Joy Ashford Via Delaware News Journal
The advice of the late New Castle City Police Chief Eugene Petty was “beyond this world," according to his daughter, Consuella Petty.
She called him almost every day when she commuted home from Philadelphia, sometimes to pick his brain, sometimes just to talk. His best piece of advice, she recalled, was “not to let other people define who I was.”
The determination behind those words — to carve a path for himself despite the expectations of others — defined the trailblazing life of Chief Petty. He died at home from natural causes on Jan. 26. He was 93.
At the ripe age of 17, the then-underage teenager insisted on enlisting in the army to fight in World War II. After serving in the military police, Petty decided to become a police officer, coming home to New Castle County where he was born and raised.
Life as a Delaware police officer in the ’60s wasn’t easy. Petty may have scored the highest in his unit on the police exam, but he was the only Black officer in the New Castle City Police Department for years and lacked the support of many of his colleagues.
Regardless, Petty grew to become an “important figure in the city” and a “pillar of the community,” according to New Castle City's current Chief of Police Richard McCabe.
He quickly earned a reputation for excellence. In one incident early on in the force, he and a team of officers were sent into Dobbinsville to capture two particularly dangerous robbers.
“He first started walking out with a group of the police force,” Petty’s daughter recounted, “but then he said he looked around and found out that he was all alone.”
But Petty was “not going to be deterred," she said. "To every officer’s surprise, my father came out with every single person that they were looking for, with their hands up — unfazed, untouched.”
Petty always believed, according to Delaware State Police Sgt. Ray Peden, “your most powerful weapon isn’t your firearm or your shotgun, it’s your ability to communicate.”
Peden described Petty’s communication skills as his “greatest asset” and recounted how Petty became a “bridge-builder” between the New Castle City police officers and those in the community who mistrusted them. In 1975, he was promoted to chief of police — the first Black man in New Castle City ever to hold the position and one of the first Black chiefs statewide.
To many who knew him, Petty was “ahead of his time” – Peden described him as someone who “had a vision for where the department would be in 20 years.”
David Baylor, a Delaware state trooper and mentee of Petty’s, explained that it was after talking extensively with Petty that he decided to join the force.
“It’s a tough career, and it’s going to be tough being a Black trooper,” he recounted Petty telling him. “But it’s an opportunity to make a difference.”
Approaching his job with the principle that “forgiveness is key,” Petty extended compassion to all those whose lives he touched — and even some he arrested ended up thanking him.
In one story from his daughter, Petty was the only person on the force who managed to capture a suspect after chasing him through a cemetery.
“I never forgot that day that your father chased and arrested me and brought me in,” Petty's daughter, Consuella, recalled the man telling her.
Rather than putting him in jail, Petty gave the man a chance to “turn his life around,” she said. He’d always believed in second chances.
After fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a police officer, Petty, as McCabe described it, still stayed impressively active in the department after he retired in 1983. He still came by the station often – he didn’t tell you what to do, but he did ask a lot of questions, McCabe said.
“You knew you better have the right answer, I can tell you that,” McCabe said.
Petty also attended every International Association of Chiefs of Police conference up until he was 90 years old.
in many ways, Petty helped bring his community together.
“I know it was tough during his era,” Baylor said, adding that “some people in the Black community probably saw him as a sellout.”
But Petty had a passion for protecting those others might take advantage of, and Baylor believed that “he turned those people around and he earned a lot of respect.”
He was “always looking out for what he thought was the little guy,” as his daughter saw it. After teaching himself to build houses by observing construction sites, Petty built a set of townhouses on property he owned and ensured the property prices always stayed at a fixed rate.
“He always felt that people needed an opportunity to live in a decent place without feeling like they were always being ripped off,” Consuella Petty said.
As Petty’s daughter described it, her father wasn’t just a protector of his community, but a true family man as well.
One of his favorite family traditions was Christmas dinner — he was known for buying an exotic mystery meat and requiring everyone who came to Christmas dinner to guess what it was. He also loved baking cakes and was famous for preparing them in a pan on a stovetop.
“To this day, I still don’t know anybody else who is able to bake an applesauce cake in a pan,” Consuella said, laughing.
Petty's funeral will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 25 at the Congo Funeral Home Legacy Center. Donations in his memory can be made to the Buttonwood Colored School Museum and Community Center.