June 2009

This Guy Goes by the Book

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

The book is about four inches thick. It sits on Chief McAllister’s desk in his office at the Bluffton Police Department on Persimmon Street. It’s the CALEA. (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) manual. Chief McAllister describes it as a blueprint on how an organization should work. His organization. He uses it daily. So does his staff.

“I’m a huge believer in the process, McAllister said. “Each chapter forces you to look at what you’re doing, how you’re doing it. Are you being efficient and effective? In every one of these chapters, there are monthly, quarterly, and annual evaluations that have to be done. What it forces you to do is look over and over again at your operations, to make them better, more efficient, more cost effective. Is there a way to make your department more diverse? That’s covered. When you go on major operations, is there a way to make it safer, better?”

Having the CALEA manual on his desk is the result of three years of intense efforts to rocket the Bluffton Police Department to the highest standards in the industry. At the end of March of this year, the department was granted accreditation by CALEA. Of the 17,000 plus law enforcement agencies in the U.S., only about 1,000 have received the CALEA accreditation.

Looking at the overall impact of what accreditation means to the citizens of Bluffton, McAllister drew interesting parallels. “If a hospital weren’t accredited, would you go there to get your appendix out? Not likely. If you went to a college that wasn’t accredited and your grades wouldn’t transfer, who would care about your degree? Yet we’re willing to give people badges and weapons and say, good luck to you. For so long, the profession has been shrouded in secrecy. There is nothing that we do that you cannot know. You may not always understand what we do, so it’s our job to explain it,” McAllister said. “Transparency” is McAllister’s favorite word. How times have changed.

Anyone who has lived in Bluffton or on Hilton Head Island for a few decades remembers the Bluffton of old. One square mile. An enclave for interesting characters. A community made famous locally (then nationally) by a bumper sticker (cars had bumpers back then) that read, “Bluffton, a State of Mind.” On the far side of the bridge was glitzy, ritzy Hilton Head Island. On the mainland side was Bluffton—quiet, relaxed a tight-knit community of independent thinkers, artists, writers, generations of families who loved the land, the Lowcountry; and all wanted to preserve a certain, distinctive quality of life.

It was also a speed trap. It had been for years. Short term rental management companies on Hilton Head included a note to vacationers, alerting them to that fact.
Then came the boom. Mayor Lisa Sulka described it as a “small town growing into a big small town.” In 1993, when Sulka moved from Hilton Head to Bluffton, she remembered what it was like. “There were two or three policemen for that little one square mile. We all knew them,” Sulka said. The population of small town Bluffton hovered at about 1,000.

But the dynamics of Bluffton were already starting to radically change, even before the first residents of Sun City Hilton Head, a few miles west of Bluffton, took up residence in 1995. In an attempt to control development as a way of life, Bluffton’s one mile now stands at 50 square miles through annexation. The population of greater Bluffton is estimated to be somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000.
As the town government fought to keep up with the demand such growth required, it became apparent there was a struggle, as Mayor Sulka described it, “between the way things were and the way things should be” as Bluffton grew into a “big small town.” A prime example was the Bluffton Police Department. In 1998, the Bluffton police began issuing illegal tickets to motorists. In succession, two town clerks of court were found guilty of siphoning court fines into their own pockets. As an Island Packet editorial said at the time, “It is obvious things are seriously amiss.”

Jump to 2006. Enter Bluffton’s new police chief, David McAllister. “The accreditation closes the chapter. I don’t know if everybody understands what this town had—untrained or undertrained officers. A court clerk was arrested. For this department to go from corruption to CALEA (accreditation) in three years … I’d bet my whole paycheck that’s not happened anywhere else in the country.” McAllister said.
He said he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job. He felt of all his opportunities, Bluffton presented the possibility for a profound change. “(The accreditation is) a special story because this is a special group of people. It started with the citizens who said we believe in a police department and we want it to work. Then, the Town Council heard that. Then police officers wanted to provide Bluffton with something they could be proud of. They were really excited with all the changes. But the changes weren’t easy,” McAllister explained.

“This presented a unique opportunity, growing from one square mile to 50 square miles in just a few years. Here was a sleepy little town with an atrocious reputation in its police department; it was a speed trap; it had all kinds of negative connotations. What a unique opportunity to turn it around,” McAllister said. “The people of Bluffton deserved that.”

When McAllister started, the department had no policies and procedures. CALEA solved that problem. “They had equipment that was, well, disgraceful at times. We had to work through all of that and do it in three years. That takes dedicated people. Not everyone who was here, when I came, is still here. But the ones who dug in, about ten of them, ended up staying and have found great success. It’s nice to work for a place you can have pride in,” said McAllister. All this new training, learning the new policies and procedures, had to be accomplished on the fly. “You just don’t close down for training,” McAllister explained.

