Jeff Whitfield has always felt a sense of civic duty.
He first toyed with the idea of becoming a police officer as a child.
“I liked the idea of the excitement, catching criminals and defending people, but as I became of age to actually do it, it was more wanting to help people and the idea of doing the right thing all the time,” he said.
Now a University of Georgia police lieutenant, Whitfield has spent his entire adult life helping people in diverse ways.
Whitfield was a U.S. Army medical evacuation helicopter pilot who ferried wounded soldiers during the first Persian Gulf War. He served as an FBI special agent investigating violent crime and then running down leads in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
As coordinator of UGAPD’s Crisis Intervention Team, he helps students who are distraught or experiencing mental health episodes.
“The job is rewarding on many levels and for many reasons,” Whitfield said. “When things get chaotic, sometimes the reward can be as simple as being the voice of calm and reassurance.”
Whitfield grew up in Jefferson, where he lives with his wife Cindy, a high school math teacher. They have two grown sons, Tyler and Kevin.
After graduating from Jefferson High School, Whitfield followed the footsteps of his father, grandfather and brother who all served in the U.S. Navy. While in the Navy Reserve he worked as a jet mechanic at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.
He simultaneously worked as a UGA security officer then was hired by UGAPD in 1982 and within six years had risen to the rank of lieutenant.
After leaving the Navy Reserve, a friend suggested to Whitfield that he might consider putting in for a flight slot with the Army’s rotary wing because of his experience working on jets. He scratched his childhood itch of wishing to fly and served as a medevac pilot from 1988 to 1992.
When the ground offensive began in the liberation of Kuwait from occupying Iraqi forces, Whitfield’s unit was attached to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
“We were so busy that we timed out on the first day,” the officer said, referring to the maximum eight hours of constant flying time pilots were allowed.
Two of his pilot buddies were killed when their helicopter was shot down.
“That was the first time in my life that I lost friends, so that’s a big memory I have,” Whitfield said. “The friendships you make under extraordinary circumstances are extraordinary friendships.”
After the war and returning to Fort Hood, Whitfield attended the University of Central Texas where he earned a degree in criminal justice. He applied with the FBI, but there was a hiring freeze at the time.
In 1992 he rejoined UGAPD as administrative lieutenant, but a year later another opportunity arose that he couldn’t pass up; he became his hometown’s top cop when the Jefferson chief of police retired.
Whitfield also tested for a position with the FBI when he learned they were hiring again, but after not hearing back he had the opportunity to be a member of the command staff of a larger police force, as deputy chief of the Bibb County Board of Education Police Department.
Just one month into his new job the FBI called and asked Whitfield if he was still interested in becoming an agent.
“Of course I told them I was very interested because that’s what I’d been wanting to do,” he said.
During his first five years with the bureau, Whitfield investigated crimes of violence that included kidnappings and a carjacking that ended in murder.
“I had a lot of interesting cases, but when you’re doing it, it’s just work,” Whitfield said.
Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Because the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. used hijackers of commercial airliners who trained as pilots, one of the FBI’s main focuses was on possible future attacks of a similar nature.
As resident agent in Dothan, Ala., Whitfield tried to spot any unusual or suspicious behavior among pilots from around the world who received training at Fort Rucker.
Then letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.
That meant long days tracking down leads in what became what the FBI called one of the largest and most complex investigations in the history of law enforcement.
“Most of the anthrax calls turned out to be hoaxes or cases of misidentification of white powder,” Whitfield said. “In the end, there were only about two or three cases that had meaningful follow-up, but it was just having to work 16-18 hour days without a break.
When Whitfield completed his stint with the FBI he returned to UGAPD and is currently serving as a patrol lieutenant.
Unlike the delayed gratification that came at the end of a complex investigation when working as a G-man, Whitfield said he often is able to get satisfaction when helping someone within the university community.
That could be as simple as recovering someone’s property.
“We had a robbery victim who was all shook up and very skeptical about how much we could help, and as we walked the roadside looking for evidence we found his wallet,” Whitfield said. “I know it sounds like a small thing, but finding the wallet really helped him cope with what happened. It was one less thing he had to worry about.”
Many people with mental illnesses do not begin exhibiting signs of their disorders until their late teens or early 20s, so UGA police — and especially the Crisis Intervention Team — are often called upon to help students get through difficult situations.
“Most of our time is spent doing not-so popular stuff, so when you are able to help someone get through a crisis, that’s the more rewarding aspect of the job,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield enjoys spending his down time in different ways, from golfing to working out.
The logic behind problems he encounters when doing car repairs also applies to his approach to law enforcement.
“I look at the facts that are there and don’t take them for what they are,” he said. “I follow the logical path, and if the answer to a question elicits another question, that’s how it goes.”
A former high school track and field star, Whitfield helps officiate several meets a year, including the boy’s all-classification state track meet in Jefferson.
The 53-year-old officer was a state champion pole vaulter in 1977 and 1978 and about a decade ago he wondered whether he still had it in him to clear the cross bar. One day at Jefferson High School Whitfield picked up a pole to see if he could still vault, and in his first attempt cleared the cross bar at 10 feet.
“It’s fun, and it gives me a reason for staying in shape,” he said.
Whitfield regularly competes in age-group track meets, and participated three times in the World Police and Fire Games.
The officer considers himself fortunate for having been in the right place at the right time throughout his career, with many opportunities to have memorable experiences.
“I can categorize them from my time here at UGA, my time as a medevac pilot in Texas and in the Middle East, my time as an agent with the FBI, and others,” Whitfield said. “Looking back over my career, it almost seems as if many of the memories that I have are almost too fantastic to actually have happened to me.”
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