A Syracuse Native

SPD Officer Ahmad Mims isn’t giving up on the city he loves

Ahmad Mims stood on the opposite side of the basketball court as a Potsdam point guard raced toward the rim for a breakaway layup. All signs pointed to two points for the Bears.

But Mims didn’t give up — he never does — as he raced from one side of the court to the other and blocked the shot off the front of the rim.

“You never give up on a play,” Mims, 33, says now of the play a dozen years ago, in January 2005. “You never give up on anything.”

The basketball standout at Oswego State wears a different uniform now — blue instead of green. He believes in Syracuse and its people — and he is focused on stopping the violence that plagues them through his work on the special Crime Reduction Team of the Syracuse Police Department.

“We patrol these streets and we want to keep these communities safe. We don’t want the crime up. We don’t want to chase after people every day,” Mims said. “We want to help. If everyone came together, I think this city could be flawless almost. As a whole it would work if we just came together.”

Ahmad Mims conducts a more thorough search of an arrested individual’s vehicle after tests came back positive for narcotics. | Michael Santiago, They Wear Blue Photographer

He’s spent the past six years as a police officer, including the past five months on the elite Crime Reduction Team. On some nights it’s mundane patrol with lots of conversation and few stops. On others, he’s presented with the unexpected: a shooting or a heavy drug bust.

On a night this past April, he fired his gun for the first time in the line of duty.

On April 22, Mims and another Syracuse police officer stopped a Chevrolet Uplander van on Rowland Street near the intersection of South Geddes Street. The stop turned into a drug investigation, and the driver sped away from the two officers. After the van stopped again, the driver spun it in reverse with Mims and the other officer, Nicholas Voggel, nearby. The van hit the two officers.

Mims shot at the van, which had the driver and three children inside, as it sped away, hitting it at least one time. The van was ultimately stopped and the driver, identified by police as Peter Dixon, 34, of Syracuse, was arrested and charged with two counts of reckless endangerment, three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and unlawful possession of marijuana.

The two officers were treated for minor injuries. Mims was put on paid leave, standard police protocol, and cleared to return to work in June.

Only about 27 percent of police officers say they have ever fired their gun in the line of duty, according to a Pew Research Center survey of almost 8,000 cops in 54 departments with 100 or more officers. Yet the public grossly over-estimates how often it happens. Asked to make a guess, 83 percent of people surveyed by Pew said the average officer had pulled the trigger on the job at some time. (There were four officer-involved shootings in 2016 in Syracuse, and citizens died in three of them.)

In an interview a few weeks before the shooting, Mims explained why police don’t want to fire their guns.

“We want to stop the crime. (But) we don’t want to do that (pull our gun). There’s a lot of times we could draw our guns and we don’t. People see police draw their guns and think we’re the bad guys,” he said. “That’s the misconception we always get. Just listen to what we have to say. We’ll listen to you. Let’s work this out.”

On a rainy Friday night in March, Mims and his partner, William Lashomb, patrolled the South Side of Syracuse, working an area with a high crime rate. They pulled over a midsize SUV outside a church, suspecting its windows were over-tinted. The two veteran officers discovered some marijuana as well as an open container.

The two men in the car, both black men — as is Mims — didn’t cooperate at first, trying to hide the marijuana and protesting that they were clean. Mims explained he and Lashomb would be searching the vehicle anyway, and — eventually — the men in the car relented.

It didn’t happen on this night, but as a black police officer on the street, Mims has heard it: He’s a “sellout,” an “Uncle Tom,” one of “us” who doesn’t “care about us.”

“It doesn’t matter white cop or black cop. We’re equal — we’re all equal,” Mims said. “We’re here to do a job and keep people safe.”

There are pros and cons to being a black police officer. Only 7.1 percent of SPD officers (32) are black in a force of 445, and in a city where minorities make up 44 percent of the population. (In the Syracuse force, 2.5 percent of officers are Hispanic, 0.5 percent Native American and 0.4 percent “other.”)

