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Ballwin is doing things differently, with good reason

This banner in the Ballwin Police Department squad room reminds officers of the role they can and do play in building the Ballwin brand.

The city of Ballwin probably can’t be described as marching to the beat of a different drummer. But the city definitely is doing some things differently these days.

But what’s different isn’t readily discernible to the casual observer, so don’t look for police officers driving pink patrol cars or public works employees wearing tuxedos and party dresses on the job.

What’s different is the multi-faceted attitude that’s being fostered. It’s an attitude that among other things:

• Is built on trusting your people and letting them know they are being depended on.

• Emphasizes that every employee plays a role in how the city is perceived by its citizens and others. Put another way, it’s all about the Ballwin “brand” and what employees can do to build and promote it.

• Encourages employees to come up with better ways of doing things and taking ownership of the part they can play in those improvements, even if they aren’t specifically included in their job description.

• Recognizes that city employees won’t always do everything right but also stresses that it’s how employees respond in those situations that really makes the difference.

The approach involves all city departments but the differences resulting from it are probably most pronounced in the police department. So West Newsmagazine asked both Eric Hanson, Ballwin’s city administrator, and Kevin Scott, its police chief, to talk about the whats, whys and so whats involved.

“Yes, we are doing some things differently,” Hanson readily acknowledged. “That’s not to say what we are doing is right and that everyone with another approach is wrong. But we do think it makes sense for the work of serving the public that all of us do here.”

Perhaps one of the best indicators that the approach is working and that the word is getting out has been the response to recent job openings. When the city posted that it wanted to hire a dispatcher for its police communications center, 250 applications flowed in. Similarly, when Ballwin announced plans to hire a police officer, the city received more than 200 applications. This at a time when police departments in many areas are the objects of criticism and accounts of physical attacks on officers frequently appear in the news media.

Hanson cited a key reason for the city’s success in attracting potential employees: “Our own people tell our story better than anyone. When you see staff members really buying into the philosophy of getting better and making a difference, it’s greatly rewarding.”

Scott conceded that he may not be the Lone Ranger among police chiefs in what he’s doing, but added, “The traditional law enforcement culture and what we are doing here really don’t mix very well.”

He has done away with strict organizational lines that tended to seclude parts of the department from other parts. Flattening the structure has created what the chief is convinced is a more efficient organization with greater teamwork.

The department now is organized around four squads, each able to operate as a mini-department, trained and equipped to handle virtually any situation that arises. Scott also wants to have all officers trained and certified for basic crime scene work, in addition to the two detectives who already meet standards for international certification in that specialty.

Scott’s overall goal is to give all officers the ability to handle more aspects of police work. To help achieve that objective, the department has contracted with an online training firm, enabling police personnel to access training programs important to their activities and job goals on a 24/7 basis.

Not only is the career-enhancing training more readily available, it’s much less expensive than seminars and workshops that involve travel and possible overtime costs. Due to the unpredictability of police work, those fixed-date programs can wind up being held at the most inopportune times.

In addition, the department’s new approach enables all personnel to assume greater responsibility for actions important to their individual career development.

The actions Scott has taken since he was named chief in April 2016 likely would make traditionalists in law enforcement roll their eyes. In fact, he confirmed that he has seen that reaction when speaking to police organization peer groups about what’s going on in Ballwin.

The fact that Scott has made the moves he has, with Hanson’s knowledge and blessing, confirms the strong working relationship between the two and the fact that they share similar people-oriented management philosophies.

It was Hanson who made the decision to promote Scott to the chief’s position early last year. Then a 23-year veteran of the department and a captain in charge of its field operations bureau, Scott was one of 18 applicants for the post, all the others either were chiefs or high-ranking officers.

Tested by fire … gun fire

Hanson considers the hiring of department heads such as Scott to be his single most important task. “Having the right people around you is essential to any city administrator, or to any chief executive,” he observed. “You can’t do everything yourself, so you need people you can depend on to get the job done. And that applies to every supervisor throughout the organization.”

