'I'll go to law school. I'll do it.' A promise to Mom Detroit police officer earns law degree after 22 years on the force

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

As a cop on the streets of Detroit for 22 years, Inspector Eric Jones has been in some scary situations.

There was the time he was running after a gang member, who turned around, pointed his gun, and pulled the trigger. It didn't fire.

Another time, an armed suspect left Jones no choice but to fire a fatal shot.

And just the other day, a citizen brought to the station two live grenades -- leftovers from her husband's service in World War II.

Law enforcement is risky.

But here's what nearly killed Eric Jones: Law school.

"It was almost unbearable," said Jones, who is known in the Detroit Police Department for his high-energy personality and zeal for his work. ""I questioned myself so many times: What am I doing this for? I am killing myself!' Every day was a grind, going round and round. I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. And when I did see the light at the end of the tunnel, I thought it was a train!"

But he had to do it. He had to do it for himself. And he had to do it to fulfill a promise he'd made to his mother.

Jones spent a couple of years in the Marine reserves after graduating from high school in southwest Detroit in 1987. That's when his mother begged him to go to college.

"He was a very good student," Mary Jones told the Legal News last week. "I believed in him."

But the family didn't have money for college, and he didn't have a scholarship.

"I told her, `Mom, I need a job right now, but I promise you I'll go back to school,'" recalled Jones, 42, of Detroit. "She said, `I want you to be a doctor or a lawyer!' I said, `I'll go to law school. I'll do it.'"

So Jones enrolled in the Detroit Metropolitan Police Academy and became an officer with the Detroit Police Department at the age of 20.

He earned a few college credits to become a sergeant. When he needed a few more to become a lieutenant, he figured he might as well dive in and get a degree.

In 2006, Jones earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice administration from the University of Phoenix, got promoted to lieutenant, and was accepted to Wayne State University Law School.

That's when he gave up his social life and weekends.

"I missed a lot of family events, a lot of holidays, a lot of cook-outs, a lot of church," he said of the law school years.

His routine was grueling. After four or five hours of sleep, he'd wake up, exercise, study for several hours, go to law classes, and then head to his 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift at the DPD's Eastern District.

After taking care of his administrative duties, he'd get out on the road with the officers. In addition to exercise and meditation, he says his high-stress job kept him sane.

"When I got to work, chasing all the bad guys became my escape," said Jones, who was once the right-hand man of former Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans.

Sgt. Michael Parish has worked with Jones for 10 years, and was there when Judge Gerald Rosen swore him in to federal practice as a lawyer last week.

Parish called Jones "the most enthusiastic, energetic and honorable cop I know."

"He'll bring more to the profession than just a summation of many legal theories," said Parish. "His intellect is seasoned with so many experiences. And intellect seasoned with experience is often referred to as wisdom. His tenure as a lawyer will be a manifestation of that adage."

Lieutenant Aric Tosqui said that an officer recently disciplined by Jones told Tosqui to thank Jones for being fair about the situation.

"He's known for being fair," said Tosqui. "He leaves personal issues at the door."

Jones is also known as a cop eager to do what he can to make the streets safer. In 2008, Jones decided that personnel in his district would confiscate a gun a day.

"He put the plan in place and surpassed the goal," said Jones' boss, Commander Steve Dolunt.

Asked what kind of lawyer he'll make, Dolunt said: "He's going to be a pistol! But he's going to be very thorough, and fair and conscientious. I think he's got what it takes."

Jones has three years to go before he retires and gets his pension. At that point, he may go into private practice with some friends. He's considered personal injury as well as criminal law.

Would he consider becoming a defense attorney?

"That would be a difficult line for me to cross right now," he said after a pause. "But I'm going to keep all my options open."

In any case, he's glad he stuck with law school even when he wondered if he'd survive it. Jones is convinced that law school has helped him become a better cop, and that his experience with the DPD will be a huge benefit when he works in law.

His co-workers already take advantage of his knowledge of the law. Some officers the other day asked him about a situation in which they spotted a man with a rifle gambling in front of a house.

So Jones asked them some questions: "Was the house vacant? Did you confiscate the gun? Was it stolen? Was he a convicted felon?

"They feel like their hands are tied," he said. "But what I've been trying to let them know is, `Listen, there are more than enough laws on the books to get done what we need to get done here in Detroit.'"

As a law school student, Jones learned all kinds of things he wished he'd known earlier, especially regarding an investigation.

"You see a person who's suspicious and you want to talk to them, but we've been taught for so long that you have to have reasonable suspicion or probable cause," he said.

Now he knows that's not so.

"There's a tier called informational encounter, where you don't need any justification and the person doesn't have to have violated any law," he said. "Meaning: I'm a citizen. You're a citizen. I can approach you and ask you anything as long as I don't coerce you, as long as I don't block your path, as long as I don't seize you, as long as I make sure that you feel you are free to leave."

In fact, now Jones encourages officers to simply say hello to citizens in case they have something they want to share with police.

Jones thinks Detroit is on its way back, but before that will happen, there must be a significant reduction in crime.

"It's going to take knowing there are enough laws on the books that we can get the police to get the people off the street who need to be incarcerated, who need to be monitored, who need to know that we understand the law and that we're going to enforce it without any of the politics, the sensationalism, the worrying about violating anybody's rights," he said. "We can do everything we need to do within the Constitution. It's going to take intestinal fortitude to go forward with that."

And that, he said, requires tighter collaboration among the DPD, corrections, and prosecutors. Everyone wants a safer city, but they have different priorities and strategies for getting there, Jones said, adding: "Sometimes when those priorities are in conflict, the bad guy will slip through the cracks."

He said police officers' confidence is shaken when they hear corrections officers talk about a lack of space to hold them, and when they hear prosecutors talk about making deals. Meanwhile, criminals realize how far they can go without much punishment, he said, adding that it's frustrating for police to see the bad guys end up back on the street.

"We can't adequately prosecute everyone the way they should be, but I think if there was more coordination, we could get more people properly situated," he said.

There's a lot Jones will miss about being a cop, including the drama on the street as well as in the station among personnel.

"I love it, I love it, I love it!" he said of his job. "I am so glad and so thankful that I had the opportunity to be a Detroit police officer."

When he says he's not scared on the job, it's without bravado.

"The job is dangerous. Somebody has to do it," he said. "It might as well be somebody who is trained and is willing to be out there to help reduce crime in the city of Detroit."

Published: Fri, Jul 22, 2011