Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Austin native returns to run police department

Leader staff writer

Austin’s new police chief says he is grateful for his six years at the Jacksonville Police Department, which he calls “one of the top-notch police departments in the state.”

But he’s happy to be back in Austin where he grew up and where he started work as a part-time police officer eight years ago.

John Staley, 29, moved into his new position on March 16, taking over from interim Police Chief Woody McEuen, who replaced former Chief J.J. Martin when he left in January to head the public safety department at ASU-Beebe.

Staley was one of 11 applicants for the job, which Mayor Bernie Chamberlain calls an astounding number considering that the job pays $545 a week plus benefits.

But Staley says the money is less important than the work.

“Law enforcement isn’t about the money; it’s about making a difference in your community,” Staley said. “I think the sign says Austin has a population of 608 but as I drive around looking at the houses, I think it’s between 2,000 and 3,000.

“This is home,” he said.

“And it’s not just about enforcement; it’s about being community-oriented. It’s kind of like being a preacher. It’s a calling. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to do it very long.”

Chamberlain said she was impressed with Staley’s work experience and training. In Jacksonville, he was a patrol sergeant working he midnight shift. But he also had worked as a school resource officer and he was trained in crisis negotiation.

“He’s got a good personality and he’s been around,” the mayor said. “I think he’ll do a good job for us.”

His first major undertaking as police chief will be a “round-up” Saturday when police officers will knock on doors and serve outstanding warrants. Again, Staley says it’s not about the money the city could potentially gain in unpaid fines.

Having a warrant hanging over your head is a needless burden, he said. It is far better for speeders and other minor offenders to go to court and make payments on their fines than to worry about it.

Staley says he prefers warning tickets for traffic violations whenever possible.

“We don’t want to punish people. We want to educate them,” he said, adding that good law enforcement officers are a lot like teachers.

“Law enforcement is about communication,” he said.

Although he has run twice for Lonoke County sheriff, Staley said he won’t run next year. His goal now is to get his officers better trained and make the Austin Police Department as good as it can be, he said.