(Just as a neighborhood should not be judged by the actions of a few bad apples, neither should law enforcement agencies. The New Tri-State Defender' "Good Blue & You" column spotlights law enforcement officers who do it right. This week's focus is on Shelby County Deputy Charllai Wooten.)
No stranger to learning, Charllai Wooten graduated from Central High School (Class of 2000) and earned a criminal justice degree at the University of Memphis in 2008. True to her degree, she quickly found herself working for the Shelby County District Attorney's Office, where she learned even more while applying all that she knew for four-plus years.
The years spent studying and working in the field of criminal justice came in handy when she joined the Shelby County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) in 2013, landing on the Shelby County Schools "Rapid Response Unit." But before we get to that, let's pick up with Wooten the soldier, who was dispatched to Egypt seemingly in the blink of an eye.
"Instead of going to college right after high school I enrolled in the military. This provided a good background for the passion I had for law enforcement and what I wanted to do with my life, as well as help pay for my schooling," said Wooten.
"It just so happened that while I was in the military that the September 11th attacks happened and I deployed to Egypt seven days (later). It happened so fast until we really didn't get a chance to tell our families bye. That changes the perception that you can just go into the military, serve your time and go. The realization is that anything can happen and just like that you are put directly in the middle of it."
With that set-up, here's the rest of my free-flow conversation with Deputy Wooten:
Kelvin Cowans: Fast forward...once you joined the SCSO you are immediately placed on the "Rapid Response Unit."...Was this experience bumper cars or the Zippin Pippin (The old rollercoaster ride at the now defunct Libertyland amusement park.)?
Deputy Wooten: It's been a good experience, although at times definitely up and down like that ride. A lot of kids are lacking discipline and parental guidance. Many of these kids are surely missing a father figure and even some a mother who fills her motherly duties. A lot of times the mothers (who) come to our schools to deal with their kid's issues come into the school high on drugs, inappropriately dressed and talking crazy.
Many times we've had to put parents out of the school buildings because they were out of control. At times we've had to threaten to arrest some of them because they are out of control. That behavior reaches the children and is acted out in the schools. It's sad. So I always feel if I could just reach one child outside this uniform I feel that I've done a good job. I love the fact that I get to interact with kids. I like speaking to them about things that will help them perform well in school. These type of things remind me that I actually had it good growing up. I understand the black experience, I'm not so removed that I can't relate."
KC: How big of a problem are gangs in the schools?
Deputy Wooten: It's the biggest problem. Gangs have stepped in where the parents should be. Those higher-ranking gang members are taking that place in those kids' lives. We control it as best as we can but that's at school. They still have to go home to their neighborhoods.
KC: Here's a magic wand, how do you stop gang activity?
Deputy Wooten: You can't stop it, you can only try to control it. It's different now than when I grew up. Back then kids hid their affiliations. Now they will openly tell you that they are in a gang and the gang name. But we understand that the job has to get done and we're equipped for it. It's a work in progress and we're getting it done.
KC: You guys have a tough job and I don't think everyone understands that. As a whole when it comes to law enforcement the last thing I as a citizen (want) to hear is that the budget is about to be balanced on you guys' backs. Not cool. Find something else.
Deputy Wooten: I understand.
KC: How do spend your down time?
Deputy Wooten: Like anyone else. I like being at home and relaxing. When I do go out I find a really nice restaurant or go catch a really good movie. I have a big family and we truly enjoy hanging out with each other. Holidays are great. We're officers on and off duty but you still try to find times to chill out like any other citizen.
KC: What does your community work consist of?
Deputy Wooten: The SCSO has this thing called "Speakers" and different deputies go out and speak to schools and churches and I enjoy that. We speak out against bullying as well as gangs and other hot topics. We some times team up with McGruff the crime dog and it gets really creative yet informative.
KC: ...Give me your initial thoughts and answers to these questions. Where is our city headed? Memphis and Shelby County, what needs to be done to push it into a good direction?
Deputy Wooten: Well true, we're stagnant and I think that the main thing that should be done is that we start to cater to college graduates. College graduates are leaving our city at a fast pace headed for Dallas, Houston and Atlanta because they have better jobs and more attractions. We're not attractive right now. Even the things that have attracted tourists in the past aren't necessarily safe. Memphis needs to put money back into its people. Make them want to stay and work and create art here and they will in turn spend money right here.