COLUMBIA, SC — The Columbia Police Department’s new second-in-command, Deputy Chief Melron Kelly, calls it his awakening moment.
It was a summer’s night in 2001 and he and his then-partner, J.P. Edwards, were patrolling near Five Points.
“I heard two gunshots, and so we take off and we are driving, and I see a guy laying down partially underneath a car. I walked up to him and he said that he had been shot,” Kelly said.
Kelly took the man’s hand in his and reassured him help was on the way. Kelly said he could hear the sounds of sirens heading their way.
“I have never felt so helpless. He is telling me that he was from Chicago and that his name was Michael. I’ll never forget. I said, ‘Okay, Michael, you are going to be okay.’”
“His breathing got a little shallower and he stopped talking. I think the guy died while I was holding his hand.”
“That makes for a bad night.”
Kelly said seeing something like that can change you.
He knew then that what he wanted to do was stop bad things before they happened.
“I remember that night thinking that this is what I want to do forever,” Kelly said. “I want to be a part of the Columbia Police Department, forever.”
Kelly, 37, is the youngest deputy chief the Columbia Police Department has ever had. With only 15 years on the force, he is sure that he will retire as a CPD officer.
That night was what solidified it for him.
Michael Messer, 49, was a special assistant U.S. attorney who was visiting from Chicago for a Justice Department training class held at the National Advocacy Center at the University of South Carolina.
Messer was shot twice in the upper body, along with his friend who was shot once in the arm as they were walking back from dinner in Five Points. The shooters were four teenagers from Columbia associated with a spree of armed robberies. The incident received national attention.
Ambition started early
Edwards, who was there when Kelly took Messer’s hand, said that depending on the officer, those situations can cause a person to reevaluate being on the force.
But that didn’t apply to Kelly.
“He was like, you know what, I’m going to stick with this because I have the ability to help someone or the ability to catch someone before they do something,” Edwards said. “Unfortunately, (Messer) passed away. But that night he reassured him that somebody was there to assist him.”
While that night was his “awakening moment” in law enforcement, his preoccupation with becoming a police officer began when he was a crime victim at the age of 13 on his way to Alcorn Middle School.
“I was walking to school one day with two of my friends. I was supposed to ride the bus, but I didn’t listen to my mom,” Kelly said. “I had this Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket, and it was the coolest thing to me.”
That’s when two men approached Kelly and his friends.
“They said, ‘Give it up,’ and my two lifelong buddies take off running and leave me by myself,” Kelly said. “I ran home and told my mom that I got robbed. So she called the police, and it was a Richland County deputy that showed up.”
“His name was Rocky King, I will never forget that. He left and came back in about 30 minutes and had my jacket in his hand and asked, ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ And I thought, ‘He is the man.’”
Dwayne King, 64, said he was proud when he found out last year that the young boy he returned that Starter jacket to became the deputy chief of CPD.
“As a law enforcement officer, you come in contact with so many people, and you usually remember the bad times,” King said. “It is something for all officers to remember: You don’t know when you might be influencing someone and it might be positive.”
‘A great communicator’
Kelly became interested in the Columbia Police Department’s Explorers program after that experience when King brought his jacket back.
The Explorers teaches kids from the ages of 14 to 21 what it’s like to be a police officer.
“He wasn’t old enough to be an Explorer yet,” said retired Capt. Estelle Young, who was in charge of the program at the time Kelly was attending,. “So, I told him he would be my mascot. He was energetic and willing to do everything the bigger kids would do.”
Kelly became the post’s president when he turned 14 and remained the president for the next five to six years, Young said.
“He loved law enforcement, loved people and loved doing what was right. I knew that in the future, all of those things would come to fruition,” Young said. “He believed that one day he was going to be chief.”
Kelly graduated from Columbia High School and then from South Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“I graduated from college on a Saturday, and started working the following Monday at the department,” Kelly said. “I became a residential patrol officer, and I worked in (Columbia’s) Waverly (neighborhood) for two or three years, interacting with the residents.”
“It was a lot of walking on foot, sitting on porches and drinking a lot of coffee to get to know what were the problems of the neighborhood,” Kelly said. “You have to ingrain yourself in the area that you work and become a part of the community. You really have to bring the public in and make them part of the agency.”
According to Michael Hill, the president of Hyatt Park/Keenan Terrace Neighborhood Association, communication is one of Kelly’s strongest attributes.
“What has always struck me about him is how he is a great communicator with the public. He listens to peoples’ concerns,” Hill said.
Kelly said that between 2000 and 2004, he and his partner, Edwards, decreased the crime rate dramatically in Waverly neighborhood.
Edwards described Kelly as a workaholic.
“That’s just how he is. If someone shows him a problem he will not rest until he finds a solution to that problem,” Edwards said.
Kelly’s work ethic and leadership were significant factors in his promotion to second-in-command under new Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, who came to Columbia from West Virginia.
“One thing that struck me with Melron is that he is a quiet leader and respected externally in the community and internally in the ranks,” Holbrook said. “One thing that I heard over and over again is that he stood for everything that is right within the Columbia Police community.”
Kelly finds time to enjoy the simple things in life as well.
“I enjoy rolling around on the floor with my kid, and being a dad,” Kelly said. “I can’t rap or dance, but you’ll probably find me on a Saturday at home with my kids or out doing something with them.”
Ellen Fishburne Triplett, former president of Hyatt Park/ Keenan Terrace Neighborhood Association, said she remembers Kelly as a family man. Triplett said Kelly would often bring his family to Eau Claire tree lighting ceremony at Christmas.
“He impressed me from day one,” Triplett said. “It is good news for Columbia and a very wise move on the chief’s part. We miss him, and we liked having him here as our captain.”
Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305.