To Protect and Serve

Posted April 27, 2020, 11:45AM
Jason Armstrong

The world came to know Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 with the shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer. Five years later, NCCU alumnus Jason Armstrong, ’11, was introduced as Ferguson’s new police chief, bringing his criminal justice education, nearly two decades of experience and an upbeat demeanor to the department. 

Born in New Jersey and raised in Fayetteville, N.C., Armstrong said he attended North Carolina Central University to play basketball. 

“I wanted to play at the collegiate level and came to NCCU on a recruiting visit,” Armstrong said. 

After a year of balancing basketball and studies, he decided to drop basketball and focus on his academic schedule. Originally a business major, he switched to the Department of Criminal Justice.  

“Law enforcement wasn’t at the top of my list, but I always had an interest in it,” Armstrong said. “It was the cool stuff I saw, like what was seen in the movie Bad Boys. When I switched my major, it elevated my academic standing. I became interested in the legal aspects of what I was learning.”  

Armstrong said not all of his experiences at NCCU were perfect. 

Jason Armstrong with children
Interacting with children comes naturally for this father of two.

“I actually didn’t like it a whole lot at first,” he recalled. “There were long lines at financial aid, and I got booted out of a dorm room that I had been assigned to, just to name a few incidents.”  

However, over four years, Armstrong developed a deep love for the rolling hills and verdant green. 

“I was learning a lot about life,” he said. “I was away from home, and the university was preparing me for the trials and tribulations of being on my own and being self-sufficient. Nothing came easy. Students now have access to things that I did not. I look back on the life lessons I learned, the friendships I gained, and people I met, and I see that all of them were invaluable.” 

During his senior year, Armstrong heard about a program allowing young college graduates to enter police officer training through the Department of Justice. Their goal was “to change the issues and problems in policing,” he recalled.  

Jason Armstrong in city meeting
Residents’ input helps Armstrong set goals for the department.

“I knew after college, I wanted to leave North Carolina, and since the program was broken up by states, I had my eyes set on a big city that had an NFL team. Georgia was on my mind.” 

The final leg of the acceptance process was an interview in front of the panel on May 11, 2001. 

“It was a Friday, and I was graduating the next day, May 12, 2001,” Armstrong said. “After finishing the interview and walking out of the room, a woman stopped me and said, ‘Eagle Pride.’ She was a Central graduate.” It must have been a good sign. 

“Before I left, they told me I was accepted into the program,” he added. 

The NCCU Forty Under Forty Awardee said he gets asked a lot about how someone could hope to change the culture in Ferguson. His answer is simple: "One conversation at a time."

 

Jason Armstrong Induction
Photo by: Steve Pellegrino/Zuma Wire/Alamy Live News

Two years after graduation, Armstrong relocated to Georgia and began his rise through the law enforcement ranks, serving for 17 years in the Forest Park, Ga., Police Department. He started as an officer before being promoted to serve on the Special Operations Viper Unit and ascending to the rank of sergeant. 

“There had never been a black lieutenant or captain in the department’s history, and I was appointed acting captain in 2013 and then interim police chief in 2018,” said Armstrong, who by then was married to Selina Armstrong and the father of two: Jaxon, 13, and Jase, 4. 

The decision to relocate to work for the police department that had been criticized for its handling of the Michael Brown shooting was not taken lightly, said Armstrong. 

“I waited until the Department of Justice report was released and read it,” he said. But it was hard to resist the challenge. 

“The opportunity in Ferguson came at a turning point in my career. I saw myself bringing some of what I was doing in Forest Park to Ferguson. We need to have better relationships with the community. I get a lot out of the community activities and encourage my officers to attend various events in uniform.” 

The NCCU Forty Under Forty awardee said he gets asked a lot about how someone could hope to change the culture in Ferguson. His answer is simple: “One conversation at a time.” 

Ferguson Sign

“Ferguson is a really nice city,” he explained. “There are big, beautiful homes, lots of amenities and restaurants. There are neighborhood associations, and people are doing great things, from farmer’s markets to the annual The Taste in Ferguson event. This is the Ferguson that people don’t see.” 

He calls his Missouri neighbors a “proud and prosperous people” that he and his family are proud to know. 

“They love this community and are hurt by the narrative that has been spread about their city,” Armstrong said. “There are many who are working to do good work and show the day-to-day successes of Ferguson.” 

Jason Armstrong with kids
Chief Armstrong makes a point of mingling with and listening to his constituents in Ferguson, even in a high school gymnasium. 

 

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