Clarksdale, a predominantly African American town in the Mississippi Delta, is known for its legendary Blues music, rich cultural arts and civil rights history, and economic opportunity. But, over the past decade, plagued by decreasing population, lack of industry and increasing crime rate, it has struggled to keep its economy afloat. Though, its 16,000 or so population is comprised of 51 percent women, mostly men serve in top leadership positions. In September 2017, the city’s administration appointed its first woman and African American woman as the chief of the Clarksdale Police Department.

Chief Sandra Williams, from Vicksburg, recently spoke with Mississippi Today reporter Aallyah Wright about serving as the first woman in this role in a male-dominated industry and the challenges of fighting crime and community involvement.

Mississippi Today: When “outsiders” come into a town, there is some apprehension, resistance, or pushback from the community, as you were mentioning. Do you think some of the pushback you have received comes from being a woman in this type of position when you’re trying to implement change or do things differently?

Clarksdale Police Chief, Sandra Williams: I think it was a combination of both – being an outsider and being a female. I wasn’t given this job because I was female. I was hired and appointed to this position because of my background, my knowledge, and my experience. This is traditionally a male role. Law enforcement and especially the leadership in any department, you typically would see or it has always been roles for men.

This is 2019 now and you’re beginning to gradually see it change in the number of females that are running a number of police departments and sheriff departments around the country. Yes, there have been times I’ve felt like I was pushed back. I feel like being a female in this role, you’re guilty until you can prove that you’re innocent. I basically had to show them that I am capable and qualified for this.

Mississippi Today: When you first got here, there was a lot going on in terms of crime. At this point last year, crime was extremely high. A couple months back, you mentioned you were able to cut the crime rate in half. So far this year the city’s homicide rate is down 92 percent and burglaries have dropped by 40 percent over last year, according to CPD-released data. What’s your approach to leading a team to get these results?

Clarksdale Police Chief, Sandra Williams: The numbers have gone down tremendously and in 2017, when I came on board, violent crimes were out of the roof. I’m trying to find my niche. I’m trying to get my ducks in a row, so to speak. 2018, crime was out of the roof and I’m constantly working with a lot of things that are coming at me from all different directions, which unfortunately took away from directly focusing on crime. I had to get my team together. I had to get the officers together and get them armored with the purpose of law enforcement, and get people to understand what their roles are as law enforcement under my administration.

It took a while because it was, like I said, a new person coming in from the outside. As of August 2019, we unfortunately have had one homicide. Any homicide is bad. Anytime there’s a loss of life, that’s bad. Last year, we had 12 homicides for the year. Over half the year is gone and we’re still just at that one. I will contribute that to being allowed to replace the turnover of the officers. I lost a number of different officers through retirement and through other means.

Mississippi Today: What do you wish you would’ve known before starting this position that could’ve made things a little easier on you or expedited a certain process?

Clarksdale Police Chief, Sandra Williams: As I mentioned to you before, I was a single parent with twins and I’m hustling and I’m working little dead end jobs trying to make ends meet, and at that time, I was looking for a job that paid me more than the income that I was bringing into my household. Once I got into law enforcement and stayed there a number of years, what I wish that I would have had was a female officer to mentor me. Show me the ropes. Bring me along the way and explain to me what my options were in law enforcement. I did not have that.

As I came up through the years, I always promised myself if I get the opportunity to grab a female or any of these young females who are officers or interested in being an officer, I would mentor them. At the (Clarksdale) department, since I’ve been here, there’s only been one female, but I do mentor her. I am also responsible for males as well. So across the board, I try to give them all the same guidance and training.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.