The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Melvin C. High broke barriers in policing over 53 years. He died weeks before retiring.

High was assistant chief in D.C. and chief in Norfolk, Va., and Prince George’s County before serving as sheriff for 12 years

Melvin C. High in 2008, when he was Prince George's County police chief. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The year was 1969, and Melvin C. High, in his mid-20s and new to the nation’s capital, was about to make two choices that would define his life.

He became a police officer. He went on a blind date.

The date was with Brenda, a college student studying to be a teacher. At first, she wasn’t sold on the newly sworn D.C. police officer, but with time she came to see the qualities that would make her — and eventually their wider community — fall in love. He was humble, he was sharp, he was steadfast.

Within months, they were married.

“There was no magic formula or potion,” Brenda High said. “We just liked each other and cared about each other.”

It was the launch of a lifetime together, one that would bring them a family and give Brenda a front-row seat to High’s boundary-breaking 53-year career in law enforcement.

Together, they were looking forward to High’s retirement as sheriff of Prince George’s County next month, the beginning of a quieter life after decades in public service. But just weeks before his final day in office, High fell ill from a blood infection.

On Nov. 17, at age 78, the sheriff died, Brenda and their daughter by his side.

Prince George’s Sheriff Melvin High dies at 78

The region’s law enforcement community has mobilized in his memory, assuming his duties at the sheriff’s office and preparing a public homegoing service for Nov. 29 to honor a man who broke barriers in policing, rising to assistant chief at the D.C. police department and becoming the first Black police chief in Norfolk before moving to Prince George’s County, where he led the police department as chief and eventually served 12 years as the elected sheriff.

Along the way, he mentored police leaders across the country and influenced the careers of the region’s top law enforcement officials.

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, who met High as an 18-year-old cadet doing grunt work for the command staff, called him an “icon in law enforcement.” Prince George’s County Police Chief Malik Aziz said High was long revered by Black officers as an original reformist who endured decades of pushback to make change.

“He was the consummate professional, a true servant leader,” said Darrin C. Palmer, now interim Prince George’s County sheriff, who worked with High for nearly 20 years. “He was in great control, even in the throes of chaos … He had the strength to not just direct, but to listen, and then make sound decisions from all that input.”

Palmer, who worked with High at the county police department before following him to the sheriff’s office, was sworn into the top job hours after High died. He’ll serve until mid-December, when Sheriff-elect John D.B. Carr — another High mentee — enters office.

Palmer knew he’d have to set mourning for his friend aside to focus on managing the budget, the transition and his “responsibility to this agency in the way he would have wanted it done.”

“He didn’t really settle for second best,” Palmer said.

Before fixing the sheriff’s badge to his chest, Palmer said, he asked High’s family for their blessing.

High, they said, would have wanted nothing else.

‘Fatherly’ figure

Raised by a farmer and teacher in rural Mississippi, High grew up in a home built by his father. They didn’t have much, said his daughter, Tracy, 48, but their house was a loving one. High’s mother taught him through grade school, and in his midteens, he left for college.

High studied biology at Tennessee State University, borrowing used books and lab equipment. He dreamed of medical school, but his family couldn’t afford it, so he taught high school science for a year, his family said, before joining the Marine Corps and serving in Vietnam.

Then he moved to Washington, where his sisters lived.

When High joined the police department in 1969, he was one of the few Black officers at the agency, friends and family said. At the time, Black officers like him weren’t allowed to ride in a police cruiser, let alone drive one, so he had to walk his beat.

Over his 24 years with the department, High ascended, leading the security arrangements for President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration and earning a master’s degree and implementing the District’s first community policing effort, according to his official biography. By the end of his tenure, he was second-in-command.

He was known as “hang 'em High” because of his lofty standards and stern, no-nonsense approach, colleagues said. But behind the scenes, Contee recalled, High was insightful and wise, a “fatherly type of figure.”

Soon after his retirement from the D.C. department, High became chief of police in Norfolk, where he stayed for 10 years. Again, he launched a community policing initiative, the first in the city’s history. Crime rates fell and trust improved — positioning him as the ideal candidate when, in 2003, the Prince George’s County Police Department was in need of new leadership.

The county, a suburb of nearly a million people outside Washington, had transitioned from majority White to majority Black and was known nationwide as a destination for Black professionals.

But for years, community outcry had been growing over a disproportionately White force and abuse of Black residents. The department’s dogs were mauling people, and a Washington Post investigation at the time found that, by one measure, Prince George’s police had killed more people between 1990 and 2000 than any major city or county police force in the nation.

The Justice Department intervened.

Federal authorities gave the department five years to change. As the new chief, High was responsible for rebuilding trust with residents and cultivating buy-in from the officers those residents distrusted.

By 2008, when High stepped down as chief, the agency had met its deadline, with 94 percent compliance.

