Owensboro Police Department
The Owensboro Police Department employs 102 sworn officers and more than 40 civilian personnel. The officers serve and protect the western Kentucky community of more than 57,000 residents. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
There’s a lot more to Owensboro than just mouthwatering, award-winning barbecue.
Yes, the western Kentucky city is renowned for outstanding barbecue, but it also offers a beautiful riverfront, Kentucky’s only municipal ice arena, several museums and enough festivals to fulfill all your funnel cake cravings.
It also is home to a police department committed to its mission of community partnership and leading with professionalism, honor and integrity.
One of Kentucky’s larger agencies, the Owensboro Police Department employs 102 sworn officers and more than 40 civilian personnel. In 2017, officers responded to 40,722 calls for service and conducted 7,502 traffic stops in the community of more than 57,000 residents.
The ranks are led by Chief Art Ealum, who began his career with the department in 1991 as a patrol officer after getting his feet wet as a volunteer reserve officer in Evansville, Ind.
“You can test somebody’s willingness to do the job and whether or not they were called to do it if they’re willing to do it for free, which I did,” Ealum said. “And I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
The chief said he didn’t have command staff aspirations when he began his career. Like many, he loved patrol work. As a probational rookie, Ealum earned a beat in one of Owensboro’s hot spots.
“It was unheard of then for a rookie to get their own beat, but nobody wanted to work there,” Ealum said. “It was right when crack cocaine was making its way here and there were a lot of drug dealers. I loved the excitement, so I said, ‘Hey, I’ll take it.’”
About seven years in, Ealum was feeling the burnout of working that beat and applied for the Criminal Investigations Division. The captain in charge at the time knew Ealum wanted to work narcotics, but due to some shifting within the agency, he asked Ealum to work a general detective slot for about 30 days before he could move into narcotics. When the 30 days were over, Ealum said he requested to stay put.
“My first week I had an assault, I worked my first homicides and I fell in love with the job,” he said. “As an investigator, I realized the value of good relationships with the community because I needed them to tell me information and I learned a different way of talking with people and appreciated the value they have.”
While Ealum said it was one of his favorite assignments, the promotional bug hit and he quickly began to climb the leadership ladder. Serving as a sergeant for a little more than a year before he was promoted to lieutenant, Ealum said he then went “kicking and screaming” into the department’s Professional Standards Unit, which handles all the agency’s internal affairs.
“It turned out to be another great assignment because I realized I was getting to see another side and I was working to protect the integrity of the organization and ensuring people were abiding by policy and doing the right thing,” he said.
It wasn’t easy, though.
“I sat there and interviewed people with the same uniform I had on, and the first few times I thought, ‘Do I ask this question?’ Because I know where we’re going if I ask and it could cost someone their career. But when I wake up in the morning and I gotta look at this ugly mug every morning, I have to make sure that I’m doing the right thing. Because it’s not about me and what I’m doing, it’s about what the officers did. Once you get over that hurdle, you can appreciate that position.”
Ealum continued rising through the ranks until finally he was named chief in 2011.
“Once you get a taste of leadership and see the influence you can have – not over people so much, but the change you can have in an organization – wow. I had people like (former chiefs) Glenn Skeens and John Kazlauskas who believed in me, and when your peers are pushing you in that direction … it all worked out for me with the assistance of others. Left alone, I would have sat back and stayed in Criminal Investigations forever until they ran me off.”
Like Ealum, Owensboro officers have a multitude of choices when it comes to assignments. Officers can choose to join the department’s honor guard, Emergency Response Team, Hazardous Devices Unit or Street Crimes, for example.
Owensboro Sgt. Courtney Yerington leads the agency’s Crime Prevention Unit (CPU), which specializes in community programs. As a high school student and again in college, Yerington interned with OPD, giving her both a foot in the door and a grasp of what policing her hometown entails. Today she spends most of her time grooming the next generation of OPD recruits through D.A.R.E., Citizens’ Police Academies, a summer camp and more.
“We love being out in the community and letting them know we are here for them, that we’re here to serve them,” she said.
The Citizens’ Police Academy (CPA) for adults is a longstanding OPD program, but last summer, the CPU created a junior CPA. Fifteen high school and college students joined the first class and their only request on the final review of the program was that they still wanted more. Yerington hopes that by giving attendees an early look at law enforcement, it will create interest and retention for OPD, just as it did for her.
