“I was kind of looking for a career,” he said. “Good benefits. Retire in 20 years. It sounded great.”
Tuesday will mark Gray’s 17th year with the Danville Police Department — and his 16th day as its chief.
The sporting life
When Gray was growing up on McMillian Court, he was known in the neighborhood as “Tone-Tone” or “Little Tony,” his father, Anthony Gray Sr., being “Big Tony.”
He spent most of his free time playing pickup baseball and football games at what is now Centre College’s soccer field, and, during basketball season, legendary Centre coach Tom Bryant used to let Gray and his buddies shoot hoops in the college gym. It kept him out of trouble.
“We were always into mischief,” Gary said, but when pressed about his most egregious juvenile delinquency, the worst he could come up with was shooting off bottle rockets on the Fourth of July.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’ve just had one speeding ticket my entire life.”
Gray played basketball and the baritone horn in band while attending Danville High School. After he graduated in 1984, he attended UK for a while but was called home when his parents separated to help his mom (Judy, who died in 2010) care for his sister Ashley, 15 years his junior.
He worked two-year stints at Corning and Hitachi in Harrodsburg and began officiating rec league basketball and softball games, embarking on what has become his second career. Gray is among the top high school boys basketball officials in Kentucky, having been called to work three Sweet 16 tournaments. He also umpires high school baseball games.
“I think the skill sets you need for both jobs complement each other,” Gray said. “As police officers, we’re often called in when people are upset, and you have to quickly size up the situation and make a judgment. In athletics, things move so fast. You have to handle things out on the court, when coaches, players and fans get upset, the same way. It’s the same thought process you use when you’re out on a domestic call.
“A lot of it comes from listening. You have to have an authoritative presence, confident, calm, but not condescending. People want you to take control in those situations. My conflict resolution skills stay sharp because I’m always using them in both arenas.”
A domestic situation
Gray, 45, lives on Cloverdale Avenue with his second wife, Valerie, children Meagan, 12, Brandon, 12, and stepson Jordan Young, 20. They host an annual New Year’s Eve party that is always crashed by the cops.
“I invite the guys to come by, but they’ve never had to bust it up,” Gray joked.
Karen Ross has known Gray for several years and been his next-door neighbor for seven. If he has any quirks or peccadilloes in his home life, Ross hasn’t seen them.
“I wish I could think of something bad to tell you, but they are really good people. I feel really good about having them as neighbors,” Ross said. “Tony’s a hands-on dad. He’s always fooling with the kids.
“There is one thing I can tell you that most people probably don’t know about Tony Gray: I have witnessed him on the trampoline, and I’ve seen him doing some flipping. He’s got some mad trampoline skills.”
Gray said he’s really not that great on the trampoline but said he’s very involved in family life. He remains close with his father and brother Steven, who still lives in town, brother Kevin in Nicholasville and baby sister Ashley, who lives in Louisville.
“We’re a pretty tight-knit bunch,” he said.
Watching the detectives
Gray was still an officer in training when he was called to assist at a murder scene in Heather Hills in 1995 and his police career began to take shape.
“I guess I showed an interest in investigations. My supervisors noticed I was paying a lot of attention to what the detectives were doing,” he remembered. “I only patrolled for 18 months before I moved into investigations. As a patrolman, you’re kind of an adrenaline junkie. I was older. I liked trying to figure things out, solving puzzles.”
After making detective, Gray stayed with the investigative side of police work as he worked his way up the ranks. When he was promoted to assistant chief in 2003 by former chief Jeff Peek, he supervised all of the department’s detectives.
Detective A.J. Mullins joined the force in 2001 and cut her investigator’s teeth working alongside Gray and being supervised by him.
“He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty working a case with you. As chief over detectives, he knew what we needed and what we had to do, and he gave us the freedom to do it,” Mullins said. “And he’s not just old school. He’s not afraid to try something different. When we go to training and come back with a new technique from another department, he listens to us.”
When asked for a specific example, Mullins said, “I really can’t tell you about it because we’re actually trying it out right now on some cases. I don’t think we’d be trying it if someone else was in charge.”
While Mullins said she is “very happy” with Gray’s selection as chief, it didn’t take her long to come with a chink in Gray’s armor. “I think one of Tony’s faults is also one of his biggest strengths: It’s that sometimes he might be too friendly and too nice. He’s just a super good guy.”
Gray will plead guilty to that charge.
“I am approachable. People can come up and talk to me and feel comfortable, and I think that helps de-escalate tension because if people think you will listen to them and let them explain themselves, whether they’re right or wrong, it just defuses the situation.”
Other than the practice range, Gray has never discharged his weapon in the line of duty or been directly fired upon. His hairiest moment as a police officer came a couple of years ago as he was watching a DHS baseball game and was called out to negotiate with a suicidal man spraying shots from an apartment in Indian Hills. Four officers were already pinned down by automatic gunfire when Gray arrived.
“I didn’t even know what apartment he was in. When one of those AK-47 rounds went flying over my head, I realized I was a little too close and needed to back off,” he said. “I was later able to negotiate with him over the phone, and we were able to bring it to a peaceful resolution.”
In Nicole Wheeler’s American Government class at Boyle County High School, the topic of the day was the Fourth Amendment, and Gray was there to talk about unreasonable searches and seizures from a police perspective. At the head of the class with a marker in his hand, he quickly established an easy rapport with students that left them comfortable enough to ask potentially touchy questions about drugs, drinking and driving.