Reflecting on the hiring process that brought Scott to the job, Hanson cited a remark the new chief made when he learned he had been selected for the post: “‘I’ll never let you down,’” Hanson recalled Scott saying to him.

“If any additional proof was needed that I had made the right decision, that certainly was it,” Hanson said.

Scott had been in his new position less than three months when all the philosophies and beliefs he and Hanson share were put to brutal test. Ballwin Police Officer Michael Flamion was shot and gravely wounded during a traffic stop.

It was an event that shook city government to its core and brought with it a host of challenges difficult to anticipate and prepare for.

Hanson was about to leave on a vacation with his family and, in fact, almost everyone thought he already had left when he learned of the incident. The vacation quickly was put on hold and Hanson headed to the police station.

Scott had left the station in his patrol car and was headed home to heat up a frozen pizza for lunch when he heard the department dispatcher’s series of alerts over the police radio; each announcement becoming more ominous as information came in via the 911 emergency system.

Scott forgot about lunch and sped down New Ballwin Road to the shooting scene.

Arriving at the police station, Hanson quickly saw the efforts being made to handle what could only be described as conditions approaching chaos.

“Every line on the telephone console was blinking with calls coming in from all over wanting to know what had happened,” Hanson said. “Our dispatchers and receptionist knew what had happened and had tears rolling down their faces, but they were trying to handle the calls in the professional manner they knew was needed.”

“Then we had people arriving at the station, many of them police officers from other agencies who had come to help however they could.” Scott and Hanson estimated that 20 other police agencies responded to help the Ballwin department that day.

As for Scott, his rush to the scene was interrupted when another car, whose driver didn’t see or hear the lights and siren on the chief’s approaching vehicle, pulled out from a cross street into his path. The resulting T-bone crash was unavoidable but comparatively minor.

Another police car responding from a nearby department soon rolled up and the officer turned over his vehicle to Scott and volunteered to take care of the accident scene and the chief’s damaged ride.

The rest of the day was a blur of activity. With his officers obviously shaken by what had occurred, Scott rallied the group, reminding them of the job they still had to do.

Quick thinking by one of the officers already had led to a check of the dashboard video camera on Flamion’s patrol car. As a result, a detailed description of the shooter and his vehicle was broadcast to all area police departments. The suspect was arrested scarcely more than a half-hour later and only a few miles from the scene.

“I think a lot of things were done right that day,” Hanson said. “Could we have done better? Yes, of course.”

On-the-job training

The two primary lessons of the day were these:

“Real-time media truly means real-time media,” Hanson observed. “You simply must have a plan in place on how to disseminate information. That’s just not something you can do on the spur of the moment.

“Right along with that is how you, as an organization, communicate internally. We had a lot of questions coming at virtually every city employee that day and whenever one of our people responded that information became the official word from the city.

“In any kind of emergency situation – and that includes everything from a tornado to any other natural or manmade disaster – it’s absolutely vital that your communications plan include ways of keeping your people informed about what’s going on and what’s the best way to respond to questions.”

Hanson said the task requires taking the time to sit back and reflect on various scenarios and providing appropriate guidelines and training to your people. “You can’t think of everything that could happen but it’s better to prepare as best you can before the fact, rather than after,” he asserted.

The lessons clearly fit with Ballwin’s emphasis on using and building its employees’ talents and abilities to boost the city’s “brand.”

There’s also a link to how officials approach the task of hiring new employees.

“How do you hire people wisely if you don’t know where you’re going and how you want to get there?” Scott asked.

Comments from a recently hired Ballwin police officer on the day she was sworn in served to answer and underscore that point. Asked why she had chosen Ballwin – having been courted by several other departments as she neared the end of her police academy training – Tabitha Peebles paused in thought before responding.

“Well, I was impressed by the support for the department in the community,” she said. “Then, when I talked to the chief and one of the sergeants during my interview, things just clicked that this was the right place for me.”

Scott earlier noted that he also had taken Peebles to meet Hanson at his office during the interview process. When that session ended and as they left the city administrator’s office, Hanson pulled Scott aside and whispered, “I think you should hire her.”

Scott agreed.

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