“It also gives them the opportunity to show us them, so when they decide to apply in the future, we have already met them and have that connection from the beginning,” she said. “It shows them what we do, that it’s different than what’s on TV, and allows them to see the opportunities that are here for them.”
For the slightly younger residents, every summer the CPU takes boys who are going to be in fifth grade to Camp KOPS, which stands for Kids Obtaining Positive Structure. The children spend their time on team building and outdoor activities, such as fishing, archery, swimming and canoeing. They craft pinewood derby cars to race for the win at the end of the week. Five children from each city elementary school are chosen to attend.
“It gives them a positive interaction with police officers, gives them role models and an experience away,” Yerington said. “These are not bad kids who are getting in trouble at school. These are good kids who are doing what they’re supposed to, but who may need more positive influences in their lives. Sometimes the schools realize that a kid is not going to be able to go anywhere that summer, or a kid may need a male role model.”
There are plenty of opportunities to learn during the week too, including first aid classes and demonstrations from the agency’s Hazardous Device, K-9 and Emergency Response units.
“Some have never been out in the country at all,” Yerington said. “Some have never seen pitch black and stars because they live in the city. It’s a great experience to see them change from the beginning of the week to the end and realizing, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”
During the school year, CPU teaches D.A.R.E and Character Counts programs to kindergarten through eighth graders. Yerington, who was named the 2017-2018 D.A.R.E. officer of the year, said she and her partner teach D.A.R.E. to odd grade levels and Character Counts to even grades to maintain a regular connection with students and avoid repeating curriculums.
Officers throughout the department also are assigned to all Owensboro public schools as well as city Catholic schools through the Adopt-a-School program. The combination of these efforts provides a steady presence both during school day interactions with students and administrators and after hours checking buildings and surroundings to ensure their security.
OPD Officer Jennifer Haynes is assigned to Owensboro Catholic Middle School, her self-proclaimed second home. During her shift, Haynes is dedicated to carving time out daily to visit the school, whether that is during the morning drop-off line or walking through to check doors and communicate with staff about any possible concerns.
“I like to spend at least 30 minutes in my school every day,” Haynes said. “I like to be there when the kids get off the school bus so I can lay eyes on every student. They see that I’m there, all the teachers see I’m there and I think, especially right now with the rise in school violence in the past few years, seeing me there harbors more of a safe feeling for parents, too.”
Haynes has provided her phone number to both teachers and administrators and built a relationship of trust wherein they know they can call her anytime to assist them with issues or provide resources.
“It is significant to me because I have a child in middle school who has been through the lockdowns and lockouts before, and I know how important it is to feel safe when they see me coming through the school,” Haynes said. “Also, if – God forbid – anything does happen at the school, (responding officers) can come to me and ask about the building layout, how many students and teachers are there and if something seems out of place.
“It’s just an extra resource in case of crisis,” Haynes continued. “Not only can I look at the schematic of the building, but I walk those hallways every day. I know what they are supposed to sound and feel like. I think that’s important. I can go in and check doors and make sure after class starts that everything is secure, so these students don’t have to worry about anybody coming in while they are trying to learn.”
He Hammered the Gas
Haynes is not unfamiliar with a crisis. Six weeks after completing her Police Training Officer program, she found herself at a stoplight behind the vehicle of an attempted kidnapping suspect. Haynes verified the license plate number on the sticky note where she had recorded it earlier when dispatch issued a BOLO. After requesting backup, Haynes attempted a traffic stop. But upon seeing Haynes’ cruiser behind him, the suspect fled, lost control of his vehicle and wrecked into a fence. The perpetrator spotted an ACME company van nearby that was warming up with keys in the ignition.
“He hopped in the van and backed up, and at that point, I tried to create as many witnesses as I could, yelling, ‘Police! Get out of the Van! Stop!’ I repeated my commands several times. He looked at me and goosed it a little bit. The van lurched forward and I drew my firearm and yelled more commands. He raised his arms up, put them across his face and just hammered the gas trying to run me over.”
Haynes quickly jumped clear of the oncoming vehicle and discharged her weapon twice, one round hitting a headlight and the other grazing the bottom of the van. The suspect fled the area and was captured about three blocks away.
Following the incident, Haynes said she didn’t have a lot of anxiety initially. She took a little less than two weeks off. The first time she saw an ACME van driving in town she felt apprehensive. It wasn’t until her first traffic stop that she felt the effects of her post-traumatic stress.
