By Kris Martins
Jesse Seroyer, Jr. remembers watching police officers as a young boy and dreaming of becoming one of them. But there was one encounter, in particular, with an officer that he will never forget.
He was in Gainesville, Fla., where he was born, when Seroyer said a white officer approached his father in the downtown area and was rude to him in asking him for information. Seroyer, who was a young boy at the time, addressed the officer, after which his father told him to always respect authority no matter the circumstance.
“People were treated different during times of segregation. … And I told my dad at that time if I ever got to be a police officer, I would be better than he was to you,” he said.
From that moment on, that experience was always in the back of his mind.
“It was nothing that I didn’t get past, because of the times that we were in,” he said. “But at the same time it was something that I never would forget.”
That moment ignited a childhood dream that would take Seroyer, who was raised in Opelika and lives here now, all the way to the federal level of law enforcement. He recently retired, reflecting on what he’s learned from being in the force, his involvement in the community and his future.
At 21, Seroyer joined the patrol section of the Opelika Police Department in 1976, becoming the youngest African-American on the force when he joined.
“Opelika Police Department was basically different from a lot of other departments that you would see across the state in the early ‘70s,” he said. “I learned a lot from that department. They believed in training … and diversity at that time in the ‘70s and even now.”
He then shifted into the Office of the Attorney General from 1987 to 2002, where he supervised criminal investigations involving civil rights violations, narcotics, illegal gambling and the like.
During his time at the attorney general’s office, Seroyer also started a statewide drug unit and worked as an undercover agent out of the office.
Working as an undercover agent was one of the most interesting positions he held, particularly in making drug arrests because in the early ‘70s, drug abuse was a major issue in the state’s inner cities, he said.
“One of the reasons that I think that stayed with me for so long … was I saw the deterioration of a lot of inner cities that came from drug abuse,” Seroyer said. “You have firsthand information and knowledge about the suffering that families go through when they have a member of their family involved in drugs.”
But he was also able to see communities and individuals recover while working at the OPD and the attorney general’s office.
“And you’re not going to save everybody,” he said. “You save the ones you can, but you don’t ever stop trying.”
Those instances stayed with him. And while working in investigations, making drug arrests and seeing family tragedies, Seroyer found a way to cope with the stress that came with the job.
“You can’t take it with you,” he said. “If you’re going to be the professional that you want to be in life, you have to take one case at a time, and you have to figure out how is it that if this comes up again, how can I do it better than I did it the first time to help me be a better investigator?”
The fast-paced workflow left no time for losing much sleep over something that happened the day before either.
“In order to stay the course, you had to … put your feelings aside and to address the next problem that came up,” Seroyer said. “You can’t drag these problems along with you. You got to believe that God will make a way for you, and you pray that he will. And you stay the course.”
After leaving the Office of the Attorney General, he served as a U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Alabama for more than eight years. There he oversaw the courts and federal prisons in the counties in his district. He also transported prisoners to and from federal courts for appearances, executed federal arrest warrants and other judicial orders and conducted threat investigations.
After leaving the U.S. Marshals Service, he went back to work for Attorney General Luther Strange as deputy chief investigator and retired from the office again last month.
Of all the positions he’s held in more than 40 years, Seroyer said it was the variety of experiences that kept him in the field.
“I’ve said it a lot of times: A profession is what you make it,” he said. “And to stay as long as I did, you know, I had to enjoy it. There were a lot of challenges and a lot of ups and downs. It was not all great things that took place during my tenure, but it was not enough to keep me from not staying.”
Reflecting on the state of law enforcement today, Seroyer said people are just as good as their leaders.
“It has changed a lot. Diversity is huge. …You have change of times,” he said. “You have people with different opinions about what should or should not happen. But I think if you look at it as a professional and you treat people fair and with respect and within guidelines of the law, you’d actually enforce the rule of law.”
As far as the paths he took in his career, Seroyer said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think I’ve had a storybook career — a career that most people would dream about and never have a chance to achieve it,” Seroyer said. “But at the same time, I think trusting a strong religious belief and religious faith and trusting God that he will make a way for you and do whatever you ask him. He’ll do it for you, but you just got to keep the faith.”
Along with his faith, Seroyer’s father, who instilled a strong work ethic in him when he was young, was also influential in his life.
He recalls sitting down at the dinner table and hearing his father teach his family about doing the right thing.
“He wanted us to do the best that we could at anything that we chose to do. …You look at people as equal, and you treat people with respect,” Seroyer said.
And throughout his career, he also received support from his wife, who was his high school sweetheart.
“She’s been one of my best friends and one of my biggest supporters in encouraging me as to stay the course of whatever you’re doing,” he said.
The couple, who have been married since 1973 and have two children, “grew into love” over the years, his wife said.
However, Novelette Seroyer said she knew early on in their relationship that he was a “good, strong, honest person.”
“He knew who he was,” she added.
Now they’ve come to appreciate each other more, she said. Including their differences.
Novelette Seroyer said if she were to describe her husband with one word, it would be “determined.”
“Whenever he puts his mind to something, he doesn’t stop,” she said.
Outside of his work, Jesse Seroyer stayed involved in numerous organizations in the community.
He was chairman of Boy Scouts Troop 373 and served on the Opelika Planning Commission for several years. He is also active in several outreach ministries with his church, such as the Greater Peace Community Development Corporation, which works to help ensure sufficient housing in the area, offer daycare and provide leadership training academy for children.
The Rev. Clifford Jones, of Greater Peace Baptist Church in Opelika, said Jesse Seroyer serves as a role model for young men “by demonstrating leadership for them.”
He serves as a deacon at the church and is part of its finance committee, which ensures that funds flowing into the church are properly accounted for and deposited.
The leadership roles Jesse Seroyer holds at the church, Jones said, speaks to his integrity.
“He’s a man of his word,” he said. “That helps me to know I can put sensitive things in his hands and know it’s going to be done and cared for.”
Since his retirement, Jesse Seroyer has been left with more time on his hands and enjoys spending it with his family and building home projects.
“After 40 years, I’m having to make some adjustments because I don’t know what a lot of free time is,” he said with a laugh.
He plans to stay involved in civic activities in the area and keep in touch with the agencies he worked for to check up on how they’re doing.
“But at the same time,” he said, “I think that after 40 years and you walk away from it, you look forward to the next chapter in your life.”