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Phoenix Forward magazine

Chief lowers crime while raising his education level

Police Chief John Dixon

John Dixon has tunnel vision — at least when it comes to his career.

The ability to zero in on a goal helps explain Dixon’s rise from the tough streets of Philadelphia to chief of police in Petersburg, Virginia. “When I see something I want, I’m willing to do everything I can to go after it,” he says of his determination.

It’s a philosophy that Dixon, 52, put into practice as a beat cop in Richmond, Virginia. He spent 23 years on that force, achieving the rank of major before being hired in Petersburg in 2007. “If I had to hide in a trash can and peek out to catch the bad guys,” he says, “that’s what I did.”

Dixon’s focus also helped him earn a Master of Public Administration degree in 2011 from University of Phoenix. Having a master’s was not required to be chief, and Dixon felt qualified to lead a department without it. But he figured the degree would help him stay competitive.

Taking classes while running the Petersburg Bureau of Police wasn’t easy. Being chief is a 24/7 job, Dixon says, and he’s responsible for about 160 sworn officers and civilian employees. But he knew how to balance his life. “You roll up your sleeves,” he says. “You just stay focused until you get it done.”

When I see something I want, I’m willing to do everything I can to go after it.

That focus garnered him national attention in late 2012. The longtime law enforcement officer was among six police chiefs chosen for a task force to meet with Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on curtailing gun violence in the aftermath of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

As chief, Dixon set out to cut crime in Petersburg, population about 33,000. And he’s had some success: Between 2008 and 2009 — his first full year on the job — the number of robberies dropped from 257 to 122, according to the annual Crime in Virginia report by the Virginia Department of State Police. The report shows 53 robberies in 2011, the latest figures available.

Dixon credits the decrease to his “focused approach” to police work. If there’s a drug problem in one neighborhood, for example, Dixon sends patrol officers, as well as those in community policing, traffic and even animal control. “You put all your resources in that area to make sure you clean up everything,” he explains.

When it comes to his officers handling crime on their beats, he tells them to go beyond thinking outside the box. “There is no box,” he advises. “You have no limitation on what you can do to solve a problem as long as it’s morally right and legal.”

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