Rather than preaching against the dangers of such behavior, Gray simply advised them, “Don’t do it” and moved on to lively discussions about what police can and can’t do during traffic stops when drugs or alcohol might be involved. He repositioned desks to simulate a vehicle with a driver and passengers and explained where police could legally search and who would be charged for possession of that bag of pot discovered lying in the back floorboard.
“If I smell marijuana, that’s giving me permission to search the car,” he explained. “If I make an arrest, I can search the internal compartments of the vehicle but not the trunk.”
Gray also shared a story from his days as a young patrolman when he was called in to bust up a party at Centre where there was plenty of underage drinking going on.
“I was more interested in how the girls looked than doing my job. We didn’t take any alcohol away,” he said.
The party restarted after the cops left, and one girl, intoxicated, was later injured during a fall.
“I was really worried that would come back to bite us, but it didn’t,” he said. “I learned my lesson right there.”
When asked to assess Gray’s performance in her classroom, Wheeler said, “I’d give him an A+. The kids just love him, and he does a really good job of relating to them on their level.”
Visiting classrooms is an example of the kind of interactive police work Gray, as chief, hopes to increase throughout the department. With the force finally back up to its full complement of 33 officers after two years of being short-handed, Gray said he plans to reinstitute the bike patrol and citizens academy and send more officers out to schools and neighborhoods on an informal basis in an effort to be more proactive instead of just reacting to crime and trouble spots as they occur.
“Our burglaries have been up, and I’d like to see us get out into the neighborhoods more just to talk to people and develop those relationships, just neighbors being good neighbors and doing some spotting for us,” he said. “We need to reach out more to the community and schools.”
Visiting the schools also serves as recruiting trips for Gray, who is especially interested in finding minority candidates who might make good officers. Aside from himself, officer Sharon Johnson, who is soon to retire, is the only black officer in the department. There have been as many as four black officers on the force at one time during Gray’s tenure, he said.
“I think it’s important, as a minority, to get out and interact with these kids. We need more minority representation. It’s always been hard to recruit and retain minority officers,” he said.
Race always has shadowed Gray’s police career going back to his own recruitment 17 years ago, when he was sought after, in part, because he was black. It hasn’t been a dominant theme, or a negative one, but it has always been there as he worked his way up the ladder to the point he first became a finalist for the chief’s job in 2006.
“When you have a position like this, where you have people of different races as applicants, there’s always going to be questions about race. That’s just part of our society today,” he said.
When Peek retired in 2006, Gray served as interim chief for eight months before the City Commission picked Jay Newell over Gray and one other finalist for the top job in the department. While some in the black community suspected race was the deciding factor, Gray never bought in to that argument. He and Newell had worked their way up through the ranks together, and he had no qualms with his friend’s selection.
“I was disappointed, of course,” Gray said. “Jay and I started out at the same time, and we had kind of joked that we’d be competing against each other for the chief’s job one day. But I told Jay I was perfectly happy where I’m at. Assistant chief over investigations was kind of my dream job anyway.
“To be honest, looking back, I wasn’t really ready for it back then. Some of the personnel issues — discipline, hiring and firing, promoting the right people for the city of Danville — I needed to learn a few things in those areas.”
When Newell stepped down to return to patrolling five months ago, Gray was again named interim while the city hired a search firm to help pick a new chief. His candidacy drew broad support from across the community, black and white, and people wrote letters to the editor saying he was a hometown guy who proved his mettle over 17 years and deserved his shot.
As the search continued, some people began to openly wonder if race wasn’t a factor in the process. Johnson, the department’s other black officer who also pastors Wilson Chapel AME Church, said people of different races regularly came up to her at church and on the street to ask her, “Why is he being overlooked?”
Johnson rooted hard for Gray in 2006 but understood that other factors besides race might have held him back, namely his lack of a college degree.
“Chief Peek told him and I told him, ‘Tony, get your education,’” Johnson said. Degree or not, Johnson said the City Commission would have placed itself in a tight spot if it bypassed Gray a second time.
“I think there would have been a pretty big stink if they picked somebody else,” Johnson said.
“To me, I’m very proud to have an African-American holding that position in Danville,” Johnson said. “It’s a big thing for a young black male in this community. And to shoot straight about it, I don’t see a lot of African-American males doing a lot of constructive things with their lives, so it really says something to the youth.
“And to be chief in your hometown, to police the place where you grew up, it’s a great thing for the community. It really is something to celebrate.”
Norman Bartleson, president of the local NAACP chapter, echoed Johnson’s thoughts. “I’m elated,” Bartleson said. “It should have been done long ago. He’s deserving of it. He’s paid his dues. When our kids graduate, most of them go away from Danville. Tony is from here. Now a kid can look and say, ‘I can be police chief. I can be mayor,’ right here in this community. That gives them hope.”
For his part, Gray appreciates the significance of his new position but is careful not to give the racial component any extra weight. He points out that he has support and respect from across a broad spectrum of the community, not just those who share his skin color.
“This is the city of firsts. Danville has broken ground in a lot of areas. I think this shows we are still a progressive town and continue to move forward,” he said. “I do think there is an accomplishment here, and I consider it an honor to be in this position.”