First Posted: 7/18/2009
As a youngster, Maj. Jeff Wolfe remembers the impression made on him by a neighbor who was a law enforcement officer.
Seeing that man in his uniform getting into his police car each day is something Wolfe, now 52, has never forgotten. It was even more exciting when the officer took off with his siren wailing and lights flashing to respond to some emergency.
And if that were not enough to captivate the young Dobson resident, an extremely popular television show from the period would close the deal as far as a career choice. When I got a little older, Adam-12 came on and I didnt miss an episode, Wolfe said of the long-running program focusing on the adventures of two patrol officers in Los Angeles.
So I was sure that was what I wanted to do, he added during an interview last week.
That desire eventually led to a patrolmans position with the Dobson Police Department in 1979, and now 30 years later Wolfe has retired as second in command of the Mount Airy Police Department.
Ive been doing this over half of my adult life, Wolfe said as he boxed up mementos at his office in preparation for his last day on the job Friday. But he indicated that his retirement, though welcome, is coming with a squad car full of mixed feelings.
Its the right time for me personally, and the right time for the department, Wolfe said of the departure, but its still bittersweet.
Though Wolfe has roots in Surry County his late father Robert was from Mountain Park and his mother Fern hailed from Dobson the future police officer actually was born at a naval hospital in New York state while his father was in the military.
After leaving the service, Wolfes dad eventually became a Methodist minister. Though Wolfe spent part of his boyhood in Dobson, the Western North Carolina Methodist Conference is where I grew up, he joked. The family also consisted of a younger brother and sister, Dale and Angela.
At one point Wolfe, who graduated from Pisgah High School and Brevard Junior College, entertained thoughts of another career besides law enforcement. Id actually thought about teaching and coaching, he said.
Chase On First Night
However, after Wolfe decided to take a bit of a break upon completing junior college, the pieces fell into place for what would be his long-term profession when an opportunity arose with the Dobson Police Department. It was headed then by one of the most colorful law enforcement figures in Surry County history, Chief Robert Red Axsom.
Red gave me my start there, Wolfe said, which was as an auxiliary officer in May 1979. It wasnt long until a part-time position opened up and later that same year, Wolfe found himself in a full-time patrolmans job with the force, which had only a handful of officers in all.
It just sort of fell into place for me, added Wolfe, who said policemen at that time were allowed to begin serving even without completing basic law enforcement training.
As fate would have it, the first night the minimally trained officer patrolled Dobson streets by himself proved to be eventful, when I had a carload of teen-agers flee from me.
That chase led to the Surry Community College campus in the south part of town, where the youths jumped and ran. Despite his inexperience, Wolfe managed to catch two of the teens.
As Wolfe grew more and more skilled as officer, he joined the Mount Airy Police Department in November 1985 after being hired by Police Chief Leo Shores, whose influence with the force is still apparent.
He was very big in technology and training, said Wolfe, who was hired as a patrol officer by Shores, one of four police chiefs he has served under during his career. He started that, and weve all benefited from that.
I came here and it seemed like a perfect fit, Wolfe added of a career move that would last for about the next 25 years.
However, he admits that shifting from a tiny town police department to the larger force in Mount Airy presented quite a contrast. It was a big change for me coming from Dobson to here.
Wolfe added, I probably worked more motor-vehicle accidents in the first six months here than in six years at Dobson.
Once he settled in with the larger department, Wolfe moved up through its ranks. After serving as a patrol officer for two years, he was promoted to senior patrol officer, which involved training other policemen. He held that position until 1990, when he became a patrol sergeant, and five years later, found himself in the lieutenants job for the patrol unit.
Coming up, I really thought my goal was patrol lieutenant. I never thought I would be doing what I am doing now, Wolfe said.
But the easygoing officer would be destined for even higher echelons of the Mount Airy Police Department, becoming a captain in 2005. He assumed the majors position in 2007, effectively making him assistant chief of police.
In addition to overseeing the various divisions of the department on a day-to-day basis, Wolfe has been recognized statewide for his role as a teacher in the Basic Law Enforcement Training program.
As Jeff Wolfe grew in his profession, so did the technology that has allowed officers to perform their sometimes-difficult jobs better.
One of the areas in which this is most evident is communications, especially in comparing the equipment Dobson officers had in 1979 with that of today. We had a walkie-talkie that we all shared, he said of the county seats force. The chief had a walkie-talkie and all the guys had one walkie-talkie.
But when Wolfe joined the Mount Airy department in the mid-1980s, technology was really beginning to take hold. I remember we got one of the first scanning radios around there, and that was really nice, he said of the device that allowed city officers to monitor communications of other emergency agencies.
I remember thinking, weve hit the big time now!
Another technological marvel was video cameras in cars, which are now standard equipment coast to coast. We had one of the first in-car cameras in this area, Wolfe recalled proudly.
Other advancements over the years have included pepper spray, which has played a huge role in subduing suspects, and perhaps the most major innovation of all: computer and Internet technology.
Whereas police once had to keep information on crimes and perpetrators on file cards that often required painstaking research, modern technology allows them to access computer databases for vital details. And now the information we can get and share with other law enforcement agencies just blows your mind, the veteran officer said.
Also, computers are now standard equipment in patrol cars. If someone had told me while I was working in Dobson that there would be computers in cars, I would have said, No way! Wolfe added with a laugh.
