Person of the Week: Ella Bully-Cummings

Nov. 14, 2003 -- Ella Bully-Cummings is making history at a time when her city — and her state, the federal government, and every cop on the beat — is waiting to see if she has what it takes to be Detroit's first female police chief.

Bully-Cummings remembers how she first realized women could become police officers.

"I was a young teenager and I was the cashier at a ticket window at the Mercury Theater," she told ABCNEWS. "I was sitting there selling tickets one day and I saw a police car pull up and a female in full uniform stepped out of the police car … and it struck me as really strange because all your life you grew up thinking that this was a man's job."

By the time she was 19, she too wore a police uniform. She had become a cop in Detroit, the 10th largest city in the country.

Now 46, Bully-Cummings has just become the police chief — the boss of 4,700 cops.

"Because I am a female, I have the weight of all the women of the world on my shoulders right now," she said. "My biggest challenge is getting to understand that, as a woman, there is no difference between me running the police department than a man."

That's not her only challenge. She is up against a police force so troubled that the Department of Justice has ordered it to reform itself — while Washington watches every move.

Bully-Cummings also believes that growing up in Detroit was a challenge in itself.

"I never had a room of my own," she said. "When you sat down for dinner, you had to make sure you were there so that you had food. When you wanted to say something you had to be loud so that everyone could hear you over the other children. But it was also a time of closeness for me."

The second-oldest in a family of seven children, Bully-Cummings seems to get much of her strength from her family. Her father was in the service during World War II and met her mother in Japan. After the war, her dad worked as a television repairman and later died in 1998. The family struggled financially.

Bully-Cummings sold real-estate before she became a police officer. She helped pay the college tuition for her younger siblings because, she said, after five of them, it was her time. She later received a law degree, while working her way up in the police force.

Her colleagues say she is serious, mature, tough, fair and no-nonsense. Bully-Cummings, herself, hopes that she has made her father proud.

"The evening I was appointed to this position, my family and I went to dinner," she said. "As we were sitting at the dinner table there was music playing in the background and it was one of my dad's favorite songs by Louis Armstrong, 'What a Wonderful World' was playing at that moment. My brother got up from his seat and came over and whispered in my ear, 'Daddy knows.' "

There won't be much time for dinner now. Detroit is the second most dangerous city in the country. Some of the accusations against her cops are so appalling, she says, that she's seen them cringe while waiting to be questioned by her. We do not, she says, need police offers who are not in control.

What a job.

"You have to be serious about policing," she said. "No other profession in this world has placed in the hands of a member the ultimate power of life and death and officers have that power but they have to use that power judiciously."

And so Bully-Cummings is World News Tonight's Person of the Week.