Never in her wildest dreams did Rome native Denise Downer-McKinney never imagine becoming Chief of Police, much less being named Chief of the Year by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
Downer-McKinney graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in social work. Many of her elective classes emphasized corrections in the field of criminal justice. “Law enforcement was not my career desire, and I hadn’t planned on moving back to Rome,” she said. However, she did move back to help her father care for her ailing mother. She worked at Sears, she became friends with Rome City Police Officer Travis Goss, who eventually encouraged her to join the police force. She was intrigued by the idea which fit her interest in getting her master’s degree. In 1985 she signed on to an initial two-year contract where her career started with the patrol unit.
Rome’s first African American City Commissioner, Napoleon Fielder, implemented a DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) of which she became the head in 1990. Downer-McKinney worked in the Training Division, the Accreditation office and progressively climbed the ladder. “My career evolved because I was never stagnant,” she said.
She had not envisioned herself climbing the ranks to serve as chief. However, the City of Rome had a long history of promotion from within. When former Chief Hubert Smith retired, she began to think of possibly becoming chief. Elaine Snow succeeded Smith, and when Snow retired, Downer-McKinney threw her hat into the ring. In 2016 she was promoted to chief of the department.
Her biggest challenge as chief has been the staffing shortage. “We almost got back into the single digits, but attrition and those who think the grass may be greener elsewhere have pushed that shortage back into double digits. At first, I thought it was just us, but when you go the Chiefs Association, even internationally, everybody is having the same problem,” Downer-McKinney said.
Chief Downer-McKinney believes the willingness to listen to her staff is incumbent to the job. The chief said her officers have consistently said they don’t mind a little extra work to maintain the department’s integrity. “Could I have hired anybody? Yes, but I listen to what the men and women say, those boots on the ground, because I’ve been there, too.”
Throughout her career, she always envisioned her goals as “balloons” hovering over her head. Every time she was able to accomplish a goal, it was like popping a balloon. She was able to attend the FBI Academy and popped that balloon; she went to Israel with the GILEE (Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange) and popped that balloon. I got promoted to sergeant, popped that balloon, and so on,” the chief said. She is beginning to see some space between goals, but don’t take that for retirement talk.
Being recognized as Chief of the Year was a surprise to Downer-McKinney. There were three nominees at the conference. When presenters started reading the winner’s biography, she began to realize who they were honoring. “I said shut up, that’s not me, and it was me. It was shocking and humbling.”
She credits much of her success to how she was raised by her parents and her relationship with God. “I have never considered myself a role model, but I try to be the kind of person who helps people. To listen.” Downer-McKinney is also a graduate of the Georgia Law Enforcement
Executive Development program and received her Master of Public Administration from Columbus State University.