St. Matthews Police Department
The St. Matthews Police Department is comprised of 40 sworn law enforcement officers and 17 civilian employees. Located just east of Louisville, the agency works to protect its small, tight-knit community and cooperates with neighboring departments for a safer Jefferson County. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
Just over 4-square miles and situated east of Louisville, the city of St. Matthews boasts a small-town feeling while being near the heart of Kentucky’s largest metropolis.
“It’s a unique place,” said Barry Wilkerson, chief of the St. Matthews Police Department. “You are right in the hub of everything…You can get to anything you want rather quickly. But, it’s a true neighborhood feel.”
Approximately 18,000 to 19,000 people inhabit the tight-knit community, a population that dramatically increases when visitors come to town to take advantage of St. Matthews’ popular shopping district or area health services, according to Wilkerson, who added it’s the citizens who give the city its heart.
In fact, it was the city’s reputation of embracing their law enforcement that made Wilkerson want to take the helm of SMPD, after 27 years serving Jefferson County Police Department and Louisville Metro Police Department.
“We steal a lot of good officers from other bigger agencies because this is such a great place to work and everybody knows that,” he said. “So we get a lot of good experience because of that.”
Keeping Citizens Safe
Though St. Matthews has a small hometown feel, the fifth and eighth divisions of LMPD border it.
“Ultimately, criminals don’t stop at (city) lines,” noted Wilkerson. “They cross over any time they wish.”
However, the chief said his agency, comprised of 40 law enforcement officers and 17 civilian employees, is fortunate to have a great rapport with LMPD, as communication is vital in mitigating crime.
Often the agencies find themselves working details together, specifically regarding shoplifting.
“If I could eliminate shoplifting, my crime would probably go down 40 percent,” Wilkerson said, noting that shoplifting is the area’s number one criminal complaint, with thefts from yards, buildings and vehicles falling next on the list.
However, SMPD’s annual report shows that violent crimes only took up 5 percent of total crimes, and the number of homicides was zero in 2018, which is a stark contrast to the 65 homicides in other areas of Jefferson County last year.
Meeting The Mark
Since he was sworn in as chief in November 2017, Wilkerson said his staff, has worked tirelessly to grow and improve the department’s service, professionalism, procedures and technology.
While the department recently saw renovations to its station, many of the upgrades revolved around service for the community, such as the addition of an internal affairs and public integrity unit.
“We try to be very service oriented and proactive,” he explained. “We do that by trying to go the extra step on every run we make. We don’t just take a missing person’s report and leave…In larger agencies, where many of us came from, sometimes it’s a hard habit to break because they go from run to run. Here some days, we are fortunate that we don’t have to go from run to run, so we try to give residents the extra service they pay for and deserve.”
To accomplish this goal, SMPD has been updating standard operating procedures and looking at Kentucky League of Cities model policies and national requirements to make the agency be its best.
Increased efficiency has been developed via the department’s newly created citizens contact database. Every communication received, whether by phone or email, is logged and tracked for easy follow-up and assigned to the appropriate unit, a huge update from notes on pen and paper.
Often, Wilkerson said he will conduct follow-up calls himself—which sometimes shocks citizens on the other end. However, the chief says he makes contact to understand issues the community is facing and being able to inform the individual what his agency has done in response.
“I want them to know, as an agency, it’s not just an officer going out and writing a ticket,” he explained. “It’s the agency as a whole caring about what (the individual) perceives as a problem…and we like to address those problems.”
One of the ways SMPD seeks to consistently progress is through training led by Assistant Chief and Operations Bureau Commander Tony Cobaugh. He joined the agency in 2011, after a long career in both corrections and law enforcement.
Under Cobaugh’s supervision, the agency has incorporated several in-house training components to enhance what officers receive at the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training. Some skills covered are use of force and firearms, first aid, CPR and Automated External Defibrillator. Nine out of 12 months, the agency offers a practice day at the range to officers.
Through the Kentucky League of Cities, SMPD also trains via a firearms simulator, which each officer cycled through last winter.
“There are several things from my lengthy career that mean a lot to me, but training is probably the most important,” Cobaugh said. “All the little things really matter when it comes to training and liability...and maintaining the best standards of practice.”
Special Response Team
Wilkerson said he is very proud of the agency’s special response team. Made up of approximately 14 experienced officers and four firefighter medics, the team is commanded by Cobaugh, who has 25 years of SWAT experience. As required by national standards, the Special Response Team (SRT) trains two days per month to keep from getting rusty, with snipers receiving extra training hours.
“It is a necessary evil, because so much money, time and training has to be spent there,” Wilkerson said. “But guess what, when things go bad, you want the best to do the best. That’s why you have to sink some money, time and effort (into preparation) so that you don’t have a team that’s not qualified or experienced.”
Last year, the agency acquired a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicle, also known as a rescue vehicle.
“We are one of the few agencies that have (an MRAP),” said Wilkerson, adding they collaborated with Jeffersontown Police Department to obtain the asset. The chief explained the vehicle could be used in rescue scenarios, such as hostage situations.
“It can take any round you can think of, unless maybe an RPG, it’s not going to penetrate it,” he said. With its height, the vehicle can also be used in flood rescues,” said the chief.
According to Wilkerson, most of the agency’s MRAP operators have had prior military experience driving armored vehicles, which has since been enhanced by additional training.
While Wilkerson and Cobaugh hope the need to use the SRT or the MRAP never arises, the agency leaders agreed that SMPD stands ready to assist neighboring departments.
“There’s an old saying from a movie poster, that I saw many years ago, that said, ‘Even cops dial 911 sometimes,’” the assistant chief recalled. “If a neighboring jurisdiction asked for our assistance, we would definitely support any of our neighbors.”
To grow closer to those they protect, the department takes part in National Night Out, a community police-awareness event held across the country that promotes camaraderie between officers and neighborhoods.
The event features traditional, festival fair, such as local-business booths and food, but with the added benefit of officer and citizen interaction. As a bonus, community members are introduced to some of the innovative ways the agency is keeping them safe.
“We want the community to know what we have, and what we are doing,” Wilkerson said. “That’s one of the reasons we are doing this. We want everyone to know what SMPD’s vision is, and where we want to go...And we want to keep trying to get better.”
Taking care of the city’s youngest population, SMPD has instituted an Adopt-a-School program. Officers are assigned to schools that they must routinely visit. Not only do officers make contact with school administrators and provide police presence for additional safety, but they also focus on building relationships with students—serving as protector, friend and role model. This interaction allows youth to see law enforcement in a positive light, Wilkerson added.
Officer Troy Armstrong, who has worked as a school resource officer for several years at Waggener High School, is also being tasked with an increasing community resource role.
“I try to show them that not every interaction with the police is going to be negative,” he said of his SRO responsibilities. “They can see us as people and know when we talk to them in school, they aren’t necessarily in trouble. I try to talk to them in the halls and go to sporting events. They see me outside of the school and can continue to build that trust. It makes (law enforcement) a little more approachable.”
In the community, Armstrong visits area businesses, assists with creating and instructing active-shooter training and conducts block watches.
“The community supports us so greatly,” Armstrong said, adding that often officers will report to work and find treats made by local schools and churches. “At least in our department, in our little city, it’s unlike what you hear or read about the negative parts of policing. Everybody here seems to appreciate us, and that’s refreshing with some of the climate that’s out there.”