Officers training requirements also are about triple what they once were. Its really turned into a profession, Wolfe said of law enforcement. Its not just a job anymore.
Officers Death Still Tough
While Wolfe has seen law enforcement tools evolve over the years, one constant has been the desire of some elements of society to commit crimes; and that has brought disturbing trends lately.
Drug use, I think right now, is at one of the highest levels Ive ever seen it, Wolfe said. While the trafficking and use of illegal narcotics is a problem in itself, the longtime police official also is troubled by its impact on other offenses, such as violent crime, theft and overall threat to public safety.
I think drugs is a big part of that and I know thats one of the negatives Ive seen, the influence of drugs, Wolfe said.
He pointed out that seizures of even small amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine once made for big headlines. What used to be a big deal, narcotics-wise, is now commonplace and thats sad.
On the other hand, Wolfe sees much to be happy about, especially the relationship between the public and Mount Airy police. Weve got more community support for the police department right now than we have in years past, he said. Wolfe believes thats due to having professionals in place who genuinely care about the community and want to give them the best.
But that doesnt mean the road hasnt been rocky at times.
Though Wolfe says it is satisfying to get dangerous criminals off the streets through solid police work, the sad fact is that not all of them are brought to justice at least in a timely manner.
One case that still haunts Wolfe is the 1996 murder of Jonesville police officer Greg Martin, who was gunned down along Interstate 77 after he stopped a vehicle late one night. The murderer of Martin, who previously worked with the Mount Airy Police Department, has not been caught, although the cold case has received new attention recently from the State Bureau of Investigation.
I taught Greg in Basic Law Enforcement Training, Wolfe said. Greg was one of my students and friends besides being a co-worker here. Wolfe is somewhat haunted by the circumstances surrounding Martins death because it occurred during a vehicle stop a segment of training that Wolfe has been involved with during the years.
However, deaths such as Martins have helped revolutionize training to a fine science, with officers now observing specialized techniques related to the positioning of their cars, their approach to suspect vehicles, how they stand and other protective tactics. Its not just as simple as pulling over a car and hopping out, Wolfe said.
Another case that stands out in Wolfes memory involved a murder suspect who barricaded himself inside a house in Lowgap in the 1980s. Members of other area agencies were called in to assist the Surry County Sheriffs Office, including Wolfe and fellow officers from Mount Airy.
At first, the man was shooting at the officers with a shotgun, which Wolfe said didnt seem that much of a threat due to their distance from the house. Then I heard that crack of a rifle, Wolfe recalled of the man pulling out the high-powered weapon later in the standoff. He heard one shot hit above him, sending snow down onto his shoulders.
Ill never forget that, and hearing the radio communications, Wolfe said. The murder suspect subsequently was captured and imprisoned.
Wolfe admits that while officers must maintain a strong demeanor, it is hard to deal with tragic cases, such as when children are harmed. He recalled one incident in which a baby was struck by a car on U.S. 52 and killed as one that has stuck in his memory.
Yet there are pleasant ones, too. Wolfe recalled a young woman approaching him as he worked a carnival in Mount Airy a few years ago, and asking, Do you remember me?
It turned out that she recalled Wolfe taking the time to speak to her and other kids years before when he worked in Dobson, which she said gave her motivation to make something of her life. The girl eventually became a nurse.
Ill never forget that one, Wolfe said. Sometimes you touch people and you never had any idea you did.
In Good Hands
Maj. Jeff Wolfes retirement is not the only one being faced by the city of Mount Airy. Police Chief Roger McCreary is slated to end his long career later this year as well.
Between the chief and me, its just shy of 60 years, Wolfe said of the experience the department will lose.
However, he is confident that the local force will continue to be a professional organization serving the community to the fullest.
I know, without a shadow of a doubt, weve got people to step up and lead the department, Wolfe said. With the caliber of the people weve got, they wont miss a beat. In 30 years of doing this, Ive never seen a group of officers so committed to serving the community.
Wolfe is less certain how he will spend his retirement time. Im probably going to catch up on some things around home, the Dobson resident said. Along with two children, Wolfe and his wife Star, a telecommunicator with the Forsyth County Sheriffs Office, have three grandchildren with whom he hopes to spend more time.
Police work often is not the best ally for family life, he admits. I worked a rotating schedule from 1979 to 2005, he said. Its tough. One of the loneliest places Ive ever been is in a patrol car on Christmas morning. Missed ballgames and birthdays and late family meals also are among a law enforcement officers sacrifices.
As the owner of a Harley-Davidson, Wolfe also hinted that more cycling could be in his future as a retiree.
After taking time off, Wolfe said he might do some kind of work again in the future, but I dont know what.
However, for now he is simply looking forward to doing little, pointing out that it will be nice just to not carry a pager and cell phone 24 hours a day.
Still, he will miss those he has served with over the years. I still love it here, Wolfe said of the department. I love the people we have a family so thats tough (leaving co-workers behind). The camaraderie here is just amazing. And Im going to miss that.
While he has mixed feelings about retiring, Wolfe said one factor that has made it easy is knowing there are good folks behind to carry on the mission.
Thats why Im so proud of what weve got right now. I know were in good hands, he said. I cant say enough about how proud I am of the people here.
At the same time, Wolfe added, its like youre leaving part of your family, although he pledges to stay in touch with department members.
Im always going to be MAPD in my heart.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected] or at 719-1924.