Accomplished police sergeant accepts a new calling to impact others
A Henderson born and raised, 21-year veteran of the city’s police force said his close interaction with the streets demonstrates to him that the crime situation is better now than when he started in 1992.
Now Sgt. James Ragland, 49, is thinking about a higher law as he steps away from the police work of badge and gun, although a grateful department and city council gave both his badge and service sidearm to him in recognition for his exemplary service.
Ragland said receiving the accolades was very exciting for him, and now his plans include doing whatever God wants him to do, like spending more Fridays with friends of the Rebuilding Hope ministry in Henderson.
He said that he is answering a call to retirement, and that is a step toward ministry: a call that began with what might, from hints in the Bible, have been a modern manifestation of a “still, small voice,” not one you hear, but that comes as a message to the mind; that came to him in May, one year ago.
“I was riding in my truck, and a thought was put in my head, not like a voice that I heard, but a thought,” Ragland said. “It said, ‘this is my last time talking to you.’ To the day I die, I’ll confess that it was God telling me that.”
Ragland, a man who had faced gang and drug bad guys, knows what it’s like to be shot at and how to take cover prepared to return fire, said he was suddenly filled with an uncanny fear.
“I was very afraid,” he said. “I turned my truck around and went home. Then I got my thoughts together. Then I went out on my porch. Then I told God, I am done. I turned my life over to Him. ‘You lead the way, and I’ll follow.’ That’s when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.”
Ragland said one regret he has felt since that prayer time was that he didn’t have his new-life point of view to share with troubled people he has met as an enforcer of government laws.
“Over 20 years, I met a lot of people. I arrested a lot of people,” he said. “Some of them would take your advice. Many were just hurt people. I often wonder, if I had Christ all those years, about all the things I could have said different.”
His start with the Henderson force began on a dare, Ragland said, when a Vance-Granville Community College teacher called his bluff during a conversation that included a little bravado on his part.
“I was complaining about where are the police when you need them, when a lady at the Henderson mall had her purse stolen?” he said, referring to an incident that he witnessed.
The teacher asked Ragland what he would do different, if he was a police officer would he be part of the problem after all, or would he be part of the solution?
“I said I would be a part of the solution. I would show them how it’s done,” Ragland said.
And the teacher handed him a copy of the newspaper, the highlighted article said that the Henderson police department was hiring, here’s how to apply.
“Basically, she called my bluff,” Ragland said, “and I put in an application, thinking, at least that’s my part, I did what I said.”
He got an interview, and, “by the time I left that first interview, I knew I really wanted to be a police officer,” he said.
Ragland went through the Basic Law Enforcement Training program, then held at the Henderson police training center. Soon he was on the streets, learning the “10” codes and all the streets, procedures and real-world methods from the training officers.
About putting on the handcuffs, “The way you do it is completely different from the way they taught it at the BLET, for if a man doesn’t want to be handcuffed,” he said.
By 1994, within the first two years on the force, Ragland received assignment with what was then the selective enforcement unit: mainly drug enforcement. In 1995, he made drug investigator in an interagency drug unit that combined sheriff’s deputy and police efforts.
After a new police chief, Glen Allen, took the reigns in the late 1990s, Ragland was on the beat patrol for a while before reorganizing put him in the new burglary task force. Around 2000 it was criminal investigations. Ragland made sergeant in 2010, under the direction of Chief Keith Sidwell
“When I started, crack cocaine had taken off here,” Ragland said. “People were everywhere selling it, selling dope — it was rampant. It was nothing to make four or five felony arrests on a shift.”
Marked improvements in the situation came with federal prosecutions, and the sense of open-air drug marketing has largely cleared up.
“Today, it’s heroin in the limelight,” Ragland said. “Whatever is most profitable, that’s what will be pushed, but the other drugs are there, too.”
With the federal prosecutions dolling out real consequences, the years have brought a measure of respect to the force, according to Ragland.
“It’s a whole lot better now,” he said. “Back then, when I started, they had no respect for us.”
Ragland said if he thought too much about Vance County courts, it might get under his skin. With a little perspective, understanding the limitations of the legal system that county prosecutors have to deal with, he could get by with concentrating on his job.
“To be honest, I don’t like it,” Ragland said. “Over the years, I have had my opinion on it. But the way I see it, if they let them go 100 times, we can go catch them 100 more times, and sooner or later that will make a difference for the community. I just do the best I can.”
He likes the way God can get a hold of people, starting with himself: kind of grabbed for the good.
“I had a void filled that always haunted me,” he said. “When I turned my life over to Christ, the void was filled, and it changed my life for the better.”
Ragland said he didn’t have a career-ready answer to coworkers with the force on what he was doing next. But themes of working for a higher law struck a chord with him.
“I said, well, you know, we’ll see what God does, where God leads,” he said. “The term ‘evangelist’ really, really is sounding nice to me.”
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