Trial by fire - Idaho Falls' police chief has faced plenty of tests in his career
(IDAHO FALLS, Idaho) -- J. Kent Livsey sat before the Idaho Falls Civil Service Commission, ready to fight.
A binder filled with personnel memos and policy in front of him. Attacking lawyers to the left. His lawyer to the right.
The police chief's decision to fire officers Paul Jagosh and Michael Medema was on trial. Commissioners and attorneys for the fired cops questioned him for hours about accusations that he'd done it for the wrong reasons - including media scrutiny and a dislike for a police union.
Two weeks later, Livsey was vindicated. The terminations were upheld.
His firing of the two officers, who were involved in an off-duty crash after a night on the town, was the most public example of the pressure Livsey has faced in his five years as Idaho Falls' top officer.
He's seen nearly one-third of the city's officers join a union, wanting a say in how working conditions are set up.
His officers have shot five people, killing one.
So far, he has survived every test and has the support of city leaders.
During his tenure, crime has declined, as it has nationwide.
He put six police officers in crime-prone neighborhoods, launched a chaplain program for victims and started a citizens academy.
Livsey couldn't have known 32 years ago when he became a police officer that his career would be a series of sessions on the hot seat.
He became a police officer, he said, because he wanted to be a hero.
Livsey started his career in Salt Lake City, writing traffic tickets and solving minor crimes. He quickly learned that officers were held in low regard. The department had been tarnished by scandals.
Former colleague Mac Connole, now a Salt Lake City assistant chief, said Livsey believed officers could change lives, using a combination of warnings, tickets and arrests to train people to do the right thing.
Livsey's career rose quickly. He jumped to detective within four years.
His first major test was to come on March 7, 1974, when the 29-year-old Livsey shot a boy in the back.
He was after two youths who had escaped Utah's juvenile prison. The boys sold marijuana to him during a sting. Officers were nearby. He tried to signal them with code words, but his hidden radio did not work.
"Nobody came," Livsey says. "The buy was over, and they were going to go away."
Livsey drew his gun and ordered them against a wall. Danny Gallegos, 17, resisted. His gun in one hand, Livsey tried to force him to the wall. It was then that his gun went off by accident. Gallegos fell to the ground.
The boy was released from the hospital within a day of the shooting.
But for Livsey, the event was traumatic.
Administrators told officers not to talk to him. He was twice suspended. Protestors demanded he be fired. He was sued in federal court for $1.4 million. For a time, he had difficulty putting his finger on the trigger, he said.
Livsey was vindicated. The shooting was ruled accidental, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing in court and in internal and criminal investigations.
Two years later, Livsey was promoted to sergeant. It was May 197, and he wanted more input in crime-fighting policies.
"The more rank you have, the more impact you have," Livsey said.
But he also became a target. Six months after his promotion, a Salt Lake Tribune editorial blasted Livsey and eight other officers, falsely accusing them of vandalizing department motorbikes.
Again, Livsey was vindicated. A mechanic admitted making up the story.
The officers sued the newspaper, which settled the suit out of court, paying attorneys' fees and $10,000 in damages to the group.
With the suit behind him, Livsey went on with his career. He earned a reputation as a sergeant who liked to coach young officers. He went on calls and critiqued them in the field.
"You could tell by watching him, he liked being out there with the action," said David Greer, an officer who worked for him.
The promotions had a downside. Livsey saw officers make mistakes and had to pursue them.
He got a big promotion in 1987 when he was named captain, but he was over the unpopular Internal Affairs unit.
The unit's investigations result in reprimands, suspensions and termination - or lead to nothing. They make officers feel like the criminals they are trying to catch.
"It just kind of makes you feel bad when someone you think is a good cop ... then you see this other side of them," Livsey said. "It's just kind of a miserable job."
As a captain and later assistant chief, there were new tests for Livsey.
They were political as opposed to street scrapes.
He had to be loyal to the chief and was often at odds with the union.
"Whatever direction that chief goes, you are his management team," Connole said. "If the chief has a certain agenda, you have to sell the product."
Greer, president of Salt Lake City's police union, said members were glad to see Livsey leave when he took the Idaho Falls job.
Livsey had battled the union over where officers were assigned in the department and over comments members made in a union newsletter, said Greer.
Idaho Falls police administrators liked Livsey's big-city ideas and the experience he brought to the job. Officers were taken aback by restrictive policies on pursuit and rushing to calls, and on what they could say about the department.
Livsey rewrote their schedules from 12-hour to eight-hour shifts, which meant officers lost their four-day weekends.
"The new guy comes in and changes the status quo," said Idaho Falls Police Lt. Jared Fuhriman. "Of course, he's going to step on some toes."
The officers later reached a compromise with Livsey. They now have four 10-hour shifts and have three days off a week.
And Bill Squires, former president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that Livsey has been willing to talk to officers about the policies when they approach him. Livsey may not change the policies, but he will hear the officers out, he said.
Of the officers, citizens and fellow government officials contacted for this story, few were willing to talk about the chief. Officers badmouth and praise him in private, but say they can't comment on the record, citing department policy.
City and county officials were complimentary.
As police chief, Livsey has taken on a public role. He reads to students at Bush Elementary School. He served as chairman of the county's task force on domestic violence and helped win $200,000-plus in federal and state grants.
"He made that a priority, and starting that process has brought major dollars to our community," said Teena Schuldt, director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Center.
Despite bumps and bruises, Livsey still sees police officers as heroes.
Figurines of officers, police hats and different commendations adorn his office. He has a shirt that says "Me Chief."
He talks about criminals as bad guys and police officers as good guys.
He often carries a gun at his side and a copy of the United States Constitution in his shirt pocket.
But no one, even Livsey, knows if he will stay in Idaho Falls.
He serves at the will of Mayor Linda Milam and the City Council, which has been supportive during the recent controversies. His one-year contract is up for review in 2002.
Councilman Brad Eldredge said he hoped Livsey would stay. The chief is community-minded but struggles with a tight budget, Eldredge said.
The council has forbidden him to use short-term grant money to add officers.
The council also has refused to fund Livsey's effort to accredit the department, which Livsey believes would protect the city if it got sued.
There are also changes in the politics inside the Idaho Falls Police Department.
The push to unionize is stronger, and, for the first time, the union and the police officer association are led by the same man.
The budget and union tests lie ahead, but Livsey has momentum right now, having survived another session on the hot seat.
The ruling on the fired officers could unleash more criticism. But Livsey said he has never wavered on his decision.
"You can't be a chief and be popular with the people all the time," he said.
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