When a black motorist died during a struggle with police officers in Norfolk three years ago, the city's African American community organized protests and criticized the police force for being insensitive to minorities.
Melvin C. High, Norfolk's police chief at the time, urged residents to suspend judgment until after an investigation, a probe that ended up exonerating the officers.
But he also was careful to tour the city's black neighborhoods after the highly publicized death of Raymond C. Chandler to listen to residents vent their frustrations with his department.
In addition, High initiated an array of reforms, calling for the installation of video cameras in police cruisers, adding investigators to internal affairs and establishing citizen advisory committees to focus on police issues.
"I disagreed with Chief High, but the way he handled it, he kept control of the situation," said Joshua Paige of the Inner City Federation of Civic Leagues, a group that represents dozens of Norfolk civic organizations. "He was not covering anything up or hiding anything -- he made sure it was dealt with aboveboard."
High will likely need those powers of diplomacy as he begins his new role as police chief in Prince George's County, where the department is the target of a federal investigation into allegations of brutality.
The 34-year law enforcement veteran, whose appointment was announced Friday by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), is also likely to need intestinal fortitude to navigate Prince George's often-overheated political terrain, and to deal with a police union that is not shy about launching rhetorical missiles at county leaders. The 1,400-member police force, like many large bureaucracies, has been described as resistant to change.
"He's going to have to upset people to get things done because there's a real culture that sits down there and acts as an obstacle," said Ronald E. Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association. "He's known for being very methodical, very focused on what he needs to do, and he also gets what he wants. He's not to be taken lightly."
High, 58, is no stranger to the Washington area, having risen to assistant chief in the District's police force before he was passed over for chief by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly (D) in 1992. The following year, he retired and became chief in Norfolk.
During High's tenure in Norfolk, homicides and robberies declined dramatically, as they did across the country in the 1990s when the economy boomed and the use of crack cocaine waned.
Soft-spoken and with a serious demeanor, High was known for his near-constant travels to drop in at community meetings and picnics -- a low-to-the-ground approach favored by Johnson, his new boss in Prince George's.
But it was High's devotion to community policing, in which officers patrol beats and build relationships with residents and merchants, that won over Patrick V. Murphy, the former New York City police commissioner who is serving as Johnson's consultant on police reform.
"He talked about community policing, he talked about people policing themselves -- he said all the right things," said Murphy, who was Johnson's chief adviser in the search for a replacement for the departing Gerald M. Wilson.
While High has largely won accolades among civic and community leaders in Norfolk, his reputation among rank-and-file officers is less than glowing, said Michael J. McKenna, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 412 in Norfolk.
"The community loved him -- the best job he did was with the communities," McKenna said. "What happened was he neglected the department."
McKenna said that after Chandler's death in 2000, High alienated many officers by adopting a cautious approach, neither defending nor blaming the police until the investigation was completed.
Chandler, 41, a security guard, died after he was pepper-sprayed and forced to the ground by three officers who initially stopped him for driving a car with a rear license that appeared phony. The incident drew national attention.
"I felt [High] didn't take an active role in backing the troops, and he should have," McKenna said.
John T. Evans, a retired police officer who was president of Norfolk's Fraternal Order of Police from 2001 to last year, said that many in the department resented High even after the officers involved were exonerated. "A lot of the patrol officers were real tentative about how to go about doing things because they were afraid that if something went wrong, the chief wouldn't back them up," Evans said.
High's community policing initiative also provoked officers' criticism. "Community policing stresses more problem-solving -- it takes a lot of the emphasis away from making arrests," said Harry Twiford, president of Norfolk's Fraternal Order of Police. "We're not social workers, we're not psychologists. We're cops. We're asked to do more than policemen. Most of these guys don't sign up to be social workers."
The son of a farmer and a teacher, High grew up in Union County, Miss., and graduated from Tennessee State University, where he majored in biology. He holds a master's degree in public administration from Southeastern University.
A onetime public school teacher, High, who is married and has a daughter, began his police career in 1969 as an officer in the District. He held such positions as commander of the 6th District, which includes neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast Washington, and chief of patrol operations.
As head of the D.C. department's administrative services, he was regarded as a strict but fair disciplinarian. "He had a very high standard in terms of what he would expect, and he went by the general orders," said Charles E. Collins Jr., a former commander of the 3rd District.
William Hennessy, a former commander of the District's homicide division, said High believes in following regulations to the letter. "He's very rigid. He was well-respected by people in the police department. He's not real tolerant of people deviating from the straight and narrow," he said.
Former District police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said he thinks High is up to the challenge of reforming the Prince George's police force, which has been criticized for not disciplining its officers.
"He'll be fair and will see to it that there is a transparency to the investigative process when officers are accused of misconduct," Fulwood said. "He will make sure investigations will be conducted in the appropriate way. That means that every witness who has something to say is interviewed. He will demand [police investigators] do the best job humanly possible."
When he took over the police force in Norfolk, community leaders quickly embraced him. John Wesley Hill, president of the Norfolk chapter of the NAACP, said that High helped to improve relations between the majority-white police department and black residents.
Hill, a former police officer and teacher, credits High for being highly visible, often appearing at churches and schools.
"I don't think the African American community from the years of the '50s and the '60s ever felt that the police department was a friend to the African American community," Hill said. "[High] came here, and he created a great deal of harmony between the community and the police department."
The Chandler case could have destroyed that harmony, Hill said, but High managed to maintain calm by refraining from immediately defending or criticizing the officers in public. "I think that was part of his strategy, not to say I support the police officers, not to say that they did make a mistake," he said. "I think that way he was able to keep the community in peace and harmony."
Norfolk City Councilman Paul R. Riddick said High's accessibility helped placate the community. "It let everyone know that even though we had a tragedy, we didn't have an insensitive guy at the top who was going to turn the page," he said.
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.