The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

February 21, 2013

Police chief looks back on 30-year career

OTTUMWA — Police Chief Jim Clark will soon bid farewell to the city he’s served for the past 30 years.

Clark announced his retirement from the Ottumwa Police Department a month ago and said he, his wife and daughter will be heading to an area between St. Pete Beach or Clearwater Beach in Florida a week from Saturday.

“We’re going to relax, enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the beach and enjoy watching some professional sports live, like baseball or football,” he said.

It won’t be hard to “switch off” once he retires, he said.

“From everything that people tell me that retire, it’s a burden lifted off their shoulders, it’s a load lifted off that they almost can physically feel,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about, is an officer going to get hurt? Is an officer going to do something? Is some citizen going to complain? Is a council member going to complain about something one of your officers did? It’s a complete stress remover. That, I’m looking forward to.”

After graduating from Ottumwa High School in 1975, Clark moved to Ames to work at a factory and met a co-worker, Tom Oxley, a part-time officer in Ogden, though he soon was hired as a full-time officer in Ames.

Clark filled the gap Oxley left behind in Ogden and then moved to the Madrid Police Department for two years. In 1982, Clark returned home and began his work as a patrol officer for the OPD.

While most calls have blended together over time, Clark said several in particular stand out, especially those involving children.

When Clark was called to a car accident at Woodland Avenue and U.S. Highway 63 several years into his career, he found a 2- to 3-year-old screaming in pain. The boy had gone through the front of a windshield in such a way that his calves became caught in the glass and were peeled to the bone.

“When I got there, the toddler was conscious and awake and just crying for help,” Clark said. “And ... what can you do? You try to comfort the child, but there’s nothing I, personally, can do. I thought he probably would have lost his legs but I heard several months later they cleaned his legs up, sewed everything back up and he’s up running around.

“Seeing a young child crying for help with serious injuries — that’s just heart-wrenching for an officer when you know there’s nothing you can do about it.”

And because of a career in law enforcement, Clark said he’s become very protective of his children since he knows what people are capable of.

“Because of my position, I’m more familiar with some people’s behaviors, and you tend to become very protective of your children because you don’t want people that you know they’ve either been charged with or accused of having any contact with your kids, particularly those that involve hurting children,” he said.

Bob Jay, currently the city’s finance director, worked alongside Clark as an officer when both were just starting at the department during a time when Ottumwa was facing several burglary rings.

Just prior to the shift change at 11 p.m., Jay had heard of a burglary at a store on the city’s south side. When he arrived, he found a door open and called it in. Clark soon arrived as back-up.

“We entered into that building ,and I peeked my head ‘round the corner,  and an individual had a revolver,” Jay said. “I dropped to the floor and Jim took the high position.”

Both Clark and Jay yelled at the person to drop the gun, but he continued to raise it.

“I could see that Bob was getting ready to shoot,  and we kept yelling at him to drop it, and fortunately he lowered the gun back down,” Clark said.

They found out later the person was the owner’s son and the gun was not even loaded.

“He almost got shot,” Jay said. “It was pretty hair-raising for awhile.”

It’s easy for police officers to become cynical or jaded, he said, “because you see what a person is really like.

“You learn things about community members,” he said. “Then the same person appears like a fine, upstanding citizen that everyone looks up to when in reality they have their vices, also. But that’s where officers need to learn at an early stage in their career that they cannot let those things get the better of them. They need to look at everything in perspective and realize no one’s perfect and everyone has problems now and then.”

Ottumwa has changed since Clark grew up on Manning Avenue in the 1960s and ’70s, but so has the country and society as a whole, he said.

Kids could be found playing up and down the street and when their mother called for dinner, either they would go running back or a nearby neighbor would send them home, he said.

“And you could always find a baseball game back then,” he said. “Whether you knew the kids or not, that was kind of that cohesiveness that brought kids together, whether it was at the reservoir park or up at Walsh High School fields or whether it was someone’s yard, you could always find a baseball game. There’s none of that anymore.”

Those days also didn’t see the gang problems communities face today.

“Years ago if you had an altercation with someone at school or at a bar, one person won, the other person lost and that was the end of it,” he said. “And you knew to stay away from that person or even the next day you might be buddies. Today if there’s an altercation ... whoever loses goes and gets other friends and retaliates or goes and gets a weapon and tries to retaliate.”

Innocence seems to no longer exist, he said.

“That’s not just Ottumwa, that’s everywhere,” he said. “Society has changed over the years. People don’t have the respect for other people’s property that they used to have, whether it’s because they’re not taught it or what, I don’t know.”

But the OPD has changed, too, in two positive ways:

• Officers now to try to help resolve people’s problems as a preventive measure, finding solutions so they don’t have to return to the same problem, Clark said.

• Technology has advanced dramatically in the last 30 years, making officers more effective and efficient.

When Clark started patrol in 1982, he had a portable radio. Just two years before he started, those did not exist.

“You’d get out on a call and if it ended up turning violent, you had no way of contacting anyone else for assistance,” he said.

Next came Convertacoms, a radio in the patrol car that could be ejected and carried with the officer. Officers in the 1980s had no preliminary breath tests and obviously no cameras or computers.

“If you had to talk confidentially to dispatchers, you would have to find a pay phone and dial 9-1-1, because if you dialed 9-1-1 it was free,” he said.

Since Clark took the reins in 2006, he said he’s tried to open up the department, launching the Citizens Police Academy, a department Facebook page and participating in community events.

“One thing I tried to bring to the community was a transparent department,” he said. “Obviously we can’t tell the community everything because we can’t compromise cases. But what we can, we put out to the community.”

He hopes that continues once he leaves.

“He’s a fantastic guy,” Jay said. “You won’t be able to find anybody better. Jim was always above board, he followed the rules and regs. We could always rely on him for back-up. He was always there.”

For now, Lt. Tom McAndrew will serve as the interim chief until civil service testing is conducted to obtain a list of candidates. Once that list is certified, City Administrator Joe Helfenberger will select a candidate and submit his or her name to the Ottumwa City Council for approval.

“These last few days will be spent making sure the administrative staff is familiar with all the daily tasks that need to be done,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of daily little things that I take for granted that I do that I actually have to pass on and I’ve got to remember all those little things.”

Police Chief Jim Clark’s farewell reception:

A farewell reception to honor the retirement of Ottumwa Police Chief Jim Clark will be held from 2-4 p.m. today in the training room of the Joint Law Enforcement Center at 330 W. Second St.

The public is invited to say farewell to Clark, who has announced his retirement effective Saturday.

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