Veldon Harris ’90 was sworn in as Captain of County Detectives for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office earlier this month, becoming the first African American to ever hold the position in the county. “It is truly an honor,” Harris said of his historic appointment, which is only the latest achievement in career that spans 19 years with the prosecutor’s office.
Harris went to work in the prosecutor’s office shortly after graduating from TCNJ with a degree in law and justice. He was originally assigned to the special investigations unit. It was a demanding assignment, Harris explained, that required him to work undercover and sometimes go days without seeing his family. He credits his wife, Tracey (Class of 1992), with keeping the family together during that time.
“It’s like that old saying, ‘Behind every good man there is a great woman.’ Tracey has been there and supported me through my whole career…and I am really thankful for her,” Harris said.
After his five-year stint with special investigations, Harris moved to homicide. It was during that time that he helped crack a 21-year-old “cold case.” In 1981, Trenton resident Norma Williams “died under unusual circumstances,” Harris explained. According to newspaper reports her death was originally thought to be a hit-and-run. But in 2002, the woman’s sons—who were ages 7 and 3 at the time of their mother’s death—came forward and said they witnessed their mother’s boyfriend, Walter Townsend, beat her to death.
The investigation by Harris and a fellow Trenton Police detective led to a successful murder prosecution against Townsend. A 2002 The Times of Trenton editorial hailed the “outstanding prosecution and investigation that took place in the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office,” mentioning Harris (as well as Kimberly Lacken, a TCNJ Class of 1988 graduate who prosecuted the case) by name, saying both were “to be commended for the effort and energy they put into” getting the conviction.
Looking back, Harris said that he is “particularly proud” of his work on the Williams case. “When you’re working in homicide, and you’re able to solve cases and give closure to families, it’s a good feeling,” he said.
In the years following, Harris was promoted to Sergeant and then Lieutenant of Detectives, and supervised numerous investigative units within the prosecutor’s office. The historic nature of his latest promotion to Captain has not escaped him, but he was quick to acknowledge his predecessors who helped make it possible.
“There were two African-American lieutenants who came before me in the office: the late Earnest McNeil and Retired Lt. John Fredericks,” Harris said. “Those guys really paved the way and opened doors for me, and I am very appreciative of that fact.”
Although the day-to-day responsibilities of his post are still being worked out, Harris will be overseeing two sergeants and 15-20 detectives. He said that he looks forward to continuing to serve the community. “I take pride in protecting the citizens of Mercer County,” Harris said. “It’s truly an honor to be in the field and make a difference in people’s lives.”
During his time at TCNJ, Harris was part of the College’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Program, which provides access to the College for highly motivated, yet economically disadvantaged students who exhibit the potential for academic and career success. “EOF opened up so many doors for me,” Harris said. “I might not have had the opportunity to go to college without it…. My family just did not have the financial means to send me.”
He credits many EOF staff members from his days as a student—Joyce Perkins, James “Butter” Allen ’72, Robert Alston ’76 (now associate director of student financial services), and James Boatwright (now director of academic support programs) in particular, he said—with helping him be both a better student and better person.
“EOF was very instrumental in my development, and it also taught me the importance of giving back,” Harris said. It is a lesson he has carried through in life, whether coaching his sons’ sports teams, or reaching out to young people in trouble just to be “someone in their corner,” he explained.
“Going through the EOF Program instilled in me the discipline, the hard work ethics, and the drive to succeed,” Harris said. “There were struggles of course, but going through those struggles at a young age prepared me for my career. My outlook now is that there is nothing a person can’t do if they put their mind to it. You just have to work hard, be persistent, and have that strong drive to succeed.”