Joe Casey, former Nashville police chief, dies at 96

Joe Casey's career with the Metro Nashville Police Department spanned four  tumultuous decades.

He was there after Hattie Cotton School was bombed during integration. He was there when buildings were set aflame after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

He was there when the Nashville NAACP called for a federal investigation after several Black residents were shot by officers. He was there at the height of the "War on Drugs," taking an extreme stance against drug dealers and kickstarting the motto "Hang 'em high, Joe Casey."

But it was also Casey who started the department's annual Christmas Basket Program, a 61-year tradition, that delivers food and toys to families across Nashville.

He also pushed for gun registration and a seven-day waiting period on handgun purchases. During his time with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, he successfully lobbied for all police officers in the state to be trained and certified.

Casey rose through the ranks quickly at MNPD, and spent 16 years as police chief before retiring in 1989.

He died Sunday on his birthday. He was 96.

"Chief Casey was my friend," Metro Nashville police Chief John Drake said Sunday. "I am grateful to have served with him at the beginning of my career, and I am thankful for his support during my service as Chief."

On the fast track

Casey was a native Nashvillian, born in 1926 to Charlie and Ethel Ann Casey. He grew up with two sisters and two brothers.

He lettered in football, basketball, baseball, golf and track at the old North High School. After high school, he tried his luck at a career playing baseball, earning stints with the Boston Braves and the Nashville Vols in the Southern League. He suffered an arm injury returning him back to the Music City.

Casey married his wife, Jewell, and had four children — three girls and a boy. The Caseys remained married for about 65 years until her death in 2012.

He took up basketball officiating and continued to do so for 24 seasons. During that time, he came to officiate Father Ryan's 52-51 win over Pearl High at Municipal Auditorium, the state's first contest between an all Black school and a predominantly white school.

Retired Metro Police Chief Joe Casey stands in front of the West Nashville Police Precinct on Charlotte Pike that is named in his honor May 14, 2013. Casey, who served as police chief for 16 years, said serving the people of Davidson County was one of the most rewarding things of his life.

In 1951, at 25 years old, standing 6-foot-4, then-Mayor Ben West suggested he join the police department, despite his inquiries about the fire department.

In November of that year, Casey made his debut with the Metro Nashville Police Department.

"I had two weeks of training, but I can't imagine that today with the way the laws and things have changed," Casey said in 2013.

He worked as a patrol officer for 11 years before skyrocketing through the ranks.

Between May 1962 and January 1965, Casey was promoted four times. Three years later, he was shot twice trying to apprehend a car-theft suspect.

In November 1973, then-Chief Hugh B. Mott surprised the department with his resignation. Mayor Beverly Briley named Casey as acting chief, over the heads of four assistant chiefs. Exactly six months later, he was promoted to the permanent position.

Casey served with the department for 38 years before taking an early retirement option offered by the city in 1989. He retired as the longest serving chief up until that time.

From earlier this year: Nashville police announces first mobile app. Here's how to access it.

'Hang 'em high'

Casey's public career was not without well-documented contradiction and controversy.

Black leaders felt white officers were abusive to Black residents, but at the same time Casey reportedly promoted Black officers faster and in greater numbers than any administration before him.

Drake was hired under Casey's tenure.

According to articles published in The Tennessean at the time, Casey made inflammatory claims that rapists who broke into women's homes should be punished more severely than those who met their victims at a bar.

At the same time, he was one of the few chiefs hiring and putting women in patrol positions.

He resigned from the Fraternal Order of Police in 1982 because he said he felt the organization was becoming too political, but himself considered a run for mayor or Congress, according to articles from that time.

In 1980, Casey's remarks about drug dealers launched protests when he called for the electrocution of people caught selling marijuana to minors or convicted three times of growing their own.

Outgoing Metro Police Chief Joe Casey, center, conducts his last staff meeting Aug. 29, 1989, with his assistant police chiefs Robert Kirchner, left, Paul Uselton, John Ross, John Sorace and Richard Ordway.

"You catch a person selling it to a minor," Casey said flatly of marijuana, "and he ought to be electrocuted because, in essence, he has killed that person."

He stood by that statement when others defended him and "said his statement had been 'thoughtful' and that he meant what he said." He then went on to call for public executions of murderers, rapists and habitual offenders.

Bumper stickers began cropping up across town with the phrase, "Hang 'em high, Joe Casey." Many people still referred to him by the nickname.

"I think people appreciated the fact that they knew where the police department stood and they weren't going to play around," his daughter, Starr Herrman, said in 2013.

Casey's legacy

During his time at MNPD, Casey worked for a decade to open a new criminal justice center. He also started the annual Christmas Basket Program for disadvantaged families in Nashville.

“Chief Casey’s legacy is his dedication to Nashville and law enforcement, his caring concern for the employees of our department, and his effort to make life better for those less fortunate," Drake said Sunday. "This year, approximately 300 households will receive gifts of food and toys on Christmas Eve morning because of the tradition he started."

In the late 1980s, while president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Casey called for the passage of the Brady Bill, which required a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. It was initially voted down, but enacted in 1993.

After his retirement, Casey took his expertise to the private sector and was hired as the director of security and Personnel at Wholesale Drug Co.

In May 2013, the police department named Metro's West Precinct building on Charlotte Pike after Casey.

New Metro Police Chief Robert Kirchner, left, shares a laugh with outgoing Chief Joe Casey after a meeting in Casey's office to discuss their transition Aug. 29, 1989.

"It's a great honor, but I'm not sure I'm deserving," he said at the time. "Serving the people of Davidson County was one of the most rewarding things of my life. I enjoyed my work and hated to leave the people because I considered them part of my family."

Former Metro police Chief Steve Anderson said he tried to emulate Casey's leadership style.

"He's an extraordinary man and that's easy to recognize," Anderson said in 2013. "As a young officer, I recognized that and made it a point to learn how he did things. He gave his life to Nashville for close to 40 years. Nashville was ahead of its time during his tenure."

Funeral arrangements for Casey have not been announced.

Reporter Adam Friedman contributed to this report. 

Contact Tennessean reporter Kirsten Fiscus at 615-259-8229 or Follow her on Twitter @KDFiscus.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Joe Casey, former Nashville police chief, dies at 96