As a child, James Overton wanted to be a police officer when he grew up—or, he says, an accountant. At age 19, his dreams of number-crunching were dashed when he was offered a position as a cadet in the Hampton, Virginia Police Department, where he was mentored until he could enter the police academy and become an officer.
This role, created specially for Overton, kick-started his career in law enforcement, a career that has led him from Virginia to Delaware and finally to UMass Boston, where he is the new director of Public Safety.
Overton served in the Hampton Police Department for nearly 17 years. When a mentor and a friend of his from the department was offered a job as the chief of police at Delaware State University, he invited Overton to become his deputy chief—an opportunity Overton saw as unique. Moving from a large urban police department to a small university force was an adjustment, Overton says.
“On campus, [the police] have to do things that are more service-oriented and preventative, rather than reactive. There are different rules to enforce,” he explains.
Eventually, Overton became chief of police at Delaware State, where he balanced his job duties and service in the National Guard with several teaching positions, including lecturing on criminology at Delaware Technical Community College.
“I’ve been instructing in one way or another for the last 20 years. I love teaching,” he says.
In his spare time, Overton earned a master’s in Human Resources Management from Wilmington University, and an MBA from his employer. Overton was brought to Boston by a recruiter, after Stanley Stewart retired from his position as interim director of Public Safety.
Before he arrived, he was unsure if he wanted to accept a position in the Northeast—but a few great conversations with his future boss helped influence his decision.
“I always thought that if I was going to leave [Delaware], I’d go south,” Overton says. “But meeting Chancellor [J. Keith] Motley made me decide that I wanted to come here. I just felt like I fit in immediately.”
Overton envisions a public safety office at UMass Boston that actively involves student help and participation. He plans on establishing a student-police cadet program, and says he wants students to become “the eyes and ears” on campus. He also is working to replace and upgrade outdated technology – “I’m very tech-focused,” he says – and for the department at UMass Boston to become nationally accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).
“It’s a national standard where police operate,” he says. “It’s always a good thing.”
Overton also hopes to establish an agreement with the Boston Police Department to help UMass Boston Public Safety officials take primary responsibility for students who are caught breaking the law.
“There are better ways to discipline a student without giving them a criminal record,” he says. “We have a stake in their education more than [the police do], and we can mitigate the problems easer than the criminal justice system can.”
Overton, who spends one weekend each month on National Guard duty in Delaware, is positive about his future at UMass Boston.
“I like the atmosphere,” he says. “I’m excited to help get things done.”