Sometimes life brings you full circle. That is the case for new Homecroft Police Chief Jim Leonard.
Growing up, Leonard always wanted to be a police officer. And why not? He was surrounded by them. Leonard was raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. His dad sold steel and his mom was a stay-at-home mother. Two older sisters rounded out the family. The neighborhood was dotted with homes of firefighters and police officers. The police and firefighters were revered, and every young boy wanted to grow up to be like them.
Leonard watched the public safety people in his neighborhood and started to notice the camaraderie. The bonds were strong and integral to developing good working units.
Eventually Leonard married, had three children, and became a firefighter. He kept his head down and worked hard at his job trying to provide for his growing family.
Public safety jobs are tough on marriages and after seven years in the department his marriage ended and he needed a different job. Leonard moved to Texas and started working in restaurant management.
One of the places he worked had a drive-up window. Each day a woman came through and ordered a cherry vanilla coke. Each day they talked a bit. Over time he found out she was a divorced mother of five children. And then it didn't take long for Leonard to ask her out. "I knew I had met the love of my life," Leonard said.
"October 1 was our first date," he said, "and we married in April of the following year." In addition to his three children and Lesa's five, they had three more. Later another young woman came to live with them and when asked, Leonard includes her saying he has 12 kids. Sadly, three years after marrying Lesa, Leonard's daughter from his first marriage passed away on his birthday.
Leonard continued working for the Incredible Pizza Company climbing the ranks to be vice president of operations and refining his ideas about teamwork. The chain had stores in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Indiana. "You had to talk to people and find out why they were doing things," he said. "You can't just come down on them if they aren't doing things right. But most of all, you have to get to know them. You have to learn about their families and what is important to them. When people feel valued, they step up."
That notion of getting to know people is evident when you watch Leonard as he interacts with the community. He talks with people. He asks people questions about themselves and genuinely seems to care. This is never more evident than when he is around kids. "These are our future leaders," he said. "They are what our community is all about."
"You can see this play out at community events," said Zach Frizzell, town council president. "He is always talking to the community and the kids."
On a cold, rainy, blustery day last December, the town had a meet Santa event. Kids could write a wish list to give to Santa and there was Leonard, sitting with the kids helping them write out their lists. Recently, during family movie night at Homecroft Elementary, Leonard was inviting kids to sit in his police car.
Team building is why the pizza company he worked for sent him to Indiana. In 2009 they needed someone to get the Indiana operations going. Jim and Lesa and their family moved to Franklin and things were going well for the family.
However, things took an awful turn in March of 2013 when Lesa was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She passed away 10 months later. The cancer battle led the insurance company to cancel her insurance. They lost everything.
"Her dying wish was that I follow my dream of being a police officer," Leonard said. "One of my friends at the time was on the Homecroft Police Department and another was with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. The IMPD officer was friends with Chief Ryan and said that was the only department I should go to work for."
Leonard met with Chief John Ryan and joined the Homecroft Police Department in June of 2014. Leonard took the Pre-Basic class required of all wishing to join volunteer departments like Homecroft's. He has now completed the Chief's School and will attend the 8-week Tier II course offered by the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. The course requires officers to be at the Academy from Monday morning through Friday evening. While Leonard is taking the course Chief Ryan, Assistant Chief Dave Hodge, and Major Jason Holland are heading up the department.
Leonard's eagerness to get into law enforcement was one reason Ryan hired him. But more important, according to Ryan, was his positive attitude, his willingness to learn, his commitment to the town, and his ethics and honesty.
"Now that Jim is chief, he brings these traits to the position along with his law enforcement experience," Ryan said. "He also continues to be forward-looking in making the department more like family, and continuing to build the team, improve training and equipment, and improving service to the town."
Back to things coming full circle - in addition to living his childhood dream, Leonard can look back to his days managing restaurants. Restaurant management might not seem like a good background for running a police department, but it's all about teamwork, according to Leonard. "I might be the chief here, but we are a team," he said, "and it takes the whole team to run the department well."
In addition to appointing Dave Hodge as assistant chief, Leonard has promoted Jason Holland to major and Matt Baker to sergeant. Plans down the road involve getting a chaplain in the department. "A chaplain wouldn't be just for department members," Leonard explained. "The chaplain would be available to officers, their families, and the citizens. Something might happen in our community where we need a chaplain to talk with people. We need to take care of our spiritual, mental, and physical needs. I'd like to set up a little gym here with a Bowflex and a treadmill. Officers are required to volunteer 6-8 hours a week and at the end of a shift I would like that to include 30 minutes in our little gym. We need to take care of the whole person."
Leonard has an ambitious five-year plan for the department. That plan includes starting a program of lunch visits with elementary school students and staff. He is also encouraging the officers to interact with the community and is starting an officer bike program. "We've just ordered a bike uniform for Sgt. Baker," Leonard said. Leonard's plan is lengthy - two pages - and includes training officers, and possibly holding workshops for local citizens. Other plans include employing more social media, developing a tip line, and creating an in-house investigation division to help solve and prevent crimes. Leonard would also like to increase the hours of coverage in the community.
Now that his boyhood dream of becoming a police officer has come to fruition, he has set his sights on making the Homecroft Police Department the best it can be. To realize that goal, Leonard is going to rely on the team-building skills that have helped him in the past.