Town turnaround: Chief restores integrity to Town of Beloit Police Department
TOWN OF BELOIT—The distrust within the Town of Beloit Police Department was so severe when Steve Kopp took over as police chief that some employees recorded their conversations with each other for fear their words would be twisted against them.
Seven lawsuits were pending against town officials for racial discrimination, employee retaliation and other issues, many of them centered around former Chief John Wilson, who retired early in 2011.
The department had become the “joke of the town,” one resident said.
The turmoil became an opportunity for Kopp, who missed police work after retiring as a deputy chief from the Janesville Police Department. He took over as interim and then permanent chief of the town's police department, restoring trust, confidence and integrity to the department, residents say.
“It really turned out to be the greatest challenge of my career,” he said. “I knew that going in. I was aware of a lot of the problems. I wouldn't say I was aware of all of them.”
Kopp, 61, will mark his five-year anniversary at the department in March, and he plans to retire at the end of 2016. He said he wants to enjoy his last year by getting out in the community more now that the paperwork-heavy accreditation process is complete. He hadn't planned to make his retirement plans public yet, but the town's 2016 budget revealed money for a police chief search.
'NIGHT AND DAY'
“It's just like a night and day difference from what we had to what we have now,” said Steve Christensen, a town resident and retired sergeant from the Rock County Sheriff's Office who also teaches in the police academy and criminal justice program at Blackhawk Technical College.
Kopp's quiet confidence and great people skills brought refreshing professionalism to the town, he said. Christensen has known Kopp for years and was one of multiple people who recommended him for the job, calling him a man “with no skeletons in his closet.”
“It's rare to find someone who is what he appears to be,” Christensen said. “He came in at just the right time. (The department) needed serious change, and he brought it.”
Town board Chairwoman Diane Greenlee said Kopp restored—“to a tremendous level”—the public's lost confidence in the department.
“He's just brought a whole new level of integrity, strong principles and dedication to our police department,” Greenlee said. “He's done a really good job of recruiting and keeping personnel, too.”
She has been impressed by how well the officers and staff get along and care for one another and the community.
“They're an exceptional group of people,” she said.
The department has 10 full-time and six part-time officers, and nearly all of them have been hired under Kopp.
WHAT HE DID
When Kopp took over, he quickly ended the recording of employee conversations. Staff had a misconception he was hired to “clean house,” he said, but he was there to turn the agency into a professional department.
Sgt. Laura Palmer already was in the process of rewriting policies.
Kopp was pleased to see about 100 residents attend an open house he hoped would begin reconnecting the staff with the community. He started attending meetings and rebuilding relationships within the Rock County law enforcement community, which was happy to see his agency back at the table.
During the turmoil at the department, the town of Beloit “was never really in the running” for police academy recruits searching for jobs, Christensen said.
“Now people are beating on the doors to get there,” he said. “I'm so proud of Steve and what he's done.”
Kopp quickly discovered the department didn't really have a relationship with the Turner School District. Kopp and officers built that up over the last four and a half years, and now officers are in the schools almost daily.
The department also helped close a longtime bar and strip club that was the epicenter of much of the town's violet crime.
“It was an establishment that really needed constant attention from our officers, and it was a drain on our officers,” Kopp said.
In late 2011, Sgt. Richard Felger was shot in the leg at bar closing time in the parking lot of a bowling alley. The district attorney commended Felger, who fatally shot the suspect, for preventing further loss of life.
Felger recovered from his injuries, but it was a traumatic event for the officers involved and the community, Kopp said.
Kopp's primary goal when he took over was to see the agency become accredited by the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group. The department earned that accreditation earlier this month.
It's a distinction only 25 other departments have achieved, and Kopp said there's no better way to measure the performance of a police agency than to go through the process of voluntarily inviting assessors to evaluate the inner workings of the department.
“That speaks volumes for him,” said Howard Erickson, a former sheriff who lives in the town and helped organize a grassroots group of residents frustrated with the town board and former chief's actions prior to Kopp.
He said he told town board members they didn't need to hire a consultant to find a new chief because Kopp was in their backyard. He talks with neighbors and residents and always hears how pleased people are with Kopp's leadership.
“People like going to work every day there because of Steve Kopp,” he said.
One of the highlights of Kopp's career came in February 2014, when a baby less than a week old was kidnapped in the middle of the night from his family's living room. He was found about 29 hours later outside an Iowa gas station.
Kopp recognized the gravity of the situation and moved the command center to the fire station to make room for the investigative team, which included the FBI, state and county authorities.
The police station's parking lot was packed with satellite trucks from national and regional media as Kopp prepared for a morning press conference to explain the ongoing investigation. Less than an hour before the conference, an FBI agent ran into his office saying they thought they had found the baby.
Investigators scrambled to confirm the baby's identity with the mother.
“It was just minutes before the press conference that we got that confirmation,” he said. “That was just an incredible experience.”