“At the first traffic stop I tried to do, I completely froze,” she said. “I saw the intersection and I couldn’t move. The car had gone through the intersection and pulled to the side of the road – they knew I was going to stop them. But I felt like somebody had punched me in the chest.”
Haynes gave the driver a warning and got to an area where she could calm herself down. Her department had been very supportive, the chief and several officers offering a listening ear. About a week later, Haynes began having nightmares.
“My sleep was affected a long time,” she said. “I had a lot of anger toward him and the way things went. I try to treat everybody with the same respect they treat me, and it didn’t really sit well with me that I hadn’t done anything to this guy and he tried to take my life. I’m a single mom. I have a 12-year-old at home. I was going to go home at the end of the day, and it was hard for me to deal with it in that sense as well.”
Chief Ealum has been an ardent supporter of the Kentucky Post-Critical Incident Seminar, now having sent nine officers through the program since it began last year. Like he had those before her, Ealum suggested Haynes attend KYPCIS to seek help.
“I had talked to a couple officers a little at a time on my terms, and of course, I chose bits and pieces of what I wanted to talk about,” Haynes said. “PCIS had me talk about my incident in its entirety. The feelings, the dreams, the anxiety – and all in a place where I knew nobody could say anything because it was covered confidentially.
“Knowing other people had been through similar – or more serious – incidents and they were brave enough to talk about it brought that comfort to a level where I didn’t feel angry when I was telling my story,” she continued.
A candidate for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) offered at KYPCIS, Haynes said she was able to seek treatment and no longer suffers from nightmares.
“I don’t know what I would have done without (KYPCIS) training,” she said. “I will forever be indebted and grateful to this department and (KYPCIS team member) Travis Tennill. This is something every officer should go to. Everyone can benefit from the services they provide."
Owensboro Police Evidence Collection Unit a Unique Team
When a former FBI and U.S. Secret Service certified latent fingerprint examiner offered to teach the Owensboro Police Department’s Evidence Collection Unit (ECU) what he knows in his free time made possible by his retirement, they seized the opportunity.
Roughly 10 years since the department’s fingerprint system was put into place, the officers who operate the ECU – Jim Parham, Ken Bennett, Jeff Roby and reserve officer Dane Holder – still are amazed by the results they have seen.
Owensboro’s ECU is responsible for all property and evidence custodial functions as well as forensic functions responding to major crime scenes, Parham said. Unit members process crime scenes, examine evidence and provide expert court testimony.
Prior to obtaining the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and latent print training, Owensboro officers sometimes didn’t bother with fingerprinting scenes, Bennett said. It’s a misconception that fingerprinting is an old technology.
“It’s very relevant,” he said. “You have to do what your resources allow you to do. But I think one of the advantages of having a specialized unit like this for evidence collection at crime scene investigations is that we are able to bring these specialized skills to the table and actually bring cases and suspects to the Criminal Investigation Division with fingerprints.”
After receiving a Kentucky Office of Homeland Security grant for the necessary tools to process latent prints and being mentored by latent print examiner Sam Durrett, Parham has himself become a certified latent print examiner and Bennett still is working toward earning his certification as well.
“I had no idea what we were getting into,” Parham said. “I’ve been here 29 years in December, and this has been the most complicated thing I’ve worked on my entire time here, and also the one I’ve gotten the most satisfaction from. It’s very rewarding.”
Today, an ECU staff member can process a fingerprint, send it off through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and have a response with 25 potential matches in a matter of minutes.
“When we submit a print workup and encoding, don’t bother getting up,” Parham said. “Because it’s going to be back before you can get into anything else. In two or three minutes, something like that, it’s back.”
The computer identifies legitimate characteristics of the submitted print and returns matches it thinks looks the closest. It then takes a human examiner to review them side by side to determine if a proper identification is there.
“It’s a complicated process,” Parham said of reaching the point where they are able to assist in solving cases using the AFIS system. “We had a very experienced mentor, we have gone to training with different companies, there are proficiency tests that have to be maintained and there is a lot of scrutiny on forensic science right now. You have to be on top of the current research to be able to testify to the science and get it accepted in court. You can’t just phone it in. But that’s good for everybody – it does provide for stronger investigations.
“We have had cases where there’s no suspect at all – and there wouldn’t have been a suspect had we not identified a latent print,” he continued.