PROGRESSIVE POLICE CHIEF POSITIVELY IMPACTS RURAL POLICING
By Karen L. Bune
Policing in rural communities presents
Law enforcement issues that pertain to rural areas are varied and are often uniquely different than those affecting urban areas. Effective leadership is vital in response to the issues that affect rural localities and a multi-faceted, progressive approach by a chief is a valuable asset to such communities.
Chief Dennis Butler
of the Ottawa, Kansas Police Department is keenly attuned to the issues facing both urban and rural communities. Prior to his arrival as Chief in Ottawa, Butler had a long career in the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department where he began working in 1980 as a patrol officer. He moved through the ranks and held various positions there throughout his tenure. He retired as a Captain from that department in 2004 to become Chief of the Ottawa Police Department.
The rural community and small police department in Ottawa is quite a contrast to the large police department in urban Alexandria, Virginia. Chief Butler’s
department is small—26 sworn officers including the chief.
Butler quickly discovered that smaller, rural departments have fewer financial resources and, consequently, Butler has been creative in finding ways to get the job done. Chief Butler says, “We have a healthy overtime budget but we definitely need more officers. There has to be political will to do this. You’re not out there by yourself”.
Chief Butler constantly asks for feedback—not just from administrative and command staff-- but from the officers as well.
Not long after his arrival on the job, he provided an employment survey to all the officers in the department to obtain their thoughts and ideas. He quickly discovered that officers were not accustomed to having input or offering suggestions because previously they had been told what to do. Butler heeded their feedback and made changes in the department to make it more participatory and inclusive.
He has provided voice mail and email for all officers department-wide, and he has opened the lines of communication.
As a result, officers are still adjusting to the fact they can voice their opinions to the chief knowing he will listen. They are now eager to serve on committees and help shape the department into the type of organization that Butler envisions for the future.
One month after Butler arrived in Kansas, a small town police chief arrived to visit and gave him some advice. He said, “Whatever you do, take it slow. Too much change too fast won’t be well received”.
Reflecting upon that advice, Butler states, “I did what I thought needed to be done”.
In his first month on the job, Chief Butler
learned that domestic violence is a critical issue in the community. He received three unsolicited visits by victims of domestic violence who relayed to him they received no support from anyone. Thus, Butler did not waste time seeking a solution. He learned of a grant that was designed for rural areas, and he applied for it. His goal is to form a domestic violence unit in his police department as well as to have an advocate for women’s transitional services. He also wants to obtain additional cars and equipment.
Butler recognizes that cultural barriers exist in his community, and there is a lack of understanding and knowledge concerning the cycle of violence. Domestic violence victims in rural communities
often do not have the same job opportunities that are available in urban areas. Victims are dependent, often live on the farm, and they have no income, skills, or training.
In Ottawa, there are a lot of young brides ranging in age from 18-20.
Butler is battling the mentality that domestic violence is a private matter and police should not be involved. Chief Butler recognizes it is critical to educate the officers, and he acknowledges there must be a clear policy of expectation concerning what needs to be done. He has
followed the model of Alexandria Virginia’s Domestic Violence Intervention Projects where all stakeholders on the issue-- mental health, the county attorney, social services, probation and parole, and women’s
transitional services-- work collaboratively. In his community, these professionals meet on a regular basis to discuss problems, obtain input, and hear about successes within their respective agencies.
is faced with geographical boundary issues in his area. The Ottawa Police Department has jurisdiction only in the city. The Sheriff has jurisdiction in both the city and the county and, therefore has jurisdiction for domestic violence victims transitioning between the county and the city. Consequently, the police department and sheriff’s department closely and cooperatively work together to deal with domestic violence issues that intersect jurisdictional boundaries.
For victims of domestic violence to obtain a protective order in Butler’s jurisdiction, they do not have to call the police but can simply make a visit to the Office of the Clerk of the Court, file an
application, and obtain a temporary order for one week. A domestic violence report is not filed, and there is no police interaction. Chief Butler
has initiated an offer to the clerk’s office indicating that, upon request, he will dispatch an officer to take a report of any criminal violations before a protective order is granted. The purpose of this is to provide judges more information than what is given by the respondent’s version of events, and it also curtails the number of
frivolous orders. This procedure was implemented into formal policy on May 15, 2005.
In contrast to urban police departments, small departments in rural areas do not have as much specialization,
and most of the officers are generalists.
