After serving four decades and generations of students, Chief Gary Collins is retiring from the Mercer Police Department.
Collins came to Mercer University as a lieutenant on Nov. 3, 1983, and soon was promoted to chief. During his tenure, he transformed the department from campus safety to a full-fledged police force, which certified officers through the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council and gave them arrest powers.
Mercer also became the first private college in the state to gain access to the Georgia Crime Information Center and National Crime Information Center, Collins said. This gave Mercer Police the ability to run background checks.
But the department is about more than just enforcing the law.
“We are a service department. We do things that many other police departments don’t do anymore,” Collins said. “We jump start cars. We have numerous keys locked in vehicles, and, after having (drivers) sign a waiver, we unlock the vehicle for them. We have brought gas to people that ran out of gas. We have taken students to the emergency room.
“The whole university is our priority, but the students become part of my family. I may have to get on to them, but I don’t want anyone else messing with them.”
Collins grew up in Macon. His father worked at a cotton mill on Holt Avenue next to the railroad tracks, and his family lived in the neighborhood. Mercer was only about a mile away, and Collins played Little League baseball and pick-up football games at the old Porter Stadium on campus.
He graduated from Lanier High School in 1967 and became a combat medic in the Army, serving in Vietnam. He left the service in 1970 and joined the Macon Police Department in 1971. There, he worked his way up from patrol officer to detective.
“I’d gotten out of the Army, and I always respected police, was always taught to respect police growing up, and I thought it would be serving people, making communities better and helping people,” Collins said about his decision to join the force. “Policing is made up of many professions. You’re a counselor. You’re an attorney. You’re first aid. You’re a general all-around, I think, valued individual.”
At Mercer, Collins oversaw 17 officers and three dispatchers in Macon, as well as 10 officers in Atlanta. The police patrol campus, respond to reported crimes and work cases. The department also has relationships with local law enforcement agencies and has worked with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, GBI and FBI on cases.
While the department has worked some serious cases — like suicides, shootings and sexual assaults — over the past 40 years, Collins also has taken calls from worried parents, talked to boyfriends at the request of their girlfriends, and fielded some odd calls from students, who affectionally refer to the department as MerPo.
“We had students call us from the student center one time, and they’re saying there’s an attack squirrel down there,” he said. “It was just a squirrel running around, and we have plenty of squirrels at Mercer. It wasn’t in the student center; it was outside.”
If a student gets in trouble and there’s no victim involved, Collins said he often will refer the student to the Office of Student Conduct Resolution, rather than make an arrest.
“Sometimes when a student arrives at Mercer, it’s their first time away from home. It’s almost like a taste of freedom,” he said. “I don’t want anyone leaving Mercer with a jail record, but sometimes it becomes a necessity. These students are here really beginning their lives, and a jail record could really hurt them.
“These kids, I know they’re not really mine, but I look at them as mine.”
Both Collins and his wife of 52 years, Bonnie, have taken classes at Mercer. Their three daughters graduated from the University, and a granddaughter is currently enrolled here. Another granddaughter plans to attend, and Collins said he will encourage his third granddaughter to come to Mercer as well.
Collins’s last day is Jan. 16. Lt. Gary Mills will act as interim chief until a replacement is named.
Collins said he hopes to spend time with his wife during his retirement. She already has planned a trip for them to England and Ireland.
“Overall, it’s been a great ride,” he said.