When Garry Hamilton took the mic at a community meeting in March 2018, he apologized to the families of homicide victims desperate for answers.
Then, as the deputy chief in charge of special investigations and wearing his police uniform, he did something unexpected. Something he'd never done before. He quoted Marvin Gaye.
“Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying/ Brother, brother, brother/ There's far too many of you dying,” he read aloud from Gaye's 1971 song “What's Going On.”
The song was relevant more than 45 years later, said Hamilton, who in 2014 became the city's first black police chief. He stepped down two years later, to become deputy chief, because he wanted to be more involved in the community.
Sharing the words of the R&B artist was an unusual, personal moment in Hamilton's 25-year career with the Fort Wayne Police Department that ended Monday.
At that meeting, held at The Well, a church on South Hanna Street, Hamilton was taking heat along with others in law enforcement for a rising number of homicides and the perception that the killers were not being prosecuted.
The meeting could have erupted into emotional outbursts, but Hamilton's personal touch helped calm the situation.
“Garry maintains a composure no matter what's going on,” said Mike McAlexander, Allen County chief deputy prosecutor, who attended the meeting with Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards. McAlexander describes Hamilton's manner as “calm gravitas.”
Rusty York, who preceded Hamilton as chief, said he predicted Hamilton would one day lead the force.
“He had the ability to go from house to house after a homicide and really engage people, and if people didn't feel comfortable talking to him on the scene, Garry would always circle back and make sure he touched base with those people and find out what he could. Just the tenacity.”
At the March meeting, Hamilton told the families there would be a new policy to meet with them and law enforcement involved in the case after each homicide.
But it wasn't in Hamilton's character to rush cases, McAlexander said, even if the families wanted that. Hamilton knew the steps needed to bring charges after he worked as the police liaison to the Allen County Prosecutor's Office.
“We see people get beat up. We see people get killed. We see people at their worst,” said McAlexander, who got blessed and prayed over at the meeting along with Richards by Pastor Rhonda Bolden. There's a need to “show compassion and caring and empathy, but also remember that you still have a job to do and there's a way we have to proceed, and it can't be out of emotion and anger.”
Hamilton became police chief during a difficult time, nationally, for law enforcement, he said during a recent interview with The Journal Gazette.
“All of the things that were happening around the country, Ferguson, those incidents,” Hamilton said. “There was a mistrust in the community with the police departments across the country.
He said he revitalized the Community Relations Division with the goal of promoting transparency and reaching out to everyone in the city.
“We were trying to be as transparent as possible and to work with the people in the community,” Hamilton said.
The challenge was combating “that negative history of people of color being abused by police officers.”
Community involvement is what eventually motivated him to step down from the chief to deputy chief.
“I really felt that I'd be more effective (there),” Hamilton said. “I would spend a lot of hours going to churches, community events and you just couldn't do it as a chief trying to run a department.”
In 2016, Hamilton became deputy chief in charge of the northeast division/community relations division and then left that to become supervisor in charge of special investigations, overseeing homicide detectives, among other units.
As his retirement drew near, several arrests in homicide cases were made, something Hamilton attributes to “good old-fashioned police work.”
“We staff cases,” Hamilton said. “We call in everybody that was involved, the vice and narcotics, gang and violent crimes unit, FBI Safe Streets team come to our meeting, detectives. We do a PowerPoint presentation. We go through the victim's history, any potential suspects.”
There is no doubt, Hamilton said, that cellphone videos and technology have helped solve homicides, along with more sophisticated DNA testing.
Another decision by Hamilton to use media to publicize persons of interest and surveillance footage has resulted in arrests, he said.
Hamilton, 57, grew up in a household of seven children on East Masterson Avenue in Fort Wayne, where his parents stressed education and employment.
Early on, he liked challenges.
“He always wanted to be a person in authority,” recalled Joe Jordan, president and CEO of the Fort Wayne Boys & Girls Clubs, who grew up on the same block as Hamilton. “When we played cowboys and Indians, he was the cowboy.
“He always exhibited the confidence to go into unfamiliar territory,” Jordan said. And he had “what it takes, the confidence and guts and grit to go through it.”
Jordan and Hamilton went through K-12 and played sports together. At Northrop, where they were both sent after Fort Wayne Community Schools redistricted, Hamilton played football and Jordan played basketball.
The police officer working school security in the 1970s was York, Jordan said, and probably helped inspire Hamilton to take up policing.
Hamilton chose Manchester College after high school graduation.
“I figured if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere,” Hamilton said. While it would have been tempting to attend a historically black college or university, he chose Manchester in North Manchester, small and overwhelmingly white, he said. He attended the college, now a university, on a partial scholarship and played football.
Graduating in 1985 with a degree in social work and a minor in criminal justice, Hamilton returned to work as an investigator for the Wayne Township trustee. Then he was a caseworker with Child Protective Services, now called the Department of Child Services.
He thought about going into education but opted for police work and joined the force in 1994.
Hamilton started as a patrol officer on the city's southeast side and then in the detective bureau on the B shift – sometimes referred to as the second shift – from 3 to 11 p.m.
He became a homicide detective in 1998 and remembers his first case.
“The son did it,” Hamilton said. “They got into an argument. That was difficult because you knew the son did it. It just tore the family apart. There was a friction, because the son left church early that day.”
Hamilton asked the grandfather to sit in on the interview with the shooter, telling him that he just wanted him to be there.
“We were going to do this fair, but you (the grandfather) can't ask any questions,” he told him.
Even as deputy chief in charge of investigations, Hamilton monitored dispatch and appeared at crime scenes, particularly when there might be multiple victims.
“Then it's like potentially a large crowd showing up. I try to make it to these scenes. I used to even go back the next day and walk the neighborhood. It gives people in that community surety that someone cares,” Hamilton said.
The toughest crimes are when the victims are children or the elderly who can't defend themselves, he said.
To get crime out of mind, Hamilton says police need to find an outlet – working out, walking, listening to music.
Letters of thanks
Something he treasures are letters he has received. One was sent after a Fort Wayne police officer was recorded on a cellphone staying calm during an incident at the International House of Pancakes on West Washington Center Road.
“In the midst of a riot that is currently happening in Baltimore and previously in Ferguson, I would like to take the time and write a thank you letter.......I don't think a lot of people appreciate police until they need them in time of trouble. You're always the first to be there to help...sometimes in unpredicted danger...As you know the IHOP incident got a lot of positive attention nationwide. I am proud to be a Fort Wayne resident.”
The IHOP incident involving Fort Wayne police officer Stephen Ealing and a drunken customer occurred in April 2015 and video shows an officer staying calm while being badgered by a crowd.
“That made national news,” Hamilton said. As police chief, he received messages like: “I wish our police officers were trained to be composed like your officers.”
Just what Hamilton will do after he leaves is not for the telling just now. He says he has a lot of books to read, will stay active at Pilgrim Baptist Church where he has worshiped all his life, and continue to be active in the community.
“There are a couple things that I'm working on, keeping to myself at this time,” he said. Hamilton said the speculation is that he's running for office. He's not.
“I'm not done yet,” Hamilton said.
When McAlexander heard that, it was good news.
“That's what I'm hoping,” he said.