Melvin C. High, beloved Sheriff and former Police Chief in Prince George’s County,
MD, dies at 78.
Sheriff Melvin C. High, a beloved and visionary law enforcement professional who served as the
elected Sheriff of Prince George’s County for 12 years after serving as the County’s Chief of
Police from 2003-2008, passed away on November 17 at the Washington Hospital Center. He
Sheriff High began his 53-year law enforcement career in Washington D.C. in 1969 in the
tumultuous aftermath of civil unrest and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was
a member of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, D.C. from 1969 until
1993, from which he retired as Assistant Chief of Police and 2 nd in command.
With so few Black officers on the D.C. police force when he began, Sheriff High spoke fondly of
how they helped each other but also saw themselves as standing between the frustrations of
the community and racial challenges within the department. He said the support they rendered
each other helped both white and Black officers.
As the Field Operations Officer in Washington, Sheriff High was responsible for citywide crime
prevention, criminal investigations, and the safe management of hundreds of annual parades,
festivals, demonstrations, and protests that occurred in the nation’s capital. Security
arrangements for President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration were among Sheriff High’s
responsibilities and he received a mayoral citation for commanding the successful investigation
and apprehension of a serial killer known as the “shotgun bandit”, who terrorized the District
for three months in 1993. He was responsible for implementation of MPD’s first community
policing initiative, CEP (Community Empowerment Policing).
Prior to joining the Prince George’s County Police Department, Sheriff High served as Chief of
Police for the city of Norfolk, Virginia. During his ten-year tenure, Sheriff High developed
Norfolk’s first community policing initiative, PACE (Police Assisted Community Enforcement),
which resulted in crime reduction each year of his administration except 1995. He introduced
crime prevention strategies such as CRO (Community Resource Officers), SRO (School Resource
Officers), Police Cadets, mobile office programs, and the expansion of tactical crime prevention
efforts. He revised recruitment and retention strategies that brought the Department to full
staffing, and increased the number of women, Black, and civilian professional staff. Chief High
raised the educational levels of the Department, with several members earning masters and
Sheriff High was quoted as saying that his approach to policing and life was about balance; he
credited his family for guiding him on a path to self-discipline – a path he said the military
helped him perfect. In addition to civilian professionals, there is a multitude of officers with
whom he served and who themselves became law enforcement leaders or retired from law
enforcement, for whom he is known as a mentor and role-model because of his knowledge,
dedication, sincerity, and commitment. Soft spoken and even keeled, he saw crime through an
analytical lens, always burrowing down to the humanity of issues, knowing that for every crime
there was a victim.
Sheriff High accepted the appointment to Chief of the Prince George’s County Police
Department (PGPD) in mid-2003. It was a department that was underfunded, understaffed and
under the cloud of two U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) investigations. His law enforcement
management experience and leadership skills were well-suited to the needs of PGPD. Sheriff
High laid a foundation for police reform and made changes in leadership that enabled
negotiations with the DOJ that closed the investigations. Police reform continued through a
Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) related to police use-of-force and a Consent Decree related
to canine handling that were executed on January 22, 2004. With executive staffing and focus
on reform, PGPD was released from canine oversight in early 2007 and from the MOA in 2010.
Under Sheriff High’s leadership, PGPD’s crime-fighting infrastructure was rebuilt, with
investment in vehicles, equipment, and technology. PGPD was first in the region to launch a
sophisticated marketing campaign to hire 150 new officers every year for five years, an effort
resulted in the hiring of 1,000 new police officers, bringing its complement to over 1,600 to
mitigate the effect of retirements and other attrition. He created the Office of Professional
Responsibility and other PGPD reforms that brought crime to its lowest level in 35 years by
2009 and which continued under new leadership.
Sheriff High was overwhelmingly elected for three terms as the Sheriff of Prince George’s
County, Maryland. He strived to build and develop the agency as the times demanded and as
law enforcement advanced. Through his leadership, the agency developed top tier training for
all employees. Because he understood the complexities of law enforcement contacts, sound
strategies, tactics, communication, and de-escalation were primary tools developed in each
Deputy to ensure their actions were both safe and fair for the community. Policies were
reviewed and updated to align with national best practices to deliver 21st Century policing.
Sheriff High was very proud the agency achieved full accreditation and was recertified every
year since that initial accomplishment in 2018. This achievement meant agency training, policy,
and proofs were aligned to those of a professional law enforcement agency. Opening the
agency to that outside review demonstrated transparency and accountable to the community.
Sheriff High created a high performing agency that has earned the community’s trust in a time
where too often police/community relations are strained. He added opportunities for upward
mobility in the agency always focused on oversight and professional service delivery. He
created a more diverse agency than at any time in its 326-year history.
Sheriff High was not a micro-manager, but rather sought to groom confident, independent
leaders. He credited the Marines for endowing him with the fortitude that anchors his
character. “The lesson I learned is you never quit, and you never give up; that the things worth
doing are really quite the toughest challenges, and when you meet those that will give you the
best feel for what you’ve done in life.” Sheriff High was the younger of two sons of a farmer and
teacher from Union County, Mississippi and said his call to serve came from his parents and was
rooted in his upbringing. “It was about the village and caring for one another. That was how I
was reared to make a difference in the world and try to make it a better place for having been
Sheriff High graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in biology and earned a
master’s degree from Southeastern University in the District of Columbia. He taught high school
science in Mississippi until he entered the Marines in 1967. He served on the front lines of
battle in Vietnam, earning several medals for his heroism in action.
Survivors include his wife Brenda, a retired reading teacher, with whom he resided in Upper
Marlboro, MD; his daughter Tracy, an attorney in private practice in New York City; son-in-law
Roman Johnson; 7-year-old grandson Christian; two nephews, Darrell and Bob; two nieces, Opal
and Angela; two grandnephews, Darrell and Quincy; grandniece, Janelle; and great-
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Charitable donations, in lieu of flowers, to the Maryland Chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors or the
American Heart Association.