The Gardner Police Department will be utilizing some new forms of transportation come June 1. Jim Pruetting, new Police Chief, said he plans to have officers patrolling Gardner’s streets on bicycle by early summer.
“It’s a great community policing tool,” Pruetting said. “It gets officers out of the cars and gets them to interact with the community.”
Pruetting took the helm of the Gardner Police Department on Feb. 27. The department wasn’t in turmoil exactly, but it was in a less than stable state. Former Police Chief Kenny Francis died September 2012, after leading the department for more than 25 years.
It took city officials more than nine months to name Francis’ replacement, Gerald Cullumber. That was to be short-lived. Two members of Gardner city staff are required to live within city limits as a condition of their employment — the city administrator and the chief of police. Cullumber resigned on June 2, 2014 after less than a year as the city’s top law enforcement officer. City officials offered no explanation, but there had been tension between some members of the city council and Cullumber about the status of his residency.
Administraive Sgt. Jay Belcher was vaunted to an interim role as the department’s leader until a replacement could be found.
“At that time, we were still trying to move forward, but we understood we had a new chief on the horizon,” Belcher, a 17-year veteran of the Gardner Police Department, said.
Pruetting said Belcher did a great job keeping officers motivated in the interim.
“He was in a difficult position,” the chief said. “You’re kind of in a holding pattern.”
While Belcher was honored to lead the officers temporarily, he said the department feels more stable now, “especially with the type of experience Chief Pruetting brings.”
Pruetting’s first job as a teenager was at Worlds of Fun, when the amusement park first opened.
“Welcome to Worlds of Fun where we have over 150 acres of rides and unique attractions,” he recited.
He drove the park’s tram, possibly too fast.
“I remember one lady said, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but I was in fear for my life,” Pruetting said. “I had to direct traffic for a week after that.”
His father was a reserve officer in Kansas City from 1969 to 1987. Pruetting knew that’s what he wanted to do.
Pruetting’s law enforcement experience is in a larger city. He has worked in a variety of roles with the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department. Pruetting served with the KCPD for more than 30 years. He started as a beat cop in May 1984. He would go on to work in tactical response, or SWAT, and internal affairs and eventually to serve as the executive officer for the KCMO Police Department.
Pruetting and his wife made an agreement early in their marriage — they would eventually move to a small town.
“When I hit 30 years (at KCPD), we didn’t have the conversation again,” Pruetting said. “I just started seeing boxes. I knew we were moving somewhere.”
His wife is from a small community in Missouri, and his family, which includes three adult children and a 10 and 11-year old, spend a lot of time with family in Lawson, Mo.
“They like the small town,” Pruetting said. “…Gardner’s not really that small, but it’s close enough to the city without having a lot of the crime, violence and problems that you find.”
In his 30 years with the Kansas City department, his favorite role was working with the drug enforcement unit.
“There are so many different levels of narcotics trafficking,” he said.
There are networks that bring drugs into the country all the way down to distributors at the street level.
“It was just really interesting to create a course of action where you’re trying to take off different pieces of the network and interrupting the networks of narcotics,” Pruetting said.
Gardner’s small size doesn’t make the community immune to illegal drugs. It’s one of the many areas Pruetting hopes to address in his new role. He’s working on a system that will allow people to report drug activity online or by phone. He hopes it will be in place by June 1.
Also, by that date he hopes to have officers’ schedules reworked. Each officer will begin working four, 10-hour days rather than the traditional five, 8-hour days. The change will allow additional officers, or shift overlap, during high-call volume times.
“One of the advantages of having overlap is to have officers that are available to address those issues — like drugs — proactively,” Pruetting said.
He expected a challenging transition, Pruetting said he’s been easier than he anticipated.
“Everybody here – not just on the police department, but on the city staff – they’ve been great to work with,” he said. “I’m really impressed with the directors and managers. Everyone here has been extremely helpful.”
The new chief has been at the helm for more than six weeks now.
“One thing I’ve noticed from him is that he listens to his people,” Belcher said. “He really wants to do what’s best for the department.”
Pruetting and his family have yet to officially make the move to Gardner. They plan to build a house on the north side of town. For now, he commutes from his home on the north side of Kansas City. His contract does require that he eventually make Gardner home, however.
With more permanent leadership, Pruetting said the department is poised to improve.
“There are a number of things I’m going to address in the short term and in the long term as the city grows,” Pruetting said.