Local law enforcement officers: how I got here and what it means to me

W.C. Mann

Cullman City Police Chief Kenny Culpepper, center, at an event this February/Tribune file photo

There are times we get to go into situations where the kid has to be like I was sometimes when I was younger, where they have to be the adult and we help them get somewhere they can be the kid again.  Those are the moments that make it worth it to me."
Cullman City Police Officer Dustin Colburn

CULLMAN – In marking the passing of this year’s National Police Week, The Tribune asked a few area law enforcement officers to talk about how they got into the field, and what it means for them to serve the people of Cullman County.  We spoke with longtime veteran officers, Sheriff Matt Gentry and Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper; we also talked to two officers who are relatively new to the field, Cullman City patrol officers Trey Higginbotham and Dustin Colburn.

Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry

“When I was in the Marine Corps Reserves, I met a lot of guys who were law enforcement officers.  When they talked about what they did, it laid something on my heart.  I found that, at the sheriff’s department, we can make a great impact by helping somebody or taking a drug dealer out of the community.  One of the greatest needs we have today is a need for leadership, and law enforcement is a good way to lead.

“I want to see our community grow, and be a safe place for us to raise our families.  I have children, and I want it to be a safe place for them.  Law enforcement is more than a badge and a gun; it’s being part of a community.”

Cullman Police Department Chief Kenny Culpepper

“I was a sophomore at Auburn, and my advisor called me into the office and said, ‘You need to declare a major.’  I had been taking different courses, just because they sounded interesting.  I looked at the courses I had taken, and I had a lot of history and criminal justice courses.  I made good grades in those, and not so good in some others.  I went with criminal justice, though I did go back to Athens and get my degree in history and political science.

“I was born and raised here (in Cullman); it’s my hometown.  I went to Cullman High School; my parents live here, I go to church here, so I’m just a hometown kid.  It’s just been a blessing to serve the city of Cullman.  It’s one of those jobs where you enjoy getting up and going to work.  There’s difficult things you have to do, and sometimes it’s a tough job, but it’s very rewarding.”

Cullman Police Department Officer Trey Higginbotham

“Growing up, law enforcement never struck me as something I wanted to do.  Well into my college years, I discovered that I found great joy and satisfaction in helping others and began to seek out a career that would give me an opportunity to positively impact others.  My parents and grandparents always encouraged me to leave all situations better than you found them.  In law enforcement, I get to do that each and every day.  As law enforcement officers, we see people usually on their worst of days.  Simply knowing that each day I have an opportunity to make someone’s bad day just slightly better is one of the reasons I come to work each day.

“Another reason is that Cullman is home to not only my family, but nearly every officer in our department. Our lives are rooted here. We buy groceries at the same places as everyone else. Our kids go to school with your kids. It’s our responsibility to ensure the safety of this community, after all it’s home to us as well.”

Cullman Police Department Officer Dustin Colburn

“At the police academy, we were asked why we wanted to be in law enforcement during this day and age.  They asked this shortly after the shootings that happened in Texas and while it seemed law enforcement wasn’t liked very much.  They asked us why we would be willing to give so much for people that didn’t like us and some even wanted to cause harm to us, take time away from family and friends, work holidays, long hours; and no police officer is going to make the money we would like to.  My answer has always been that I grew up around drugs and broken households. 

“There are days that it doesn’t seem like we make a difference because yes there are always drugs out there, but there are those few times where we get to help those that actually want the help they need.  There are times we get to go into situations where the kid has to be like I was sometimes when I was younger, where they have to be the adult and we help them get somewhere they can be the kid again.  Those are the moments that make it worth it to me.  There are always going to be people that hate the police, but we are here for a reason.  I believe in that reason.  It’s to do our best to help people and to try to help keep this city as great as it is now for the generations to come.”

For young people considering a career in law enforcement

Culpepper said, “I go and talk to school groups on career day.  I ask, ‘How many of you kids want to be millionaires?’ and a bunch of them raise their hands.  I say, ‘Then you can’t be a police officer, because you won’t make a million dollars doing government work.  If you do, they’ll investigate you!’  I say, ‘How many of you want a job where everybody’s going to love you and hug on you, and pat you on the back?’  Some of them raise their hands, and I say, ‘Well, you can’t be a police officer, because you’ve got to do things that people aren’t going to like.’  Then I say, ‘How many of y’all like helping people?  Do you care about people when they’re in trouble?’  Those are the reasons you need to be in law enforcement. 

“If you can’t get as much satisfaction out of stopping and helping the little old lady change her tire as you get in chasing a bad guy and catching him, then you don’t need to be in law enforcement, because 90 percent of what you do is going to be helping people.  When somebody’s got a problem, they’re going to call you and you’re going to go try to help them solve that problem.  A very small portion of what we do is what you see on TV or in the newspaper.  You need to be able to get your satisfaction from helping people.”

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