Chief works on Chaffee image

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

CHAFFEE, Mo. -- Business owners of Chaffee are becoming accustomed to seeing Jeffrey G. Womack dropping by to say hello and to see how things are going. The affable Womack took over as Chaffee's new chief of police March 1. Since then he has been working to make sure people know the police department is a positive part of the community.

At the end of 2003, former police chief Larry Corn, a sergeant and a corporal resigned around the same time, causing people in Chaffee to wonder what was wrong in their police department.

City administrator John Chadd said they left for personal reasons.

"I know it had nothing to do with the police or the city," Chadd said. "Police departments have a turnover everywhere because of low pay, working conditions and things. We are no exception to that."

Many people in Chaffee were reluctant to comment about the departure of the previous officers and the hiring of new ones. Those who did comment said they were aware of the situation but did not have an opinion one way or the other.

"It was on the news, and I asked why all of a sudden three people resigned, and nobody knew any more than I did," said Samantha Jennings of Chaffee.

Bobby McCall of Chaffee said the new chief is welcome.

"As long as he does his job as it should be done, I have no problem with that."

The officers who resigned when Corn did have since been replaced by Curt Hicks and Barry Hovis.

Womack said he realizes Chaffee can't offer much in the way of salary, but he wants to make the job enjoyable enough that his officers want to stay.

"Part of my job is to make this department attractive enough when we do hire someone we can keep them, especially after we've trained them," he said.

Womack, 52, began his career as a police officer in Jackson in 1976. While working there he attended the Missouri State Highway Patrol Academy and graduated first in his class. He was one of three finalists considered for Jackson's police chief after former chief Marvin Sides resigned Oct. 21, 2003.

He stayed with the Jackson Department while studying at Southeast Missouri State University and left in 1978 when he went to work for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Womack retired from the patrol in April 2003. As a trooper he was first stationed in Dexter, then in Perryville. In 1999 he was promoted to corporal and assigned to Troop C in Washington, Mo.

He returned to Southeast Missouri in 1994 and was assigned to Portageville. A year later he was transferred to the gaming division at general headquarters and was assigned as riverboat enforcement agent in Caruthersville. In 1999 he was promoted to sergeant.

Chief challengesHis challenges as chief are to provide leadership and direction and to improve communication and morale, Womack said. So he's walking into Chaffee businesses to say hello. Most of the calls officers in Chaffee are sent to are not major crimes. They are the domestic disputes, burglaries, vandalism and drug problems most Southeast Missouri towns have.

Womack sees communication between police and the community to be as essential as arresting suspects in a burglary. That's why he's encouraging his officers to become a positive presence in the community.

"I want the department to reflect Chaffee and be unique in that respect," he said. "I want them to be known and get to know people. I want everyone to know them by name, by face and call them by name."

So a pedestrian out walking his dog one evening might find a patrol car slowing up on the street and the officer inside pausing to say hello and start up a conversation.

"That will generate confidence when we do that," Womack said. "It's good for business, especially the quick shops and places that have a large volume of traffic. We need to go talk to these people."

Womack stopped by Whitaker Ace Hardware just a few doors down from city hall and chatted recently with manager Ron Whitaker.

"My first impression of him was very, very good," Whitaker said. "He has been very high profile."

Another challenge Womack faces is that of officer morale. Of the five-member police force, no one except Hovis has more than two years' experience.All are licensed and have been through the 620-hour training and are qualified. But as is the case in so many smaller communities, some of them stay long enough to get some experience and then go on to other communities that pay more.

Womack thinks he can provide enough direction to make the job enjoyable enough that his officers will stay longer.

"I'm impressed with their attitude and dedication," he said. "All are willing and anxious to learn; they're dedicated and want to do the job. That appealed to me. They want someone who will work for them."

Womack came out of retirement to take this job. He liked retirement, he said, but he also likes a challenge.

He was one of about 18 applicants who applied. Chadd said Womack scored exceptionally well on a written examination and impressed the police board and Mayor Bill Cannon.

"He had quite a bit of experience with the Missouri Highway Patrol and was used to a small community," Chadd said. "He's very approachable, very down to earth and willing to meet with the citizenry and discuss issues with them."

Since taking office, Womack has overseen a major cleanup of the police department quarters in an attempt to make them more attractive. He has put the officers in sharp new navy blue uniforms and hopes the next project he can tackle is buying some new cars to replace the four cruisers showing signs of wear.

For now, Womack begins his day around 7 a.m. after driving in from Portageville and spends most of his mornings dealing with paperwork. In the afternoon, he goes out and meets the community.

He and his wife, Marva, plan to move into an apartment in Chaffee in a few weeks, they have a contract to sell their home in Portageville. They have three children, five grandchildren and two grandchildren on the way.

He knows that sports are popular in Chaffee and is looking forward to getting involved. He wants the police department to be a positive force in Chaffee's upcoming centennial celebration. He looks forward to becoming involved in civic organizations, being part of the community and getting to know the people.

"Our mission is to protect and serve them and guarantee their basic rights," he said. "My door is always open. Anyone can contact me any time."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611 ext. 160

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