Russellville Police Department
Fully staffed, Russellville has 22 sworn police officers. From left: Officer Bill Moore, Officer Chris Bellar, K-9 Jax, Officer Breanna Lyons and Police Chief Victor Shifflett. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
The irony of Russellville’s history isn’t lost on its police chief Victor Shifflett.
“We police in a town that celebrates the bank robbery of Jesse James,” Shifflett joked. “Yes, Jesse James robbed a bank here (on March 20, 1868), and they celebrate it every year.”
Jokes aside, Russellville, a city of 7,000 residents located 25 miles west of Bowling Green, is home to several factories. Consequently, many people commute to and from the city for work. Because of that, RPD has seen an uptick in traffic-related calls in recent years.
“Our daytime population swells between 10,000 to 12,000,” he said. “As a result, our call volume has probably gone up 30 percent in the past year or so.”
However, that is nothing compared to the Aug. 21, 2017, traffic Russellville experienced during the solar eclipse, Shifflett said with a reflective grin.
“We had more traffic come through here than I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’ve been here 50 years,” he said. “After the eclipse, all of the service stations here were packed. We got everybody out, and it went very well. We had a few wrecks, but for the most part, it was traffic congestion
“There is no way you could have alleviated the traffic flow,” the chief continued. “Our southern bypass wasn’t open at that time, so they were coming up West 9th Street to where it intersects with U.S. 68 and U.S. 80. They were coming through town headed toward Bowling Green, or they were headed toward the parkways. It took about six to eight hours to get things back to normal after the eclipse ended.”
Facing challenges is part of the game, Shifflett said. The challenges RPD faces are not dissimilar to what other agencies across the state encounter. Besides traffic, those challenges include drugs, theft and the like.
Shifflett, who was promoted to chief in 2011, is also a graduate of the Southern Police Institute’s Administrative Officers Course and the FBI National Academy. He said his experience, education and an outstanding group of officers has enabled the department to meet challenges head-on.
One principal challenge the 22-person police department faces is the increased number of calls involving residents who need mental health assistance, Shifflett said.
“It’s not a police function, but it is being put on us,” Shifflett said. “We have a full-time Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer. If he is not working and another officer runs into this, he can be called out to handle the situation. We had to focus our training on this because it’s becoming a major issue.”
The police chief recalled an incident that highlighted the need for his department to have officers certified in crisis intervention.
“We were called to an apartment for an individual in his late 50s or early 60s,” Shifflett said. “He had not been off the couch in probably over a week. So there was defecation and urination, and he hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink.”
During the process, Russellville officers interviewed the man who indicated he wanted to live this way.
“(Officer) Bill Moore came in and brought social services with him,” Shifflett said. “(Moore) had been to some CIT conferences, and he had a little bit more training on the types of questions to ask.”
In these situations, officers have to be sensitive to the person’s plight, Moore explained.
“You don’t try to put them down,” Moore said.
Moore added that the old methods of conducting a standard police interview and eventually hauling the person off to jail isn’t the answer.
“Now, you’ve got to be more involved and figure out what is going on with them,” Moore said. “A lot of departments are getting more officers certified in CIT because shootings with the mentally ill were on the rise. But from what they’re telling us in the (CIT) meetings, it’s going down now because (police officers) are better trained and aware of what is going on.”
That also means when Moore answers a CIT call, the odds are that he could spend most of his shift handling it.
“Sometimes in a smaller department you only have two or three officers on a shift, and you have a consumer who needs to go to Life Skills (a mental health facility in Bowling Green),” Moore said. “That’s a 30- to 45-minute drive there, then you have to wait on a counselor, and then you have a 30- to 45-minute drive back. So if you get a call at the beginning of your shift, that’s all you’ll do all day. Even on a good day, it’s still about an hour and a half.”
Russellville Capt. Todd Rayner said dealing with mental health-related calls is a fact of life, and the police department is reacting accordingly.
“It’s not going away anytime soon,” he said. “We’re going to have to accept the reality that (calls) are going up. Officers have to think more now. They can have a visceral reaction, especially if the person is only a danger to themselves.”
Drug and Other Challenges
Many of Russellville’s mental health-related cases can often be traced back to drug problems, Shifflett said.
