After 35 years with the Alma Police Department, Chief Russell White remains humble about his experience and success with the department.
White was named the Crawford County outstanding law enforcement officer of the year by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge during the 2016 Law Enforcement Summit at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock on Oct. 5.
He was one of 75 officers awarded for each Arkansas county, all nominated for the honor by other officers. This was the first year for the award.
“I’m appreciative of the award, (but) I didn’t do anything extra special to get it - I just do what I do,” White said. “There are probably plenty more officers in Crawford County more deserving than me, it’s just nobody thought to nominate them.”
What White does must be a little special, as he also was named the police chief of the year in 2013 by the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police.
When asked about his upward movement through the ranks to chief, he replied, “I just outlasted them all.”
“The average tenure of a police chief is not very long in general,” White said, adding that it’s usually no longer than five years. “That’s never really been the case here in Alma, thank goodness.”
He also said he tells students touring the police department, “I used to be a real cop; now I just make sure the real cops have what they need.”
Alma City Attorney Chuck Baker is more willing to give White the credit he is due.
“Over the past 25 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with dozens of chiefs of police at agencies all over the area and Chief White is the most dedicated, professional chief I’ve ever experienced,” Baker said.
Baker said it is a “direct result of Chief White’s leadership” that Alma Police Department provides the “highest level of protection and service to the people of Alma.”
“In addition to being an outstanding chief, he’s an outstanding person,” Baker said. “He really is a classic example of what a public servant should be.”
Besides serving in his capacity as chief, White has served the law enforcement community in a number of other ways. He resigned last year from the AACP’s executive board after 16 years, and now serves on the association’s legislative committee and accreditation model policy committee.
White is chairman of the University of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute Advisory Board, and was an original member of the state’s racial profiling board. Both boards are governor appointed.
White also serves on the state’s 911 advisory board, and was a former fire chief for the Alma Fire Department. He continues to serve as a volunteer firefighter, and has been with the fire department 25 years.
He celebrated his 35th year with the Alma PD on Oct. 13.
White grew up in Russellville but moved to Crawford County in 1980, living first in Mulberry and then moving to Alma in 1981 when his wife got a teaching job with Alma School District.
White worked in construction while attending school at Arkansas Tech University to be a teacher and coach, he said.
While living in Mulberry, White lived next door to the mother of Randy Chastain, the city’s police chief at the time.
“He and I got to be friends, and he got me interested in (law enforcement),” White said.
White was hired by the Fort Smith Police Department as a patrolman in 1981.
That same year, an opportunity to join the Alma PD opened up, and while White said he was happy in Fort Smith, his pregnant wife wanted him to be closer to home. White joined the Alma PD on Oct. 13, 1981.
“There was only three of us,” White said. “We all patrolled, even the chief.”
White was the first sergeant for the Alma PD, and as the department grew, he also became its first full-time criminal investigator.
White was a criminal investigator for much of his time with the department, also working with the narcotics division of the state police at times. As former police chief Joe Don Gregory’s health began to fail, he also filled in as acting chief.
It was July 26, 1994, after Gregory retired, that White was appointed chief by then mayor John Ballentine.
A defining moment in White’s career as chief likely came in June of 1995, when 6-year-old Morgan Nick was abducted from a little league baseball game in Alma.
“I had been chief just short of a year at that time,” White said. “That changed our department; that changed all of us here in many ways. I know I did a lot of growing up.”
White said the case, which remains unsolved but continues to be actively investigated by the Alma PD, changed the way he viewed life.
Professionally, because of the effort to recover Nick, the case improved the department, White said.
“It was a terrible price to pay because of what happened, but the department garnered knowledge that continued to be an asset to the city from that time on,” White said.
Alma’s connection to the case and the department’s experience led to White working with other missing child agencies, he said, and is credited with Alma Police Department Capt. Jayson Peppas’ idea to create regional CARTs - Child Abduction Response Teams.
White personally has had an impact on the growth of his department, both of staff and offices, during his tenure.
Alma Police Department recently expanded to include the entirety of the building that at one time housed the mayor’s office, public works, the city’s public library and the police department.
A recent remodel, along with an addition, made the building modern and workable for the police department.
“It was just two small offices when it was built in 1978, and now we consume the whole building,” White said.
Officers can now enjoy more spacious offices, instead of having four share a 10 feet by 10 feet space, White said. It also provides easier access to the public, is more secure and it improved the building’s appearance, he said.
White began working for the expansion up to 15 years ago, he said, but expects the current space to last “a good long time.”
“Our city has always been pretty low crime, it’s always been that way, and I think that’s because of our ability to grow as the city has grown,” White said.
That growth of the department always has been White’s vision, said Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown, who worked with White for several years at the Alma PD.
Brown and White have maintained a professional relationship and a personal friendship over the years, Brown said.
“I really enjoyed working for him,” Brown said. “Russell’s always had a vision for the Alma PD to make it a more modern police department. Since 2005, that department has really grown. He’s brought it a long way.”
White gives credit for Alma crime rates to community support for department growth and “law abiding citizens.”
While not ardent in speaking about his own accomplishments, White is enthusiastic when it comes to acknowledging his officers and employees.
He admits he has hired everyone who now works at the department, and his main requirement is integrity.
“If everything is equal and one person has more experience, we’ll hire the person with more experience. But the first thing we hire for is integrity,” White said.
He looks for people who want to help others, because they can be taught the skills they need to be a police officer, he said.
Maybe he is right when he said that is the key to his success.
“The only way I can be successful down here is with the people who are here,” White said. “The real success comes from your employees - when they do good, they make you look good.”