Chief McAllister could be described as a “21st Century” policeman, whether it’s training his staff or educating the Bluffton community. While the CALEA manual covers many aspects of training and things like how to achieve diversity in the department, McAllister added another level for his new recruits: history.
“We really have a good time here. I enjoy the interactions I have with the citizens, even the angry ones, and try to bring them around, trying to understand the Bluffton ‘character.’ But I also take my job very, very seriously. We try to do community policing and get out and meet everybody, but that’s a challenge for us. One of those things I did is have the Hayward House teach the history of Bluffton and the area. I wanted to bring in young police officers and I wanted them to know the area. I wanted them to understand how this area came to be and why it’s important. I wanted them to understand internally where we were going and how we were going to get there,” McAllister said.

For the citizen side of things, the department’s new Web page (blufftonpolice.com) includes the opportunity to submit comments, complaints, commendations or suspicions, directly to the department. “We get a lot of feedback and anonymous direction for the site,” said McAllister. “And there is a picture and contact e-mail for every one of my police officers.”

He said one of the best means of communication between the public and police officers is the department’s “instant comment card.” It’s a kind of “rack brochure” that is given out by officers responding to an incident. It includes the case number, the officer’s name, and the type of incident. It has a handy list of phone numbers, safety tips and tells about crime victims’ rights and responsibilities. It also includes a detachable postcard that a victim can mail in (postage paid), that is kind of a ratings sheet for that particular incident.

McAllister said that both growth and the rapid increase in demands for police service are some of his biggest challenges. “In 2005, we had 7,000 calls for service. In 2006, we had 14,000. In 2007 we had 18,000. In 2008 we had 22-23,000. So that rapid increase in the demand keeps us busy, he said, adding, “Thankfully, it’s slowing a bit.”

There was, and maybe still is, a challenge for McAllister that a chief in this neck of the woods has never had to face. It would be very easy to imagine the first time McAllister approached the town board and began to speak, “transparency, responsiveness, structure, protocol, Web site.” There would have been a polite pause (Bluffton’s traditional and well-known sense of hospitality would be apparent). Then someone on the board was bound to have asked, “You’re not from around here, are you, son?”

No, he isn’t. He spent 15 years with the New Castle County Police Department in Delaware, where he worked his way up to chief. “He’s one of the first non-locals to come into this (Bluffton) mix,” said Mayor Sulka. “He’s very proud of the department he has built. Someone has a complaint, he trusts, but verifies. He defends (his staff), but he checks into it. A leader or manager of a group that has the full trust that their group will do the right thing is excellent. However, he’ll take the complaint and do a little research to make sure if it’s valid or not. He won’t throw anybody under the bus unnecessarily. I like that,” Sulka said. “He brought such a level of professionalism.”

McAllister didn’t get into law enforcement in the more traditional ways, through family or military. Even as a kid, he thought police work was very cool. “What struck me about the job was that for the briefest of instances, you can have a profound effect on someone’s life. In just a matter of minutes, if you do the job right and you’re dedicated to the job, it’s life changing. When I look back over my career, I can think when I’ve made a profound difference—by either making an arrest that saved someone from becoming a horrible person, or comforting someone, or mentoring them. I know there are other jobs where you can do that, but I don’t know any other job that is so rewarding. To me, it is the representation of all that’s good in government,” said McAllister.

New Castle County is as far north as you can go in the state of Delaware. It’s about halfway between Baltimore and Philadelphia and very urban. McAllister had 800 people under him when he was chief. “I definitely wanted a smaller agency under my command,” he said. He also wanted to be able to spend more time with his family. Bluffton seemed a perfect choice. His family agreed. His whole family. His parents followed and now reside in Rose Hill.

McAllister said the CALEA accreditation has meaning beyond Bluffton. “From the perspective of Hilton Head, we’re at your gateway. Do you want a department that has a shady reputation or do you want someone who can measure up to the best national standards there are. People don’t come where they don’t feel safe. So that’s our contribution to everybody’s economy,” McAllister said with a smile.
And as for the “speed trap” reputation? “I get that all the time,” McAllister said. “People say, ‘You just write tickets to make money.’ If you took the economics of writing tickets, we don’t make a penny on it. By the time you pay the state, which the town is now doing, you’re really left with a small amount of money. Then you factor in the gas, the insurance, the officer’s salary, the clerk’s salary to process all that, there’s no money. It’s not a cash cow. If you do policing right and you do traffic enforcement, you’re writing as many warnings as you are tickets to balance it out.”

McAllister wants to change the perception of how Blufftonians view their police force. He wants people to ask questions, to hold his feet to the fire. “You should ask your police department to do that,” McAllister said. He expects it. He welcomes it.

As to his being an “outsider,” Mayor Sulka may have nailed it. “Yes, he came from the outside. But Bluffton must have done something to him, because his family moved here, his parents moved here. He told me very frankly, a few weeks ago that this is where he wanted to live for the rest of his life. Well, that’s when you’re a Blufftonian. If you move here and you just have to be here forever, you’ve made the cut. That’s the Bluffton ‘state of mind.’”

  1. They don’t Bluff in Bluffton!!!

    — LB    Jun 4, 08:53 am   

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