“He was the right man for the job at the right time,” said Mark Spencer, who was a deputy state’s attorney at the time and became the department’s first inspector general under High’s leadership.

The department rewrote its general orders, the handbook for all policies and procedures; revised the police dog practices; overhauled the use-of-force policy; and created the county’s first iteration of an early-warning system designed to flag patterns of abuse, Spencer said.

When High stepped down as chief in 2008, he had led three departments over 40 years. But he was not yet satisfied. So in 2010, he launched a campaign for sheriff — his first elected job — and won in a landslide.

It was a credit, colleagues said, to the trust he’d built in the community.

In both jobs, he met constantly with residents — publicly, privately, with staff, alone. He asked questions and listened. And though he was resistant to anything resembling a boast or brag, those who knew him said, his team persuaded him to let them tell the public about both departments’ progress.

“He is about getting the work done,” Palmer said, “and letting the work speak for itself.”

‘He was dad’

At home, High’s family was largely oblivious to his awards and accolades. Though he worked long hours, often seven days a week, and had officers across the country seeking his counsel, High tried to keep work at work.

“At home, he was dad and he was Mel, and that’s who he was,” Tracy said.

But sometimes, the line between dad and police boss blurred.

Even in college, High gave his daughter a curfew of 11:30 p.m. because, he said, he had the data — and it showed that nothing good happened later than that.

Once, when she was an undergraduate at Yale University, Tracy told her parents she wanted to live off campus. But High was skeptical, worried about the safety of her preferred apartment in New Haven, Conn., and insisted on making a call — to the city’s police chief. Thirty minutes later, High called Tracy back.

She would not be living off-campus, he informed her, then or anytime in the future.

“If I can lead departments of thousands of men and women, I certainly can keep you safe,” he told her.

“I knew it wasn’t a battle I could fight,” Tracy said.

She went on to get her law degree from Harvard Law School and make partner at a law firm in New York. She got married and had a son. Her father, Tracy said, was deeply committed to her education, feeling a duty to provide opportunity. It came, she believes, from the poverty he grew up with — a frugality that never left.

Despite the family’s protest, he still paid the bills by paper check. He wore old acid-washed jeans and the same coat for 20 years. It was only a few years ago that Brenda finally persuaded him to trade in his flip phone.

By the time High was ready to retire, the grandfather’s weekly phone calls with 7-year-old Christian had become a staple of the family’s week, next to Sunday Mass and his morning routine with Brenda.

Every day, he would wake and pray, then get in an hour of cardio. Brenda would make him a smoothie, and then he’d drink his coffee.

Before he walked out the door, they’d have the same exchange.

“Take care,” he would say.

“I’ll see you later,” she’d answer.

High was most satisfied when he was serving, his family said, which is why they had teased him every time he retired from one policing job — only to find another. But he had promised Brenda that his third term as sheriff would be his last.

When he fell ill last month, she checked him into the hospital, where he stayed for three weeks. As he healed from the infection and complications related to his heart, High was alert and optimistic, talking to Tracy every day on the phone. They were just weeks away from a new era, one with more travel and more relaxation, maybe a condo in New York City so they could be closer to Tracy and her family.

They had wanted to throw him a retirement party, a celebration of his long career, but he had refused.

All that fuss wasn’t his style.

‘Take care and have faith’

When he was elected sheriff in 2010, High’s team from the police department followed him, improving accountability, earning the agency top accreditation and launching the county’s annual Purple Light Nights program to raise awareness about domestic violence.

But over those 12 years in the sheriff’s office, they also watched as tensions between the community and the police department he had once led escalated once more, culminating in 2020 with the fatal shooting of a man by a Prince George’s officer, the nationwide racial uprising over police brutality and a lawsuit filed by Black and Latino officers about internal racism on the county force.

Once again, there was a call for new leadership. Aziz, a reformer from Texas, was hired as chief.

Prince George’s County’s new police chief will be Malik Aziz, a deputy chief from Dallas

Soon after his arrival, High invited Aziz to his office. He understood the challenges before Aziz — and shared the encouraging message that others had given him. Aziz, High said, was the right person at the right time for the job.

“He would say, ‘Take care and have faith, everything is going to be okay,’ ” Aziz said.

When Aziz would ask residents to name the best era of policing in Prince George’s, they would always say the same thing: when Sheriff High was chief.

So when High announced that his career in policing would end in December, Aziz knew he wanted to honor his legacy. So the sheriff’s office and police department staffs devised a secret plan for this fall’s graduation ceremony of the police academy’s new recruitment class.

Sitting onstage before the officers he helped shape, High learned that a leadership award had been named for him.

The sheriff, ordinarily stoic, allowed himself to beam.

correction

A photo caption in an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified High as Prince George’s County police chief when he died. He was sheriff at the time. This version has been corrected.

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