“It makes me more approachable because they see someone who looks like them,” Mims said. “Even though (a white officer and black officer would) probably say the same thing, they see someone who looks like them and a lot of times that eases people. I’m still going to tell you what’s right and wrong — I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

A fast-climber in the Syracuse police ranks, Mims was promoted in January of this year to the Crime Reduction Team, a 12-man unit that works four 10-hour shifts per week in target areas with high crime rates and a heavy gang presence.

The CRT is on the front lines of Syracuse’s battle against violent crime. Its goal is to be “proactive” in police jargon, often parlaying routine traffic stops into significant arrests that can be high-danger, high-tension encounters. The team seized 108 guns, made 378 felony arrests and confiscated $95,000 in cash in 2016.

CRT members also respond to shootings, and on that same Friday night that Mims and Lashomb stopped the car with tinted windows, they rushed to the scene of one. They jumped from their car and joined other officers — the suspect still on the run.

The group of officers — the majority of them CRT members — combed nearby yards and quizzed local residents. Eventually they spotted footprints in the snow, leading them to a home where the suspect was hiding — and peacefully arrested. After finding a gun in a backyard, the officers headed back to the office for the last step: numbing paperwork.

Mims works long hours, often taking on overtime at Syracuse Hancock International Airport. He enjoys going home to his North Syracuse residence, where he streams movies and TV shows, including “The Wire,” an HBO TV show that focuses on narcotics in Baltimore, much of the same work Mims and his team does.

The self-described “city rat” grew up playing pretty much any sport he could. In baseball, he patrolled centerfield and pitched; in football, he played tailback. He switched over to cross country in middle school before the Cicero–North Syracuse High School volleyball coach recruited him to play.

Throughout high school, Mims was very active in sports — basketball being his favorite. He played college ball at Oswego State, where he would go on to be an all-league player and the school’s all-time leading shot blocker. He was known on the court for his defense, a trait that he brings to his job on the Crime Reduction Team. | Michael Santiago, They Wear Blue Photographer

He went to the state championships in track and field, finishing second in the high jump to what Mims called a natural, a competitor who “just got up there and did it. No practice.”

His favorite sport, though, was basketball.

Mims could always be found on the court — in city parks growing up, in the gym during the season and after, when he played AAU with some of the best players in the area, including former Syracuse forward Matt Gorman. He’d make room for family trips to Disney World and a trip every summer vacation with his three siblings, and for his job at the local McDonald’s.

“Slinks,” a nickname for Mims’ tall and long frame, was recruited by the likes of Le Moyne and Roberts Wesleyan to play basketball. After a recruiting trip to Oswego with a former Solvay basketball player, Mims knew that’s where he should be.

“Ahmad was a great kid, a great player in high school. He was highly recruited and we knew he’d be a great Division III player,” said Kevin Broderick, the Oswego basketball coach when Mims played. “He’s the type of guy who every coach wants in their program.”

The 13-year Oswego head coach saw Mims play his junior year at CNS and knew he wanted him on the Lakers. Broderick worked as hard to get the 6-foot-4-inch Mims to Oswego as he had any recruit, he said, because of his character and “off the charts athleticism.”

Mims shined in the gold and green, becoming an all-league player, a 1,000-point scorer and the school’s all-time leading shot-blocker.

“In the 20 years I’ve coached, Ahmad is one of the top guys who could pick up things unbelievably quick,” said Broderick, who now coaches at Niagara University. “One of my favorite players I’ve ever coached.”

After graduating from Oswego in 2006 with an elementary education and wellness management degree, Mims was on the teacher-coach track. He helped out Broderick for a year as a volunteer assistant coach — “I loved basketball and I didn’t want to leave it” — and served as an assistant junior varsity and varsity coach at his high school alma mater.

