Heaton takes over as chief

Tue, 03/14/2006 - 5:55pm
By: Ben Nelms

Steve Heaton

It was his first day on the job. And it was time for Steve Heaton to have his say. Taking the reins March 9 as Fayetteville’s police chief, Heaton quickly displayed the willingness to talk about law enforcement from a philosophical and an operational perspective, views that accentuate the merits of a participative approach to management.

Heaton has been in public safety for more than 20 years, both as a firefighter and in law enforcement. He spent the past 10 years with Valdosta police, where he served as major/commander of Valdosta’s Bureau of Investigative Services. Heaton also spent nine years with the Perry Police Department, served as a Florida State Trooper and has additional experience as a firefighter in Florida. Heaton earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Columbus State University and is currently an assessor and team leader with the national Commission of Law Enforcement Accreditation (COLEA).

“I was excited to have the opportunity to compete with folks that I knew that were chiefs or had been chiefs,” said Heaton. “I had heard about Fayetteville in 2001 when I was at the Command College. I met a lieutenant from Fayetteville and we talked about recruitment and retention, the kind of department it was and the type of community Fayetteville was. So when I saw Fayetteville advertised on the chiefs’ Web site I thought maybe I’d like to go there. I knew of the professionalism and the accreditation. And to be accredited by COLEA and to be re-accreditated three years later when they came back, was an indication to me that the department was moving in the right direction.”

Heaton expressed views on management that are more participative than authoritarian, more team oriented than unilateral.

“There are different ways to do things and maybe better ways to do things. I guess one of my goals is to take a look at what we’re doing and see if there is a way to take it to the next plateau or level and do better,” Heaton said. “I think we owe that to the public. I think the public expects it. I think that a lot of times, especially as newer police officers, we lose sight of what we do. What we do is about citizen service. That’s what we’re here for.”

“Most of what I’ve found that we deal with on a daily basis may have very little to do with crime,” Heaton continued. “It has to do with quality of life issues. Plain and simple. So officers have had to adjust over the years from being somebody to go out and enforce the law and put people in jail and correct what’s wrong, to dealing with people’s quality of life issues. But I think that’s a good evolution. We serve the public. So I think they ought to be able to come to us and expect that we will help them.”

Heaton said he is currently in process of assessing the way the department runs. If any changes are needed, he said, those topics will be discusses in staff meetings to determine their viability. Implementation and feedback are a part of the plan, he said. The idea whenever possible, Heaton said, is to make changes a part of a collective process. In turn, he said, supervisors, will be responsible for obtaining input from their staff. That view of management also extends to the budget process.

“We’re preparing for a budget. My philosophy on that is that everybody ought to be involved in the budget process,” Heaton explained. “So we’re going to talk to people about that. I don’t expect them to learn the budget but I do expect that the people who are doing the work have wants and needs and we need to address them. That’s just one aspect, I think, of trying to increase the overall morale issue, by developing trust and having them have some ownership and involvement in the department. Because this is not my department. This is the citizen’s police department.”

Heaton was open about his viewpoint on the operational parameters of group management, one where accountability and subsequent performance is fostered by a participative worldview.

“I believe in letting people do what they do best. And with that there is an accountability,” he said. “It’s much easier to run an organization when you have a group working together in the same direction, rather than me making all the decisions, good or bad, and then expecting people to follow them. The team approach works easier that way, I think you should work smarter not harder. I think when you work as a group, you are working toward the same goal, which is to provide the best quality service for the citizens of Fayetteville. It doesn’t have to be my way, it can be somebody else’s way, as long as we are achieving those goals and staying in budget and doing all the other things we have to do.”

One of the more visible aspects of any participative management outlook is that of promoting growth and development from within an organization, one that helps facilitate an increase in professional knowledge within a given job category or across a spectrum of jobs through management experience and advancement. Either way, the promotion of an increasing participation in the job leads to an outcome that enhances an entire organization.

“We have to do everything we can to develop our people and get them involved. And I enjoy that. You’ve got to let them try things. And I know we’re going to make mistakes, they’re going to make mistakes, I’m going to make mistakes. I’ve been doing this a long time but that doesn’t mean I know everything and I certainly don’t claim to. I do my best, I do the right thing and I’m, going to try to instill that. And that’s not going to be difficult in this department. People need to be accountable but I don’t think you beat people down for making mistakes,” Heaton said. “The thing about leadership is not about me telling people what to do. It’s how I influence people to get the job done. It doesn’t have to be negative influence. It’s got to be positive influence. If I can encourage people to think on their own and do good things, my job is going to be a lot easier here. I think the folks I’ve met so far are more than capable of that. And I think that, when the time comes and we’re doing well, it’ll be good for me to remember that it was those people who got us there.”

Mention has been made both recently and in the past of the idea of Fayetteville Police being represented on the Sheriff’s Drug Task Force. That possibility exists, Heaton said, once he gets up to speed on the extent of the drug presence in the city and looks at the operational parameters utilized by the task force. Though some believe city participation would be unwise because the Sheriff’s Office is not accredited, Heaton said that would not preclude the city’s presence on the task force.

“We’re going to look at that. It’s something I’ve got to give some thought to when I can get my feet on the ground,” Heaton said. “I want to meet the sheriff and talk to some of the people who are involved with it. There are several issues I’ve got to consider. For example, you’ve got to go into it with the right attitude. The right attitude is not revenues. The reason you go into the drug enforcement business is because you have drug problems. And I don’t think that’s going to be a issue. I think people are looking at it because we have some drug issues we’re dealing with in the city or we need to be dealing with. If that’s the case then we need to be able to address it as a police department. I’ve been asked to look at it and I’m going to look at it positively. If (the Sheriff’s Office) has standard operating procedures and follow good police procedure anyway, then probably the marrying of an accredited department and the Sheriff’s Office is not going to be an issue. So it’s something I’m going to look at. Being unfamiliar, it’s something I don’t know on my first day.”

No one could have assumed the position of police chief without being aware of the turmoil that existed in the department during the past several years. Heaton said his perspective was one that is geared to engaging the issues today and moving forward from there. The issues that lead to problems in morale in an organization are issues that can be overcome, he said.

“What’s behind us is behind us. We’re looking to move ahead. We can go back and revisit it, but that’s just going to make people angrier, it’s going to slow down the process I’m trying to achieve, which is to build trust. It’s going to slow down our process of getting to the goals we want to achieve,” Heaton explained. “So I don’t know why I would want to go back and revisit what happened a year ago or two years ago or 10 years ago. I need to know it, but that’s it. I have to start over and I have to earn the respect of these folks. They are working folks, they’re hard-working folks and I just happen to be the chief.”

“Morale is a symptom. If somebody says a place has bad morale or they are having a morale problem, morale is not the problem, morale is a symptom of the problem. Morale goes down when you have other issues, whether it’s distrust or people not feeling like they are important, feeling like they are not part of an organization. So I think that in order to improve morale you have to find where those problems are and deal with them individually and try to correct those issues or the perceptions of those issues. And I think the base comes from communication, you have to communicate with everybody in the organization and then you have to build on it. You have to be genuine. And people will see through you if you’re not genuine.”

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