Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and her son, Phoenix Sun big man Alan Williams, have had a heck of a year – one that was two-plus decades in the making.

Williams on Williams

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: People Issue: October 2017
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Jeri and Alan Williams joke around during a family photo shoot. Photo by Michael Woodall.

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and her son, Phoenix Sun big man Alan Williams, have had a heck of a year – one that was two-plus decades in the making.

“Your hair looks good,” Jeri Williams says as way of greeting her son at the busy outpost of Flower Child in Central Phoenix. It’s a normal, not-quite-glowing appraisal from your average mom, suggesting the hair in question was looking a little scraggly not so long ago. Her son, Alan, does that thing kids do when their parent draws attention to them – a sort of half laugh/half tsk to change the subject while not so subtly patting the top of his head to make sure it does, in fact, look good. 

City of Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and forward/center for the Phoenix Suns Alan Williams: your typical, run-of-the-mill mom and son.

Of course, it’s hard to understand their averageness when mom stands 5-foot-11 and is dressed in full blues, gun on hip, while son – nicknamed Big Sauce – towers over everyone in the place at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds. Plus, they’re black, and this is Arizona, where African-Americans constitute less than 5 percent of the population, with meager representation in the state Legislature to match. (The number is one.) So, yeah, the two stand out.

Adding to the spotlight, it’s been a remarkable year for the Williamses. October 28 marks one year since Jeri, 52, became the first female, and second African-American, to head up the state’s largest police force. Meanwhile, in July, 24-year-old Alan signed a three-year, $17 million contract with the Suns, becoming the second native to play for Phoenix in franchise history. 

“Our lives are uniquely parallel,” Jeri says. “I don’t know many people who are tied at the hip like [us], who are following their careers and passions.” In 2011, as Alan committed to college ball at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Jeri accepted her first police chief post in Oxnard, California, after 22 years rising through the ranks in Phoenix. When Alan graduated in 2015 without an NBA deal, instead playing for the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles in China for a year, Jeri was being considered for the top cop job in Phoenix. Four months after Alan got his first 10-day contract with the Suns in March 2016, Jeri was named Phoenix Police Chief.

“Both of them have hit two decades of honing their skills,” says Cody Williams, Jeri’s husband and Alan’s father. (Second son, Cody Jr., is a student at UCSB.) A Maricopa County justice of the peace and former Phoenix city councilman, Cody says they owe their success to training and years of long, hard work – since she entered the police academy in the late ‘80s and he enrolled in youth basketball at 5.

“Our story is a story of preparation,” as Jeri puts it. Starting with their stomachs.

After graduating from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Jeri applied to be a flight attendant but was told she was “too chubby.” When “the airlines told me I’d have to lose weight… I knew that wasn’t happening because I loved food too much,” she laughs. Instead, she landed in a City of Phoenix employment office, where a posting for a police officer job piqued her interest. “I loved the idea that no day was ever the same. I loved the idea that there was pay equity,” Jeri says.

Passing the rigorous physical tests of the police academy required her to get in shape. Her then-boyfriend Cody signed them up for a gym membership. “When it came to working out and being prepared for the academy, I did everything I could to be prepared,” she says of the difference between getting in shape “to protect and serve people” versus losing weight to look better at 30,000 feet.

Alan, too, was told his body would prevent him from achieving his career goals. “They told me I was too chubby my whole life – to play in the NBA, to play Division I [in college], to play varsity [at Phoenix’s North High School],” he says. Taking a page from his mom’s playbook, Alan says he usually ignored the naysayers: “You can sit there and be a victim and believe that they’re right, or you can say, ‘Try to stop me.’” But when he reached nearly 300 pounds his sophomore year of college, Alan says his coach told him he needed to make a change. “[He said] ‘If you drop the weight and change the way you live your life, you can be an NBA player’… That’s all I needed. As soon as I left that meeting, I called Mom and said, ‘You gotta change your cooking habits.’”

“And I did,” Jeri says, trading out mac and cheese, fried catfish and tacos for grilled chicken, green beans and fresh fruit for Sunday night dinners, which mother and son ate together while stationed in Oxnard and Santa Barbara – just a 45-minute drive apart. “I refuse to let [him] fail,” she says. “We don’t fail, it’s not in our DNA.” 

It’s this tough love approach that Jeri says has been part of her parenting MO from the jump. “It’s a balance of love and support, but at the same time, I’m not going to coddle you,” she says, recalling an instance, years ago, when Alan was playing in a tournament as a young kid. “He went up and got fouled or fell – he was literally on the ground. I walked over to him and whispered in his ear, ‘Unless you are bleeding, you need to get off the floor and take care of your business.’”

Rejecting the title of perfectionist, Jeri says she prefers to think of herself and her family as people “who see things through” – a mantra fostered over years on the force. Not that she burdened her sons with any of that while they were growing up. “What you’ll find with most police officers and firefighters – public safety people – is I’m not going to come home and talk about my day with my family, so it’s almost that safety zone,” she says. “It’s not his job to worry about me.” 

Now, work is discussed a lot more. Whereas he used to comfort himself knowing his mother wore “bulletproof armor” (a safety vest) while out patrolling on the night shift, these days Alan says he’s not as worried about her in her new role as chief. 

Both enter the fall with challenges at work. Alan will be fighting for playing time amongst a talented crop of young players, including first-round pick Josh Jackson and second-year forward Dragan Bender. Jeri will face scrutiny of her officers’ use of force during the protests outside President Donald Trump’s rally in Downtown Phoenix in late August. At press time, the police department was conducting an internal investigation of officers’ response, including tear gas and pepper spray deployed into the crowds, after intense public backlash at a council meeting. The chief has defended her department, saying she was proud of her officers’ professionalism in a tense situation.

“Whatever he does will impact me, whatever I do will impact him,” Jeri says of their respective career decisions. “We’re tied and connected. But at the same time, he has to make his own decisions, and there might come a time where I have to respect a decision I don’t necessarily agree with.” 

But no matter what, she says, the family is always “Team Mom” when she needs support, and “Team Alan” when he needs it.

“People will tell me, ‘Hey you’re Big Sauce’s mom!’ That’s the best compliment,” she says.

Alan echoes the sentiment: “They’ll say, ‘Hey your mom is the chief of police! She’s doing a great job.’ That’s the best compliment.”

“He is a face of an organization. I am a face of an organization,” says Jeri Williams. Think of the Phoenix Suns motto, “We Are Phoenix,” she says, “He’s Phoenix. I’m Phoenix. We are Phoenix.” The two Williamses dish on their favorite parts of being back home.

Alan: “It’s beautiful, it’s hot… It has great food, great views. But I think the best part of Phoenix is the people. I’ve been around the world and the people [here] are some of the best people out there.”

Jeri: “It’s the connections, it’s the kindness shown to others, it’s the great restaurants... but the icing on the cake is I get to watch [Alan] do what he was born to do, and I get to see it at least 42 times in the [Talking Stick Resort Arena].”

Alan: “42 times, baby!”