By Donna Williamson
In July, Gov. Robert Bentley appointed John E. Richardson, a 1981 graduate of Opelika High School and a former member of the Opelika Police Department, as Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety.
“I enjoy everything about my job, including the challenges because every day is a challenge, but mostly I love the people,” Richardson said. As state director of public safety, he is responsible for more than 1,200 employees.
However, some aspects of the job are difficult. “I worry about having to tell someone that one of their family members has been injured or killed on the job,” he said. “There is nothing routine about this job.” He explained that the danger is ever present for all state patrol officers and Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) agents and that support people play an important role in helping keep them and the public safe.
Richardson chose his career path very early. He said he always knew he wanted to be in law enforcement. “I have great respect for the Opelika Police Department, and I always wanted to be a policeman in Opelika,” he said.
He joined the Marines after high school because he was too young to be a policeman. In the Marines he grew up fast and became more disciplined. “The Marines transformed me from a teenager into a leader and developed my leadership skills,” Richardson explained.
After fulfilling his duty with the Marines, Richardson returned home. “Opelika Police Chief Ronald Dunson hired me as a patrol officer and assigned me to the patrol division,” he said. “I intended to retire from there, but God had other plans for me.”
In 1988 Richardson began his career in state law enforcement as an agent with the ABC Enforcement Division, where he was assigned to the Narcotics Bureau. “I mainly focused on purchasing cocaine and crack cocaine from street to mid-level drug dealers,” he said. “This allowed me the opportunity to work with municipal, county and federal law enforcement agencies, an experience that would later prove to be invaluable.”
Richardson explained that when he was working undercover there was danger but nothing like there is today. “The people we were going after were not as violent as they are today. They were trying to get away from us, not fight us,” he said. “We were always monitored; it was a very controlled situation. I always had a partner. We worked out of town and at night we would talk to each other about our families. That kept us grounded.”
In 1994 he was promoted to sergeant. As assistant district supervisor, he supervised agents in Butler, Crenshaw, Covington, Escambia and Conecuh counties.
Richardson transferred to the Department of Public Safety Executive Protection Unit in Montgomery in 1999. “I was assigned to the protective detail of the governor and his family and served in this capacity until January 2003,” he said.
He returned to the ABC Board as Assistant Director of Enforcement. During the second term of Gov. Bob Riley, Richardson was appointed Assistant Administrator of the ABC Board. “I had the pleasure of working with ABC Administrator Emory Folmar, the longtime mayor of Montgomery,” he said.
Richardson served as the Assistant Director of ABC’s Enforcement Division before his appointment as State Director of Public Safety. He explained that the Department of Public Safety is a paramilitary organization with a strict chain of command and rank structure with the director being called colonel, so his name is now prefixed with that title. He is quick to point out two other directors, Col. Floyd Mann and Col. James Alexander, who were also from Opelika.
As a man strong in his faith, Richardson owes his success to “the grace of God.” He grew up attending church with his parents, John and Lillar. “I was brought up in church (Ferguson Chapel CME Church in Opelika) and active in Sunday School,” he said. “I had good role models and gained leadership and public speaking skills there.”
Richardson and his wife DeWanda have one son Jaron, who is a student at UAB and an Army Reservist.
Richardson will always have roots in Opelika. “My wife’s parents live in Opelika and I own land there,” he said. And as a “big Auburn fan who loves Mrs. Story’s hotdogs,” how can he stay away?