Jefferson County’s First African American Sheriff Wants to Boost Diversity

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Sheriff Mark Pettway and his wife Vanessa greet well wishers at a reception following his swearing in ceremony on Friday, January 11.
Sheriff Mark Pettway and his wife Vanessa greet well wishers at a reception following his swearing in ceremony on Friday, January 11.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM

Like a lot of kids, Mark Pettway wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. But as he got older, things changed. Pettway begins his job as Jefferson County sheriff today. He’s the first African American to hold that post after defeating longtime Republican Sheriff Mike Hale in November.

“Later on in life I saw where we needed someone in law enforcement  because I was a victim. I was racially profiled,” Pettway says. “I was pulled over because the type of car I was driving or because of the color of my skin — not because I broke a law.

Pettway grew up near Legion Field in the College Hills neighborhood. He was one of six children. His father was a career military man and his mother was an educator.  His grandfather, Levi Satisfield Sr., was a well-known minister in Ensley. Pettway followed in his footsteps and went into the ministry.

“Jesus was not soft. Jesus whupped the people out of the temple now,” Pettway says. “I can rule with compassion. But at the same time, I’m fair but I’m firm.”

Pettway started out as a beat cop in Fairfield in 1993. From there he went to Jefferson County, where he held several positions, eventually working as a detective. But he wanted to become sheriff mainly to make the agency more diverse. He wants to hire and promote more women and minorities.

“We will hire from right here,” he says. “We can better serve the county by having the ones in leadership reflect the county.”

Pettway says he wants to better prepare deputies to work in diverse communities and get to know more of the people they serve. And he wants to equip police to work with people with mental illness.He plans better education and job training for inmates. He says that will help reduce recidivism.

At his swearing-in ceremony on Friday, Greater Shiloh Baptist Church was packed. Pettway’s family came from around the country.

His cousin Rev. Traci Satisfield Blackmon, was a lead activist in Ferguson, Missouri after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown.

Blackmon was moved to tears watching her cousin being sworn in on Friday.

“I spend most of my days combatting police violence and unjust laws, and I believe in my cousin,” Blackmon says. “So I believe he’s going to do everything he can to unite Birmingham and to unite Jefferson County.”

Wanda Mitchell, who retired from the sheriff’s department, met Pettway when he started work as a deputy.

Sheriff Mark Pettway answers questions in  December after announcing his transition team
Sheriff Mark Pettway answers questions in December after announcing his transition team.
Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM

She’s confident he’ll do a good job. “I think he’ll do good where we are at this time, where there is so much police controversy and community breakdown,” Mitchell says. “I think he will bridge that gap for us.”

Bruce Pettway, the sheriff’s younger brother, says his brother is a leader and a protector. “If we played football he wanted to be the quarterback,” the younger Pettway says. “If we played basketball, he wanted to be the point guard.”

 Jefferson County is off to a rocky start with crime this year. Already there have been at least six violent deaths, including a Birmingham police officer killed on Sunday morning.

Today, depending on how you look at it, Mark Pettway steps in as the new point guard or quarterback to fight crime.

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