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As we sat down for our interview, a phone call came in. “Hi, is Chief Kevin in?”

Chief Kevin.

That’s the type of connection you get in Springdale.

Located in West Columbia, SC, Springdale Police Department is the smallest 24-hour, full service department in Lexington County. The department has 8 officers on staff. Each officer wears many hats – they are National Crime Information Center (NCIC) certified; they are evidence custodians; they do records management. On top of all that, they are a model for community policing.

And they are led by an outstanding man, Chief Kevin Cornett.

Chief Cornett joined Springdale PD 5 years ago. He started his law enforcement career with the City of Columbia Police Department following his time serving with the National Guard. He is recognized as an outstanding leader and was honored as one of the top 40 law enforcement professionals under 40 years of age internationally in 2016.

Driven to Help Others

Chief said that his favorite thing about his job is ‘helping others.’ He shared that a few days before he was outside of the department with the police dog talking to kids. A mother stopped him and said that one of the children was so fearful of police because she had been removed from her home by police and put into foster care. Spending time with chief and the dog ‘broke down barriers’ – she was laughing and giggling with Chief by the end.

Chief has a special soft spot for children, especially those who come from challenging experiences and broken homes. He is from a broken home himself. By the age of 5, Chief had experienced both sexual and physical abuse. He recounted a story when, at the age of 13, his stepfather held a shotgun at him during a fight with his mother.

For Chief, these experiences drive him to care for others who are experiencing tough times. He shared a story about a child he connected with through their Lunch Buddy program. The program was developed by one of their officers as part of their problem-based training. As part of the program, officers eat lunch with an assigned grade level each week. “We had a child that I got to know the first year through the Lunch Buddy program who came from a fatherless home and was struggling with things and getting in trouble a lot,” Chief recounted. “I started spending time with him and it was really cool… It’s gotten to the point now where, if I drive by his house and he is playing basketball, I will jump out and play with him or talk to him.”

Chief’s compassion doesn’t end with children. He shared a story about a woman who was suffering from a drug addiction. She had lost her husband, her children, and her job. Chief remembered the first time they were out with her. She told him that she really wanted to quit. Then, he got a call out to her a few weeks later. More drugs. “I’ve tried outpatient. I’ve tried everything,” she said. “Well, if you’ve tried all of those things, I am going to help you the only way I know how,” the Chief responded.

He arrested her. And then he kept arresting her until finally she sat in jail long enough that she kicked her drug addiction. She now is remarried, has regained custody of her children, and is expecting another child. She visits the Chief regularly.

“There are times I hate arresting people because I know they need help,” said Chief. “There are times when we really want to help but the law holds our hands back… But sometimes, arresting people is the best way to help them.”

Training Centered on Respect and Compassion

Chief shared his desire to promote respect and compassion in his officers. “I know a lot of people think we need more interaction, but I think we have great interaction. One thing I love about my agency is that when I hire people, I tell them we treat everyone with respect. Even if we have to wrestle them to the ground and handcuff them, the moment the handcuffs are on, it’s over… We go back to ‘sir, ma’am, do you need water? Do you need medical attention?’ It’s to the point where people we have arrested have said, ‘If I’m going to be arrested, I want it to happen in Springdale.’”

That training starts early. Chief says Springdale uses a unique approach to training that integrates Field Training with Problem-based Training. The highlight of their training is that each officer needs to present an idea for how to better their community.

Recently, an officer had the idea to start a Bicycle Rodeo. “He came to me and said ‘all kids sit in their house and play video games. Let’s get them out and teach them bicycle safety.’” Chief thought it was a great idea. He sent him to police bike school to get certified. He bought him a police bike. Cycle Center donated helmets and coordinated an obstacle course. The first event was a huge success and they plan to do it annually.

When asked what impact this training has on his officers, Chief shared that it helps to feel a sense of ownership. “Whether they live here or not, they feel a part of the community. It is more than just a job.”

However, as a small department, Springdale struggles with resources. There are more ideas than there is money. Chief said he strives to make Springdale a model for small departments and that there is always room for growth. The story of Springdale – small department, few resources – is a common challenge for many departments in S.C.

Change Starts with Empathy

When asked what needs to change, Chief shared that there needs to be an understanding from both sides. “A lot of people don’t understand we are people. We have been through things. We have families. I have a wife. She owns a business. I have four kids. I have been broke. I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. I think a lot of people miss that about us.”

When asked what advice he would give to others, he said, “Don’t judge all police by what has happened to you. I would like to say every last one of us is good and we are going to be great at our job all of the time. But you never know what you are dealing with. You never know what they have just cleared. Sometimes, we may seem emotionless. I worked a child fatality not too long ago where I looked at a baby that was the same age as my kid laying before me deceased. I still had to clear that call, I still had to go on other calls. I was blank… We don’t have time to just sit there and talk about it because we have more to do. And you know sometimes, there are bad people. But don’t judge everyone by someone else… Judge them by who they are and what they do… Give us a shot.”

He says efforts for change go both ways, he says. “A lot of times on my side, we get caught up in the ‘they don’t understand us.’ But we aren’t doing anything to break down those barriers.”

Chief is working hard to break down those barriers. He has a vision for putting on a ‘Daddy and Me’ 5K that would raise money for the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition. He had the idea years ago but has not had the resources to put it in action. Next year, the run will become a reality as part of the Heroes In Blue Compassionate Acts Program and through partnerships with the Fatherhood Coalition.

In the meantime, Chief continues his valiant efforts to promote safety, trust, and understanding through his compassionate work in a small, tight knit community.

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