Norristown’s new chief of police has an MBA, an undergraduate business degree, and worked his way up through the ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department for more than two decades, starting on street patrol before finally becoming a full-time inspector.
Earlier this week, the Norristown Municipal Council unanimously chose Derrick Wood to lead its 70-officer department. Wood’s appointment is dependent upon a completed background check.
“I’m excited,” Wood said in an interview with WHYY News. “What lured me to the city was the diversity, strong community, the leadership, the city is on the rise, and I just wanna be part of that, and help strengthen the relationship between the police and the community.”
He wants Norristown to be safer, which requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, but not just from his police officers — the public plays a role in it as well, Wood said. His philosophy is that there is no such thing as “bad neighborhoods,” just people doing bad things.
Wood pointed to his role in Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention program, with the aim of reducing gun violence in Philly by utilizing community support, social services, and law enforcement-community partnerships to “focus on the small and active number of people driving the violence.”
“We did identify some people who may have been people escalating violence. You go to the people, you talk to them, you give them resources, and you can help them,” Wood said, also acknowledging that others had to be held accountable.
In Norristown, Wood will replace Mark Talbot, who left to become the top cop in Hampton, Virginia. For eight years, Talbot oversaw the department in the racially diverse Montgomery County seat, which is home to about 35,000 people.
As one of the few Black police chiefs in the Philadelphia suburbs, Talbot trained a different lens on the issue of police culture during the 2020 protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent Derek Chauvin verdict. Talbot questioned, for example, whether communities should continue to bear “the full weight of a police department” during traffic violations.
“I think that we’ve got to pay attention to all of the routine things that we do that are coercive that feel like a foot on the proverbial neck of people who are vulnerable. From towing cars, to making demands, to giving out citations, to arresting, to using our tasers, we’ve got to look at all those things — and eliminate every instance that’s not the best idea at the time,” Talbot told WHYY News in April.
Since Talbot’s departure, Norristown Municipal Council has been seeking his replacement with the help of the community. The vast pool of candidates came down to just two: Wood and Lt. Frank Lombardo of the South Brunswick Township, New Jersey, Police Department.
Both had a chance to meet with the public during a community forum in October. Angelique Hinton, president of the Norristown NAACP, got to see the candidates up close.
Hinton thought both were qualified for the job, but she said Wood is exactly what Norristown needs at this moment. Her reasoning is that Wood wants to speak with the people before making any big changes.
“I think in a community like Norristown, that’s critically important, because it is very diverse. And so I think when you’re going into those community policing philosophies, you have to really lean into the community, to try to understand what will best serve them,” Hinton said.
One month later, Wood emerged as a victor. He has been with the Philadelphia Police Department for nearly 24 years, serving in various positions.
Crandall Jones, Norristown’s municipal administrator, essentially will be managing Wood on a day-to-day basis. He said that filling the hole Talbot left will be tough, but that Wood can get the job done.
“He has the right temperament for Norristown. He totally touched on all of the things in terms of what council expects as far as connection with the community, putting together the right strategies for Norristown, and he supports the council’s vision of what policing should be in the municipality,” Jones said.
Wood said he has some ideas for the department up his sleeve, but he doesn’t want to lay his cards on the table just yet. He wants to wait until he speaks with everyone first.
“I don’t want to come in with preconceived notions. I kinda want to listen to people, what the officers have to say, what the leaders have to say, what the community has to say. And then we can work together to create some solutions to make the city safer,” Wood said.
He added that any decisions that might be made to change policing in Norristown would be data-driven and not “knee-jerk” reactions.
Hinton said the job won’t be easy. It will be the same challenge that Talbot faced: a community that underwent a so-called racial reckoning yet hasn’t seen any of the promised policy changes.
“Montgomery County has been reluctant to kind of move forward on some of the actual policy changes we need to see with criminal justice. And so I think he’s going to still encounter struggles with trying to have a community-based policing philosophy, and trying to do what he can to really try to still deal with crime, but also really looking at reducing incarceration and all the things that we talked about last year,” Hinton said.
Pending a clean background check, Wood will soon be sworn in — a date is still to be determined.
According to Jones, however, Norristown is pushing the process forward as quickly as possible, so that the same council that selected Wood will be able to swear him in before its last meeting on Dec. 21.