Michael McNutt, Capitol Bureau
Copyright 2006 The Daily Oklahoman
Jerry Cason says his experiences as a combat veteran and longtime trooper, as well as management skills picked up from former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, will help him lead the state’s police.
The first black to be named chief of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Cason, 56, said one of his goals is to diversify its ranks by recruiting more minorities and women.
“Recruiting of minorities is becoming very difficult,” he said. “We’re trying to get out and show that this is a very honorable career. We need those young people with young ideas.”
Other challenges include guiding the patrol through budget problems caused by high fuel prices and the overtime costs of troopers responding to emergencies such as tornadoes, manhunts and last winter’s wildfires.
“We can’t anticipate when one of the situations is going to occur,” said Cason, who lives in Norman. “These things eat up our budget.”
He said he also hopes to get the patrol more involved in the community and persuade Oklahomans the patrol is a good career choice as the agency scrambles to replace 60 troopers scheduled to retire by May 2007.
“We have to do the enforcement part of it, but the priority should be on getting to the masses of the people — prevention, not reaction,” he said.
Increasing pay is necessary to recruit and keep troopers, said Cason, whose oldest son, Colby, 34, left the patrol after seven years for a better-paying job as an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Chicago.
“When you lose a trooper, you can’t run an ad in the newspaper that says, ‘I need a trooper,’” he said.
Troopers must complete a vigorous academy training program. It takes about a year for an applicant to go through background checks and the academy; troopers need two to three years of actual experience to be comfortable with the job, Cason said.
Troopers’ pay after completing the academy starts at $36,000 annually, with pay scales increasing to $50,000, Cason said. His annual salary is $83,300.
“It’s like teachers if we don’t provide those good salaries,” Cason said. “That’s why our teachers are running to Texas.”
Cason, named chief earlier this month, has a limited time to accomplish those objectives. A retirement option he chose five years ago requires him to retire from the patrol in April 2007.
Valuable experience But Cason said he’s optimistic he can attain his goals; his serving the past eight years as assistant chief makes him aware of the position’s challenges of heading up the patrol and its 810 troopers.
“This is nothing new for me,” he said. “I’m used to the pressure and the responsibility.”
Cason, who holds the rank of colonel in the patrol, had a bad impression of Oklahoma when he first came to the state nearly 40 years ago.
Raised in the inner city of Columbus, Ohio, Cason said he was not prepared for the cowboy boots and blue jeans he saw when he arrived on a basketball scholarship as a 6-foot 6-inch freshman in 1968 at Cameron University in Lawton.
“It was really a culture shock,” he said. “We came out for a summer orientation, and I was on the first plane out of here.”
With college no longer an option, Cason later that summer joined the Army, volunteering for combat duty in Vietnam.
By spring 1969, he was a door gunner in a helicopter gunship in Vietnam flying combat missions. He survived four helicopter crashes.
After Vietnam, Cason was assigned as a drill sergeant. His orders eventually sent him back to Oklahoma as a training officer at Fort Sill.
He was preparing for an assignment in Panama in 1976 when he received a medical discharge because of knee problems caused by one of those helicopter crashes.
Call of Oklahoma “I told my wife, ‘Something keeps bringing me to Oklahoma, now it won’t let me leave. I’ve got a mission here. We’re staying here to find out what it is.’”
He served as a jailer for the Lawton Police Department and worked three years as an officer with the Norman Police Department before joining the patrol in 1982.
Some police officials were concerned about his injured knees and Cason thanked then-Norman Police Chief Don Hollyfield for taking a chance and hiring him. During his interview with the patrol, Cason said he told officials that if “you guys give me a chance, I’ll give you 20 years.’ I’m in my 24th year.”
In 1991, Cason was promoted to first lieutenant assigned to the public information division. A year later, he was reassigned as troop commander of the training division, serving the 46th academy as commandant. By 2000, Cason was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Cason has been married for 36 years to his wife, Dixie, and seems proud that both his sons followed his career. His other son, Eric, 32, joined the military.
Cason, a good storyteller, likes to tell when he was assigned as a bodyguard for Switzer in 1986 and 1987.
“One of the things I like about Barry Switzer is that he knew talent,” Cason said. “He delegated authority to those other coaches, not to be the nuts-and-bolts guy.”
Cason said he has done the same with his subordinates.
“As a leader, you don’t have to be such a nuts-and-bolts person, but you have to be a visionary and you have to understand concepts.”
Cason said he found as a leader that people under him don’t have to like him, but respect is necessary.
“I’m easygoing. I like for my employees to enjoy themselves, because when people enjoy themselves, they find reasons to come to work, not find reasons not to be at work,” he said. “But when it comes time for business, I know how to put on a stone face — and I can be very, very stern and they know that.”
Chief Jerry Cason talks in his Department of Public Safety office after being named leader of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. - BY DAVID McDANIEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
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