“We have a lot of meth here,” the chief said. “We are starting to see heroin, and we had an overdose of meth laced with fentanyl. Our meth is crystal meth coming out of the southwest or Mexico. Our drug task force just got a little over a pound about a month and a half ago.”
Russellville dedicates two officers to the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force, which includes the Todd County Sheriff’s Office, Franklin Police Department and the Simpson County Sheriff’s Office. The police department also has a K-9 unit, as handler Chris Bellar is partnered with Jax.
But even with dedicated manpower to the task force, Shifflett said it is an uphill battle.
“We’re losing the war on the drugs,” he said. “We’re fighting symptoms, and that’s about all we’re doing.”
Training and Team Building
One key to successful policing is constant training, and that is something Shifflett takes seriously.
“I like to say we provide the best-trained police officers to the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Shifflett quipped. “I focus on training. When we go to the firing range, we do it five times a year, minimum.”
In addition to Kentucky Law Enforcement Council-approved training, Shifflett seeks out other training for his officers.
“I’m fortunate that the mayor and council give the department a large training budget,” Shifflett said. “My supervisor in the field-training program has been to Florida for IPTM (Institute of Police Technology and Management) training. When we have officers come back from the academy, and they start their field-training program, he trains them on radar and lidar during the process. We also send them to Southern Police Institute schools and courses. I’m not opposed to anything realistic in training.”
The police department’s yearly training also includes officers taking part in the annual Peace Officer Professional Standards fitness test.
“You have to maintain your health, both physically and mentally,” he said. “We run the POPS every spring. It’s not pass or fail. It’s participation only. It’s mandatory that they do it, but they don’t have to pass it. I’ve got some guys, like my captain, he has a knee that is probably going to be replaced in a few years. So it’s not in the best interest of the department to make him get out there and run a mile and a half on a bad knee.”
Many times, Shifflett uses training, such as the yearly POPS testing, as a means to build comradery within his department. The chief added most police officers are competitive by nature and “They want to do well.”
“Afterward, we usually grill or cater in a meal,” he said. “We do team meals two or three times a year. We’ll have departmental meetings where we will grill burgers and hot dogs, and we’ll have it at our city park.”
All of the training and comradery building helps the police department as it seeks to continuously improve service to the residents of Russellville, which is the crux of the agency’s mission, Shifflett added.
“We’re all in community services,” he continued. “It’s a small town, and we’ve been doing community policing since before it was the buzzword in law enforcement.”
The police department has several programs geared toward soliciting community involvement, including a nine-week Citizens’ Police Academy (CPA) and a week-long Teen Police Academy (TPA), which is held during the summer.
Detective Sgt. Mary Lynn Smith oversees the TPA. She said it was born out of misinformation in the media.
“We started seeing a lapse in communication between law enforcement and teens,” Smith said. “We had the negative about law enforcement being projected by the media, and that’s all the kids were seeing. So when we were getting out with groups of kids, we were getting, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ and a lot of pushback from kids and their families, at times. It wasn’t bad, but it was to where we decided we needed to educate them about what it is (police) are doing in our training. We needed to explain to them that they only see one side of the story in the media.”
The teen academy is geared toward teenagers, ages 13 to 18, and it has quickly become a hit.
Throughout the week, participants do everything from daily physical training to traffic stops.
“We bring in speakers to talk to kids on topics ranging from drug prevention and gangs to human trafficking,” Smith said. “The kids enjoy it, and we have repeat kids who are disappointed when they get too old to go through it. We want to make sure they really know what is going on. I don’t want our relationship to be hurt and we bridge the gap so that maybe we can have some youth interested in the criminal justice field and law enforcement.”
The CPA began several years ago, but community interest waned, and it went away for a few years. Three years ago, the police department revamped the program and marketed it through social media. It is similar to other CPA programs offered by agencies across the state in its primary goal to educate community members about how and why police officers do what they do.
“It’s something we put a lot of time and effort into, and we create new ambassadors for us on the street,” Shifflett said.
Modern-day Russellville is a far cry from the days when Jesse James raided the bank in 1868, and Shifflett credited the police officers under his watch for their efforts in keeping this western Kentucky community safe.
“We have excellent people, and that is why we have a good department,” Shifflett said.