Therefore, everyone contributes to the efforts of the department including patrol officers, detectives, and others. Teamwork is an essential part of the law enforcement effort in this rural community, and officers willingly assist their colleagues with various tasks.
Chief Butler states, “People realize that working in an agency this size, it has to be done.”
Prior to his arrival, Butler learned that many things had been
done informally. He has worked on implementing accreditation-type policies within his department to reflect best practices in policing. Chief Butler has
obtained a lot of support from the City Manager and positive input from the city itself. In all departmental endeavors, he emphasizes quality.
In contrast to the former chief of the department who did not wear his uniform, Chief Butler wears his on a daily basis; it is a visible symbol of the
department. People know who he is and officers identify with him. Butler has received significant positive feedback regarding this change.
Citizens are very interested in what officers do and the department’s activities.
n response, Chief Butler
initiated changing the shoulder patch and car design to be more reflective of the community. Citizen expectations, according to Butler, are more realistic; there are no vocal letters to the editor of local newspapers demanding change.
If a mistake is made in his community, Chief Butler will visit a citizen’s home and he will personally provide an apology, tell the city manager what is being
done to correct the situation, and he will implement a policy for change. There is no on-going recrimination by citizens or politicians, and Butler has not received any negative feedback.
Some were initially
skeptical of the chief and his progressive ideas, and they wondered how the community would receive him. Since his arrival in Ottawa, a lot of people have visited Chief Butler
privately and spoken to him in confidence. Many are well known in the community, and they have been victims of domestic violence. They have told the chief they are glad he is doing something about domestic violence and that he considers it a serious issue. Butler responds, “I approach things seriously and professionally.”
has utilized his training and experience to employ best practices, and he has contemplated how to get things done in his rural community. Resources are not as plentiful and he states, “You don’t have the same resources and consistent funding stream as you do in a larger city. It is very difficult to obtain additional funding for anything.” Consequently, Butler has researched grant opportunities for small agencies such as his, and he has looked for grant sources outside the federal government (i.e. non-profits, insurance). He realizes the need to “think outside the box”, and he recently spent approximately 60 hours of his own time working on a grant for his department. Chief Butler comments, “It’s great to read about new ideas being developed in larger agencies but as you read it, there is not enough attention paid to how you apply those procedures to agencies with limited personnel.”
The closure rate on cases in Ottawa is impressive.
In Butler’s department, the closure rate is above 40% in contrast to general closure rates of 20-25%. Many officers who work in Ottawa were born and raised there and are acquainted with everyone. Therefore, the officers are readily able to develop informants for drug cases and to recover stolen property. Informants provide the police good information, and they are not concerned about people knowing they report information to the police. Citizens want to get involved.
has also made impressive progress in the area of media relations. Prior to his arrival, the relationship between the media and the police department was not a good one. Now, however, Chief Butler allows officers to talk to the media and reporters are allowed to come to the scene of an incident.
acknowledges the fact that he does a lot of basic work himself. Before he can delegate certain tasks, he recognizes he must enhance professional development of his staff. When he leaves the police department, part of his desired legacy includes the commitment to enable someone from within to be promoted to chief rather than having to look elsewhere outside the department.
transition from urban policing to law enforcement in the rural community of Ottawa, Kansas has been a distinctly challenging experience. He has drawn on his broad range of experience, knowledge, street savvy, and skills to implement necessary changes and enhance the level and quality of law enforcement to meet the needs of public safety in his community. He states, “Coming from a larger community to a smaller rural community was a personal and professional adjustment.”
Chief Butler has made tremendous strides in his first year on the job in Ottawa.
His willingness to listen to the issues and concerns of his officers
and the citizenry has encouraged a greater degree of participation at all levels that has resulted in a rural police department that has become increasingly progressive and responsive. Butler’s
focus on the revision of policies to reflect best practices in policing and his determination-- coupled with his dedication-- to improve morale among his officers and provide improved service delivery to the community is an approach that Chief Butler is markedly making a reality.
***Karen L. Bune is a Victim Specialist/Legal Assistant in the domestic
violence unit of the State’s Attorney’s Office for Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
She is a nationally recognized speaker and consultant on victim issues. Ms. Bune is a Fellow of the Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and is Board Certified in domestic violence. She can be reached at Kbune@gmu.edu
Copyright 2005 Karen L. Bune
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