WORDS by Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Tommy Norman
In the mid 1990s, the mere appearance of a police cruiser in some North Little Rock neighborhoods was cause for people to scatter, blinds to be drawn, walls to come up. A parked police car meant especially big trouble in the Black and poor neighborhoods, an indication a cop was here to book somebody or, residents believed, to hassle somebody.
Tommy Norman, in 1998 a newbie cop and a proud son of Dogtown, knew this code of the streets from his very first neighborhood patrol with the North Little Rock Police Department. But he parked his car anyway.
“At first I worked midnight shift,” he says. “Nobody was awake, and I didn’t care for that because the kind of officer that I am and my personality, I wanted to be around people. Then they put me on two-to-ten shift. This is a shift that I want to be on. There’s a lot of people out in the communities and the neighborhoods.”
“So, what I would do is, I would park my police car and I would walk. I tried to walk one or two blocks a shift, depending on how busy we were.”
In time, Tommy would bring bottled water and Gatorade, snacks, vouchers for new shoes, backpacks for underprivileged students or just a warm hug and encouragement along on his patrol. But for those first few walks, he had nothing but a smile and a twenty-ton conviction that things can be made better when someone cares enough to make the first move.
“Initially, I remember I’m walking down these streets and people would go inside their house, they would turn their backs. Some people wouldn’t speak to me because I’m a new officer, I’m a new face,” he said. “Although I did grow up in the city, me wearing that uniform, I had to reestablish my reputation because as we all know, not everyone trusts police officers. The badge is just not going to do it. You have to go out and earn that trust.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t know Tommy Norman now, and not just north of the river. On patrol or on his own time, wherever he goes – to playgrounds, visiting schools, in parks, at senior centers or hospitals – the yield is always the same, a smiling elder, a grateful homeless man, a beaming teen in a hospital bed, mobs of kids.
He’s also got his share of celebrity and big-time media fans – in addition to local press, the Today show did a segment on him in 2015 as did CNN which was tipped off to Tommy from an on-air shout-out by rapper Killer Mike, one of Tommy’s legions of social media followers.
But the best and most telling coverage he gets is that of his own design, through the videos he takes of his encounters that bring smiles to the millions who follow him worldwide on YouTube, Facebook and especially Instagram. But this is no Kardashian-esque self-promotion tour he’s on, each of his tens of thousands of posts tells of the power of loving your neighbor and challenging others to be their best while striving to be a better version of yourself.
Along the way, he’s become the walking Arkansas version of seven degrees of separation. Even if you’ve never met him, if you live in central Arkansas, you know someone who has, and that connects us all, pulling us into his orbit. It’s the best kind of celebrity, but celebrity just the same with its own weightiness and responsibility.
“It’s easy to say when you get home, and you take your uniform off that you leave your job at the front door. But my job is not just a job, it’s a way of life for me,” he says. “I took a different approach to policing as soon as I got out of the police academy. When I went to that two-to-ten shift, that’s when I decided to take a different approach. When my shift ends and I come home and take off my uniform, I don’t stop caring.”
Tommy Norman was born into a blue-collar family of nine on August 22, 1972, in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. He was spared, technically, from being the baby of the family by his four-minute-younger twin sister but is and has always been an unabashed mama’s boy. Even today, he credits his mother, Modina, for the steadfast morals and personal accountability that’s made him who he is.
“My mom always taught me, and all of my siblings, to care for other people and most importantly to care for people that maybe didn’t have as much as we had, people that didn’t look like us, people that maybe didn’t know what a smile or friendship was,” he says. “We learned from the best which was my mom. And thankfully, she’s still here today.”
Among the lessons Tommy learned early was the value of hard work. His mother’s wage working in nursing homes and home health care and that of his father Dean, a construction worker, fed nine kids, but with little left over, so the brood had to pitch in. Tommy mowed lawns in the summertime for extra money, a side hustle that provided its own valuable lessons and foretold of the life of service he would one day lead.
“I was out mowing grass at probably fourteen, fifteen years old, and I had probably mowed nine or ten yards,” he says. “I come home, grass covered my legs and grass all over me. I remember going to my room and turning on the TV. At the time, I was a huge Michael Jordan fan. I remember turning on the TV looking for the Chicago Bulls game but there wasn’t one on. There was an infomercial called Feed the Children. It’s where you can send money to another country to sponsor a family and in return, they send you a picture of the family.”
“So, I asked my mom, ‘Can you take this money that I made from mowing grass and send it off to help this family?’ She stopped and she looked at me and she said that she was fine with doing that, but these are people that we will never even meet. These are people that are strangers to you. I told her that it didn’t matter to me. This commercial really captured my heart and I really feel like at that time in my life, I knew what my calling was. In August, it will be thirty-five years ago that I really knew I wanted to live my life helping other people.”
As clear as that goal was, the means of carrying it out was anything but. Tommy didn’t head straight into law enforcement after graduating from North Little Rock’s Old Main High School in 1990 and was torn between health care and becoming a police officer, having worked for Baptist Health as a Certified Nursing Assistant, in nursing homes and at Centers for Youth and Families’ Stepping Stone youth shelter serving homeless children.
In fact, health care held the edge on his future when he applied to the North Little Rock Police Department. He did so thinking he wouldn’t get accepted anyway, and that would be that.
“I loved working with people. Didn’t matter their age, their race, as long as I was able to interact with people, especially people that, I think, society had forgotten about,” he says. “At the time, the nursing supervisor at Baptist Hospital in North Little Rock offered to send me to nursing school because she had heard and seen I worked so well with the patients.”
“I’d thought about being a police officer, but honestly didn’t have the confidence in myself that I could become one. I thought police officers were these big, muscular individuals who really didn’t get a chance to get out and interact with the community.”
Fate had other ideas, of course. Tommy hit the streets as an officer in 1998 with the intention of changing the face of policing in his hometown.
“Initially, my goal was to be able to step foot onto someone’s front lawn,” he says. “Your front lawn is pretty sacred. It’s a private area. Then I wanted to be able to make it onto their front porch. Then ultimately, when you get invited into someone’s house and they want to feed you or pour you a cup of coffee, that’s really special because inside of your home is even more of your private domain.”
“When you complete an application to be a police officer, there’s nowhere on that application that asks you what kind of heart you have. Do you have a heart for people? Are you just in it to go out and arrest people and pull people over? Thankfully for me, my mom taught me at a young age simply to be nice to people. There’s nothing wrong with being a police officer being nice.”
Over the next two decades-plus, Tommy’s personal police crusade, and his following, would grow to larger-than-life proportions. Ultimately, no one could have predicted the tragedy that lay ahead in his own family – the kind that would push his body and spirit past the breaking point. Part II of Tommy’s story will appear in our July issue.
Follow Officer Tommy Norman at facebook.com/tommy.norman.35574 or on Instagram at tnorman23.