New Police Chief Recalls 30 Years of Memories
Jeffrey E. Robertson takes over the Heights department after longtime chief Martin Lentz retires
After almost 30 years in the Cleveland Heights Police Department, it's difficult for new Chief Jeffrey E. Robertson to choose a best and worst moment.
But he's able to think of a few.
Such as the time when his wife — before everyone went wireless — had to use one of the old police call boxes to send him an important message: She was pregnant with their first child.
Or when he helped a terrified mother rescue a toddler who had locked himself in the bathroom.
"I played around with the lock and I was able to jimmy it to get it open," Robertson, 50, recalled with a laugh. "And this little boy was standing there, completely naked, and he said, 'Thanks!'
"There's a lot of rewarding times on the job when you help people out."
Other aspects of the job never get easier.
"When you have to go knock on someone's door, and a person answers and here I am standing as a policeman, and they know something bad is coming," he said. "It probably gets harder the older you get. You get more sentimental and more compassionate … but you get better at it, because you know how to talk to people and how to try to help them through it."
Robertson knew something about police work long before he joined the Cleveland Heights Police Department. His father worked for the Lyndhurst Police Department, and his grandfather patrolled in East Cleveland and retired as captain, he said.
"When I was kid, I talked about my dad a lot," Robertson said. "I used to go and ride around with him. He would take me in the police car and show me things. It was a great experience being able to do that as a kid. Even when I started here, I would ride around with him when I wasn't working because we had a pretty good relationship, we were real close, and it gave us time to drive around and talk."
He'd also go to the shooting range with his grandfather and father, and that's what first sparked his interest in becoming a police officer.
Instead of studying criminal justice or joining the force right after high school, Robertson went to business school on the advice of his brother, John, who had also been a business major. He took classes at Kent State University, and also considered being a physical education teacher and basketball coach. But his passion for police work eventually brought him to Cleveland Heights.
He was first offered a job in Lyndhurst, where his dad worked, but the Heights agreed to reimburse him for tuition during his last year at Kent State. He finished his classes while training.
"I spread my wings a little bit, I'd guess you say," Robertson said. "It was a great move. I never looked back."
Even when, in his second year, he was almost shot after chasing someone on foot on East 65th Street.
"It was a battle for my life — I mean the guy had my gun and he turned it back on me — right at my face," Robertson said, pointing an imaginary gun at his head. He managed to regain control of his gun, but it went off and shot the man's leg.
"We had a good fight going on, and it's fortunate the way it ended up," Robertson said. "And I'm glad he wasn't killed, obviously. "
Robertson, who started his new job in early December, has worked in the department since he was 21. He prefers patrolling the streets, talking to residents and monitoring neighborhoods, but he wasn't upset when City Manager Robert Downey told him that he was being promoted from captain to chief.
The application process included an 150-question, multiple-choice test that he prepared for by reading about 2,000 pages of material, followed by an interview with the city manager, Robertson said.
"It was a tough test, I'll tell you that," Robertson said.
Two other captains had applied. Robertson got the highest score on the exam.
Newly retired Police Chief Martin G. Lentz was already a fixture on the force when Robertson joined.
The new chief wants to carry on Lentz's policy of encouraging officers to pursue higher education. The force include several officers with law degrees, and another is working on her doctorate.
He also wants to be a father figure on the force, as Lentz was.
"He was a strict leader, but he was compassionate, and he had a soft spot because he knew we're all young guys and we have families," he said. "He looked out for us in that regard.
"I want to carry that on because there are a lot of young guys here now who look at me the same way, and that's important."