Mims continues to play basketball and uses it as a way to reach as many youth in Syracuse as possible, playing a mentor-like role in their lives. | Michael Santiago, They Wear Blue Photographer

Mims student-taught, but the experience wasn’t what he envisioned. He thought about a different career. His father, Kevin, had always dreamed of becoming a police officer, talking about it to his four children and sometimes pretending to drive his personal car around like a police car. Kevin tried a handful of times to join both the Syracuse Police Department and New York state police, but didn’t pass the test.

A simple question from his father sparked Mims’ interest in wearing the blue uniform: “Why don’t you take the test?”

He decided to do it after talking to some friends, in what he now considers the best decision of his life after never thinking he’d be a cop.

His family supports him in a different way now, behind the scenes rather than in the stands at sporting events. His father said he consistently worries about the danger of being a police officer, but supports his son’s decision.

“You’re just on edge all the time,” Kevin Mims said.

Underneath Mims’ police uniform — a hooded sweatshirt with a bulletproof vest overtop and military green pants — are an estimated 30 tattoos. His got his first tattoo, a tribute to his “Slinks” nickname, when he was 18. He’s consistently added to them. Each one has a special meaning, including the portrait of his 5-year-old son on his back.

His son lives in Virginia with his mother, whom Mims said he’s better friends with now than when the two were married. He sees his son once a month and for an extended period in the summer. The 5-year-old loves Legos, Mims said, and is speaking some Spanish.

“We’ll see if he’s going to be a ballplayer,” Mims joked.

As for Mims, he still is a ballplayer. He works out every other day and still plays regularly in a Sunday league. He showcased his talents in March at the Syracuse Police Department vs. Syracuse Fire Department charity basketball game.

With a defender overplaying him on the left side of the court in the third quarter of the game, Mims cut behind him and took a bounce pass. The former all-league college basketball player and state finalist high jumper sprung to deliver a two-handed jam over two defenders. The ball through the rim, Mims emphatically slapped the backboard with both hands. He finished the game with 15 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in a 74-68 Syracuse police win.

Mims’ parents, who are from North Syracuse, were in the stands for the game. They never miss one. They couldn’t contain their smiles after the game while talking with their son, giving the familiar look of proud parents.

This spring, Mims tried out for the Syracuse police SWAT team, an elite unit that would add responsibility for the fast-climbing and challenge-seeking officer.

“The sky’s the limit for a guy like (Ahmad). He’s smart. He knows how to do the job. He’s young and so the sky’s the limit,” said Syracuse Chief of Police Frank Fowler. “Could easily see him being in my position one of these days.”

When Mims graduated from Oswego, he returned to the school and to his high school as a coach to share his knowledge. Now, as a police officer, he’s working to do the same thing.

He grew up in the city as a black child and wondered out loud over a meal in a Syracuse restaurant recently how great it would be if a child saw Mims, a black police officer, on the job and then wanted to go on to be one, too.

“I know what it’s like growing up out here. I chose a path and it is what it is,” he said. “As a whole we want everyone to be safe. That’s the ultimate goal. We want to preserve life, keep the kids and the streets safe.”

Mims struggles with the state of police-community relations, both in the U.S. and here in Syracuse. There’s not enough respect, he said.

“If you just listen, nobody would ever fight with anybody,” Mims said. “Rather than separate from the police and the community, it’s got to be more of a togetherness.”

Mims wants to see more people attend the Civilian Police Academy to get a better understanding of police work. Forty attended the second one Syracuse has had, held in January.

For Mims, that understanding has come from a life in and around Syracuse. He spent his childhood in the city and got along with police officers he saw on the beat. He’s carried the never-give-up attitude his parents instilled in him through his childhood and into college on the basketball court. Now, he’s not giving up on his city.

“It doesn’t matter black or white, grew up in the city or not, it comes down to respect. Everyone’s got to respect each other,” Mims said. “Doesn’t matter what you look like, who you are, or whether you have a badge or not. One of these days this city will be good again.”

 

 

— By Justin Mattingly, reporter with They Wear Blue project