Former islander named deputy chief of L.A. police dept.
At the age of 28, former Jamestown resident Debra McCarthy asked herself a pointed question: “What do I really want to do with my life?”
The answer, it turns out, was law enforcement – a realization that led her to apply to the Los Angeles Police Department Academy. Now, 21 years later, McCarthy has been named deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“It was always something I was interested in, but I didn’t know if it was something I could do,” said McCarthy, who left Jamestown when she was 19 and was known at that time as Debra Flynn. With encouragement from her husband, Kevin – a LAPD captain – McCarthy left a wellpaying job at Hughes Aircraft to patrol the streets of Los Angeles.
Though she had her doubts initially, her husband’s assessment of her talent put them to rest.
“You’ll be more than good,” he said. “You’ll be great and outrank me someday.”
But McCarthy’s decision to become a police officer wasn’t made on a whim – two motivating factors fueled her new career: The murder of her 21-year-old sister, Peggy, in North Kingstown in the early 1980s and her desire to see the justice system work, along with the memory of two Jamestown policemen who took care of her younger sister, Kelly, when she found herself at their Harbor Street home alone.
“I walked into our house and found these two officers making eggs for my sister,” she said. “These experiences were so lifealtering and profound that I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from the academy, McCarthy’s first assignment was in Newton, a troubled community in south Los Angeles. Despite the area’s reputation for gangs, drugs and homicides, McCarthy enjoyed working in the neighborhood and made it a priority to reach out to gang members and at-risk juveniles, and to start community programs.
“They trusted me,” she said. “They were reluctant to in the beginning, but I never sold them a bill of goods. I was always very honest with them about what I could and couldn’t do.”
McCarthy’s most satisfying achievement has been her implementation of a community program when she was senior lead officer for the Newton area. Called “Operation Cul-de-Sac,” the program was designed to reduce drive-by shootings by creating artificial communities with gates, so gang members couldn’t drive straight through a neighborhood causing havoc. The program ultimately reduced crime by 15 percent and reduced driveby shootings by 67 percent. In a neighborhood deemed the most dangerous in the city, McCarthy soon had gang members helping her paint over graffiti, picking up trash and planting trees.
“I believed in it so much that they started to believe in it, too,” she said, explaining the program’s success.
Harder to explain is how Mc- Carthy developed enough street smarts and street savvy in Jamestown to maneuver the complex and diverse world of Los Angeles.
“I was never exposed to much diversity growing up in Jamestown, but when I did encounter someone from a different background, I never really saw the difference,” she said.
As an example, McCarthy recounts friends who had brown skin and her assumption that they were Italian. “I finally figured out they were Hispanic,” she said.
Such naiveté may sound odd for someone who describes herself as street smart, but it hints at McCarthy’s natural inclination to treat everyone the same and to not focus on differences. This approach has served her well in Los Angeles, where race and color often divide people.
“We all have the same goals, aspirations and want the best for our families,” she said. “That philosophy may sound simple, but it worked very well. All people want better, for themselves and for their families. Rarely do you find people who don’t want a better life.”
At age 49, with a 21-year marriage, two daughters, three horses, a cat and a dog, McCarthy said she couldn’t ask for a more satisfying life. Although she will be sworn in as deputy chief in early January, at heart, McCarthy is still on patrol in Newton, striving to make a lasting connection like those two Jamestown police officers did so many years ago.
“I want to be the one the community has a good experience with and thanks for what [our officers] do,” she said. “People don’t forget the cop that goes the extra mile.”