The Hillsboro Police Department is officially under the leadership of a new chief. After rumors - and earlier suggestions by the mayor himself - that the administration might look outside the department for a new chief, it’s good that they chose from within.
Actually, the law dictates that existing officers get first crack at the chief’s position, but last year Mayor Drew Hastings – understandably perturbed that a police officer had dedicated patrol time toward building a private citizen complaint about his residency – insinuated in remarks to officers that he might go through local contenders for the job like a lawnmower through grass until he could bring someone in from outside.
That flash of anger has passed, and the mayor and Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, appear to be sincere in giving new Chief Todd Whited their full support. They want him to succeed.
That’s good. Ideally, the best candidates for leadership positions – be they police departments or other organizations - should come from within whenever possible. Based on conversations with a variety of people involved in law enforcement in both Hillsboro and Highland County, Chief Whited is a well-trained and respected police officer.
The Hillsboro Police Department endured a few high-profile incidents last year that made it the focus of scrutiny or criticism – the unauthorized “residency” probe, the North High Street crash of two police cruisers, and providing a ride home, well outside of town, to an allegedly intoxicated individual who proceeded to get into a vehicle and wreck it.
But those incidents aside, HPD is manned by and large by outstanding, dedicated men and women who want nothing more than to come to work and keep the city safe.
Nick Thompson served nearly three decades as chief and did a good job, dealing with various city administrations, many changes, and the challenges of fiscal and personnel issues in an adult and low-key fashion that for most of his tenure kept inter-department problems out of the headlines.
But new leadership provides new opportunities, primary among them a chance for the new chief to put his stamp on the department and set a tone of professionalism, behavior and protocol that is well-defined and soundly communicated.
Ninety-percent of problems that occur within any organization can be blamed on poor communication, and if Chief Whited does a good job of making sure on a regular basis that every officer on every shift clearly understands what he expects of them – and what he does not expect – his department will be in good shape.
Police officers earn a level of respect just by donning their uniforms and venturing out the door every day. In so doing, they make themselves targets – targets of the criminal class, targets of residents or business owners with a variety of complaints, targets for unwanted publicity that any action or response might bring.
It is a high-pressure job that is performed while dressed head-to-toe in the equivalent of a bull’s-eye, and that’s why anyone who would voluntarily pursue such a profession deserves a level of respect before they perform a single duty.
Of course, with that uniform also comes the power and authority of the state, and the ability to abuse such power. Police officers are human; therefore, especially in small towns, they come to know people they like and people they don’t like. Avoiding both favoritism and prejudice, whether based on personal or political reasons, is a paramount objective. Equal treatment under the law starts with the police officer on the street.
Most police officers are amazing people. A poster that has circulated on the Internet sums up a good police officer.
It starts with a taxpayer rather rudely asking the question, as some are prone to do, “Hey, police officer, I’m a taxpayer. You work for me. So tell me, what do you make?”
The officer replies, “I make holding your hand seem like the most important thing in the world when someone tried to hurt you. I make those annoying sirens seem like angels when you need them. I can make your child breathe when he stops. I make myself get out of bed at 3 a.m. to risk my life to save people I’ve never met.
“I make myself go to work for your family’s safety, a duty that I will die for. I make myself work birthdays, holidays, nights, anniversaries, and disasters. Today I might make the ultimate sacrifice to save your life. I make a difference, what do you make?”
Good luck and Godspeed, Chief Whited. And thank you to all the men and women of the Hillsboro Police Department, to all the police officers in other Highland County towns, to all sheriff’s office deputies, and to state patrol troopers who, every day, make a difference.
Gary Abernathy can be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter at @abernathygary.