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Hail to the chief: Two decades and counting

The first George Bush was still president when Roger Leque was named acting and soon after permanent police chief of River Falls. <i>Phil Pfuehler photo</i>

Being a police chief for 10 years is notable. Holding the job for 20 years is a milestone. In River Falls, Roger Leque has reached a milestone.

It was this month 20 years that he replaced departing Jack Arndt as acting police chief. A few months later the "acting" part was crossed off of that title.

Leque said a key to his longevity is his passion for River Falls.

"This is not only a good place to work, it's been a great place to live," he says.

Roger and Ann, his wife of 35 years, have raised two sons and a daughter in River Falls.

"They had a wonderful quality-of-life experience, not just in the school system, but learning about good and respective ways to act. And while growing up here, they were not exposed to huge, serious problems, like drugs and gangs."

Leque said River Falls has a "friendly, hometown atmosphere, where many people know each other on the street and wave to each other."

"And," he added, "you also have all the conveniences of being close to the Twin Cities metro and all it has to offer."

Leque acknowledged steadfast support for the police department, even during difficult times, from the City Council, City Hall, the Police-Fire Commission and, in general, from average citizens.

"They've given us the resources we need to do our jobs, and it has all contributed to a positive, cohesive working atmosphere," he said.

Leque downplayed his own role, saying whatever success his department has achieved was due to a blend of many efforts.

"It's not dependent on one person," he said. "Everyone in our department is an important player with a significant role to perform."

Leque admitted that in the public spotlight, you can't always please. Even so, he said that what he stands for is accountability.

"I feel our department is about providing a personalized service," he said. "If you've got a problem, we want to help, even if that means referring you to someplace else. We try to go the extra mile to make a positive difference.

"It's about grasping and seizing those opportunities as they come along and fostering an atmosphere of courtesy, respect, concern and empathy for people."

Leque said help can be a small gesture -- an officer buying someone waiting in the police lobby a candy bar or a can of pop. Another officer may give a person who's been arrested but without transportation in the middle of the night a courtesy ride home.

Leque said creating a cordial environment starts with new officers.

"We have an intensive hiring process," he said. "We look for a personal history of high performance that includes qualities of trustworthiness and respectfulness."

A graphic painted on each police squad car reads: "A Community Partner in Crime Prevention."

Leque said that those words are there to recognize citizen involvement.

"Information and evidence from the public can be critical in preventing and solving crimes," he said.

Leque has seen to it that another important symbol of integrity, the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, is posted in the police station lobby.

In 1996, Leque authored the police department's mission statement, part of which says: "The department is dedicated to providing a police service which is predictable in its standards, yet flexible in its response to the needs of the individual and community, and to the provision of professional, competent and compassionate law enforcement."

The mission statement is posted in the police station's main conference room.

Leque stressed that accountability is a must if citizens are to have faith in their police department.

"When officers are asked a question and don't know the answer, the expectation is that they find out the answer and get back to the person," he said. "You can't have citizens left hanging and then going away with the impression, 'They said they'd get back to me but didn't.'

"That leaves the wrong impression and implies that your police department doesn't care. If that happens continually, people stop contacting you."

Leque added that, "People may not always agree with what a police officer has to say in a response, but at least there was a response and that enhances confidence that police are committed and will follow through. That's personalized service."

Leque said that he appreciates having the funding to maintain a staff that includes secretaries who answer the phone when residents call.

"When someone is calling who is angry, frustrated or scared, it's comforting to reach a live person on the other end and not a recording or a menu of options to listen to," he said.

Since becoming police chief in 1991, Leque said he's never been shocked by what the job entails.

"Sometimes it's been interesting to see where the job takes me," he said, adding that a police chief is often in the middle -- like a liaison -- between a diversified network of entities.

"You become more of a coordinator working with the back-and-forth flow of information between other government officials, the school district, university, chamber of commerce, legislators, service organizations, social service agencies, district attorneys and so forth," he said.

Leque said being a small-town police chief means being a generalist and handling a range of issues, large and small.

"I could be working on a press release for a fatal shooting, like we just had, and 10 minutes later be talking to somebody about a garbage complaint," he said.

Leque said he prefers to handle questions and complaints in a measured way.

"I like to avoid quick, knee-jerk responses," he said. "You're often dealing with emotionally charged issues, but it's important, if time permits, to research things, get matters right and make an informed, meticulous response or decision."

Leque said being a responsive police chief means off-duty chatting with citizens.

"I love those interactions," he said, but it's the reason why he tends to shop alone without his family in River Falls. Picking up one or two items at a grocery store can turn into a half-hour shopping excursion.

"I'm quite well recognized as the police chief, which I think is kind of neat, and so I get to talk to a lot of people in stores or out on the street," Leque said. "It's amazing how much useful information I get from talking to people that way, and it can be as simple as being told that a streetlight is out on a certain corner or a bush is covering up a neighborhood stop sign.

"The idea is to be viewed as approachable -- no matter where I am -- and not standoffish."

Leque, 55, is grateful and humbled by his 20 years as River Falls police chief.

"It's been a great, rewarding experience," he said. "I'm very pleased to be a part of River Falls, and I value the confidence shown in me by the city and this community."