New chief looking forward with township department

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011
— Steve Kopp watched as the Town of Beloit Police Department made headlines no police chief would want.

He wished he could help.

Now he has the chance.

The department made news the last couple years for controversy involving former Chief John Wilson. The town board named Kopp the permanent chief earlier this month after he served as interim chief following Wilson's retirement in January.

In 2009, Wilson was reprimanded for using racially offensive language in office. Wilson, the town and the former town administrator are defendants in seven federal lawsuits.

The Gazette spoke this week with Kopp about his role as chief.

Q. With lawsuits still pending, how does the department move on from years of controversy?

A. "When I first came here, there was just an incredible amount of tension just walking in the building—you could feel it—and I think a lot of mistrust between employees over these lawsuits. I think for the most part that's gone now.

"Some people have left the agency that were involved in those issues. When you bring new people on board that don't have that history, that just helps.

"As far as the community, I've been very surprised. I thought that when I encountered people in the public that I would hear some of that negative feelings toward the police department. Boy, almost without fail, the people I've encountered have been just really supportive of the police department and are very happy that I'm on board. Even though it's been just six months, I think people have seen a difference in the police department."

He was pleased to see about 100 people attend an open house shortly after he started.

"Just being open and transparent to the public is so important, and I think that was a good first step."

Q. You retired as a deputy chief at the Janesville Police Department in late 2009. What led you to this job?

A. "It didn't take me long to realize, well No. 1, I missed all the people that I worked with. Secondly, I missed the work, and I realized that I probably wasn't ready to retire when I retired. I had applied for some chief positions in other jurisdictions—always made it to the finals, but didn't get the offer for various reasons.

"When Chief Wilson resigned, and they were interested in an interim chief, it was just really a perfect fit because I've lived in the town most of my life. I had watched with interest and concern what was going on with this department, and for some time thought I could help out if the opportunity presented itself. So it did."

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced starting here?

A. "The biggest challenge probably was coming from Janesville and having a lot of resources to work with and coming to a small agency and having just the opposite. Scheduling is challenging to maintain 24/7 coverage in the town, and especially since we've had a couple of occurrences where officers have been on extended sick leave, it takes us down even further."

He has hired two full-time officers and one part-time officer to fill vacancies.

"That's helped a lot. … Then of course, it probably goes without saying, that the department has been through turmoil the last couple years, and to overcome that reputation, and to get the staff that's here working in a positive direction, working together as a team. We're making good progress with that."

Q. What changes have you made and plan to make?

A. Sgt. Laura Palmer, who was appointed acting chief when Wilson retired, was in the process of redoing the department's policy manual when Kopp started.

"That has now been completed. That went into effect June 1. We've got all new policies in place.

"We filled vacant positions, so we've got new officers on board. I'm stressing to the officers the importance of interacting with the community and just being more visible and more active with the community."

Because of the limited resources, the small department is unable to offer specialty programs, he said.

"My goal is provide the best possible basic police services to this community."

Last updated: 5:59 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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