he worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in New York City. With his wife’s desire to move to Atlanta, Officer Gray found work with the APD. With only four days to spare before starting work, he spent two days finding a place to live and figuring out how to get back and forth to work from his new home in Lithonia. He recalled the commanding officer asking the class of new recruits, “Which one of you are tough? Because one of you will be headed to Zone 1, the war zone.”
The coverage area Officer Gray reluctantly accepted became his second home. He enjoyed the rotating shift that came with the job and found a family in the homes he served and protected in Grove Park. He remembers young Bernard “Bubba” Bunes, who would repeatedly tell him that he, too, would be a police officer one day. Officer Gray’s presence at the local NPU-J monthly meeting was more than a community desire; it was a demand.
He laughs about one instance in particular.
“One day I was told by the new Major at Zone 1 not to report to the NPU meeting that was being held the next day,” he said. “As I was driving, patrolling my route, I heard a call come over the radio and I ignored it because I knew that my community mothers were giving the new Major hell about why I wasn’t in attendance.”
Working on a schedule, Officer Gray assured each of the residents and businesses on his route that they would see him at least twice a day. By the time he was “introduced” to the philosophy of community policing by the Atlanta Police Department in the ‘90s, he had already developed his own understanding of the model—he valued resident voices, organizing and respecting each case and situation as its own. Where most officers would rather not get called into domestic disputes, he saw them as family matters that could be resolved with de-escalation tactics.
“Going into homes, most people just want to be heard,” he told me. “I would gather the children in the house, play with them while listening to the adults have the dispute. When I got a basic understanding of what caused the call I would ask all parties to have a seat and talk with each of them, call in the family support specialist that we would call into the situation to assist in non-violent domestic matters. Before long the children would be laughing and the adults would be calm.”
Community Policing in Atlanta
IN TERMS OF MODELS for bridging gaps between officers and the communities they serve, the City has a few initiatives in place.
The Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) promotes community policing as one of their primary focuses. The Foundation’s Securing the Community initiative provides three programs for APD officers to live and work within the communities they serve.
The Secure Neighborhoods Home Officers program, for example, provides officers with the opportunity to purchase a home in city neighborhoods at a reduced cost. In return, officers agree to actively patrol their new neighborhoods, participate in community associations, and become stalwart members of their new communities.
Another program called Secure Neighborhoods Certified consists of sworn officers who are provided incentives in the form of reduced rent to live in apartments in the city. In return, they perform community service and provide a police presence aimed at deterring crime in apartment communities. With assistance from apartment developers, APF will place 150 certified Courtesy Officers in apartments over the next three years.
The third housing incentive program is called the Unity Place Recruit Housing. This is general housing for recruits on a first-come basis featuring one-to-four bedroom apartments in the English Avenue community. This complex houses 30 APD recruits during the six months in which they undergo training at the academy. Launched in February 2022, the program, the first of its kind in the nation according to City officials, immerses recruits in the culture of the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect—a commitment to the community engagement and citizenship the APD aspires to.
“I Remember You”
SITTING ACROSS FROM OFFICER GRAY on a gloomy day at Daily Dose Coffee in Madison Yards, I’m watching him smile as he talks about his 32 years with the APD. Fully embracing retirement, he stands about 5’6. He’s wearing a blue polo-style shirt. There’s a small handcuff charm hanging from his silver necklace.
“I didn’t want to leave the force. I wasn’t ready to retire. I felt like I was letting my community, the people that I promised to serve and protect, behind,” he said, as tears filled his eyes. “I haven’t been back in Zone 1 since I left in 2010, because of an income decrease. I had already spent 32 years in the department to make a livable wage of $52,000 per year, only to be decreased to $42,000 per year. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
After Officer Gray left the force via early retirement, he pursued a career as an auto mechanic. Then, two years later, in 2012, he joined the APD Reserves. He was assigned to the City of Atlanta courthouse. He was back in the community, engaging in police officer banter with his colleagues, and, most importantly, being able to protect and serve his neighbors.
Eight years later, Officer Gray decided to retire. This time it was final. When he looks back, he’s reminded of the seeds planted years ago on old Bankhead Highway in the Grove Park community. It makes him think of another story.
He was working one of his last days at the courthouse and remembers hearing the sound of a voice saying, “Officer Gray, do you remember me?” Before Officer Gray stood a 20-something-year-old man that he used to see on his daily route around Grove Park. “Yeah,” Officer Gray replied, smiling, “I remember you.”
This story was reported in partnership with Canopy Atlanta, a community-powered journalism nonprofit. This story was informed by feedback from Bankhead and Grove Park community members and was reported in collaboration with a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, community members whom Canopy Atlanta trains and pays to learn reporting skills.