His thick New York accent doesn’t scream Muncie when it first hits your ears.
People would joke that he had to learn the language of the Midwest, but he was always surprised by the ubiquitous kindness.
When he first arrived as assistant chief of University Police at Ball State in the fall of 2014, Jim Duckham likened himself to a Ball State freshman.
“I can tell you a funny story,” he said. “I was behind AJ [Arts and Journalism Building] walking to a meeting, and I ran into a student, and he couldn't find a building, and he had his map out.”
Duckham was transitioning from a small, mainly commuter-populated community college in Fairview, New York, to a Division I university. The student asked him where the building was and Duckham needed to ask to see the student’s map.
“He goes ‘Aren’t you the chief of police?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, never mind that, just give me the map,’” Duckham said. “I was learning as I went on, if you will, but I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
After 30-plus years in law enforcement, including his final nine with the University Police Department, Duckham is calling it a career. Turning 60 is a good reason to contemplate retirement, but Duckham has an even better one: an eight-month-old grandchild.
“I’m in a really good point in my life where it just seemed like a really good time for us,” he said. “I’m a new grandfather. It’s our first grandchild [for] my wife and I. My son and his wife live locally, and we’re going to be helping with childcare…, as are my daughter-in-law’s parents.”
Apart from family duties, Duckham said that it felt like the right time to try new challenges and change things up.
“The plan is, I don’t really have a plan,” Duckham said. “I’m not going to another job, I’m just going to figure it out and see where life takes me.”
A career spanning five departments and two states
Duckham’s career began in 1986 at the State University of New York at Purchase before joining the New York Police Department as an officer in 1987. In 1990, he joined the Greenburgh Police Department in New York and he called it one of the formative times in his career due to his involvement in community affairs.
“It really shaped my views on policing community,” Duckham said. “I came to understand that you can’t really police a community unless you’re seen as part of that community. That was something that I took to heart.”
Instead of policeidentifying what they thought were the issues in the community, it became a conversation withthe community.
“I’ve taken it to Ball State,” Duckham said. “When I first got here, people wanted to see the officers, they wanted them to be more visible, so we pushed the cops out of the cars and instituted foot patrols.”
The bulk of his career was spent in Greenburgh. He left policing in 2007 to practice law after earning his JD from Pace University in 2003. He returned to law enforcement in 2013, as the assistant director of Campus Safety at Dutchess Community College in Dutchess County, New York.
“I missed the job [so] I got back into public safety and campus safety,” he said.
After a year at Dutchess Community College, Duckham saw an opening at Ball State and decided to apply.
When he was brought on board, one of his major goals — one he focused on throughout his career — was to highlight the concept of community policing in the department and to encourage officers to come up with program ideas.
“You have to understand, in 2014, officers didn’t know what that looked like,” he said.
Duckham challenged staff to come up with programs for their shifts, the initiative paid off in the form of the ‘Lunch with a Cop’ program and participation in residence halls.
“Detective Lieutenant [John] Foster, who was a road lieutenant at the time, developed [the Lunch with a Cop program],” Duckham said. I said ‘I want something to do with food, John,’ because I thought that was really a way for us to engage and [there’s] no agenda. People can just be real and get to know each other.”
The initiative may have come from officers, but the precedent was set by Duckham. It has been a key factor in his career: Looking for the opinions. It was one of the main factors in Al Williams’ decision to accept the position of associate director of Public Safety and assistant chief of police less than a year after Duckham was hired.
“It’s been a great working relationship,” Williams said. “As the chief, he’s a spokesperson for the department, he’s the one out front, but I appreciate our working relationship. I probably wouldn’t have been interested in the job if I didn’t have a voice and he’s allowed me to have a voice.”
Williams, who graduated as a criminal justice major from Ball State in 1989, spent almost 25 years with the Muncie Police Department before joining University Police in 2015. He will serve as the interim director of public safety and chief of university police.
“The road we are on will continue,” Duckham said. “That community policing piece is so important to me, I think that really makes a difference and I want to see that continue [with Williams].”
The search has already begun for the person responsible for filling Duckham’s shoes, but Williams has already taken his name out of the running.
“I’m in my 35th year, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel myself,” Williams said. “If I was going to be here, three, four or five more years, I absolutely would be interested in it because it’s a great organization. It’s been a great opportunity [with] a lot of great people but, yes, this is a young person’s game.”
With whoever may be next, Williams said he will do everything he can to pass along what he has learned. He hopes the person shares the same values that Duckham did and brings something similar to the table.
The search for the next Chief of Police is expected to be completed by mid-October, according to Vice President of Student Affairs Ro-Anne Royer Engle. She chaired the search that hired Duckham as chief in 2014.
“I couldn’t ask for a better person in that role because he understands what it means for us as a university to work with and serve students in the best way possible and our faculty and staff,” Engle said. “He embraces that completely. His approach to community policing has made a significant difference in how our police officers engage in our community.”
Duckham’s wife, Robin, said she is going to be sleeping a little bit better knowing that Jim won’t be putting a vest on.
“I’ve never really noticed the dangerousness of it until the last two or three years,” Robin said. “It makes me nervous, and now I’m happy because he doesn’t have to fill in.”
The two had two children who both followed in Jim’s career path. One practices law in New York and the other is a police sergeant at a department in Indiana.
Robin said that in addition to grandfather duties, Jim is picking up pickleball on Thursdays and the two are aiming to vacation more as well.
“The most rewarding part of the whole job has been the ability for me to go out and interact with students, like the Daily News crime simulator, community policing, Lunch With a Cop and the residence hall programs, those really gave me an opportunity to be authentic,” Jim Duckham said. “I really enjoy the engagement part. I like interacting with people.”