Big city cop finds career opportunity in Shawnee

Saturday, August 6th 2005, 2:31 pm
By: News On 6

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) _ The night before he was sworn in as chief of the Shawnee Police Department, Mike Chitwood awoke at 2:30 a.m. to go to the bathroom. He happened to glance out the window and saw a man trying car doors in his apartment's parking lot.

He grabbed his gun and cell phone and crept outside, where he squatted behind a bush and watched the man begin working on the window of a truck with a screwdriver. Chitwood called 911 for help, but by the time squad cars arrived, he had the burglar on the ground, holding a gun against his ear.

``As I saw those cars rolling into the parking lot, I felt like I was home,'' Chitwood said.

He's actually a long way from home.

The Philadelphia native left his job as homicide lieutenant for the police department in that city of 1.5 million people in May to become police chief in Shawnee, population 30,000, in Central Oklahoma about 40 miles east of Oklahoma City.

``This is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life,'' said Chitwood, 41. ``If there's a bad day, there ain't nobody's shoulder to lean on when I get home. It's sink or swim.''

In his 17 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, he won 58 commendations for valor, bravery, heroism and merit.

Now he's getting accustomed to life in a small town. Traffic jams and crowds are few and far between. He has switched from hoagies to Subway sandwiches. There are more houses with yards, the streets are cleaner and he says the residents are more friendly.

``In Philadelphia when you go out running in the morning, you run in the street and people would give you the finger or flash you or cut right in front of you like you aren't even there,'' Chitwood said. ``Here at 5 in the morning, you think they're giving you the finger but they're actually just waving at you.''

The locals sometimes have trouble making sense of Chitwood's thick Philadelphia accent.

``My line is I promise to talk slower if they'll listen faster,'' Chitwood said. ``I'm moving at 100 rpms and a lot of people in Oklahoma move at 50 rpms, so I end up repeating myself a lot.''

In Philadelphia, the department has a diverse force of 7,000 officers, compared to Shawnee's all-white 52 _ something Chitwood hopes to remedy next year by recruiting minorities.

Homicide is the biggest crime in Philadelphia, with 209 so far this year, while Shawnee has had none, and its most frequent crime is burglaries.

Chitwood, who will earn about $80,000 a year as chief, took a pay cut of more than $20,000 to come to Shawnee and left behind close family members, but he said it's worth it if he can further his career and accomplish his ultimate goal of heading a big city police department.

His father, Mike Chitwood Sr., also was a highly decorated Philadelphia police officer when he was named the police chief in Portland, Maine, 17 years ago. Later this month, he will become superintendant of police in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby.

In the nearly three months Chitwood Jr. has been in Shawnee, he has led sting operations at local pawn shops, staked out parking lots to catch car burglars and tackled underage drinking. He is bringing in new technology, revamping the detective division and involving citizens with monthly neighborhood watch meetings.

The pawn shop stings upset some local business owners who said the department's undercover operation, which featured someone posing as a customer wanting to pawn a stolen camera, was heavy-handed. Chitwood responded publicly by asking the pawn shops to open their inventory rooms so theft victims could look for stolen items.

Shawnee City Manager Jim Collard is delighted with Chitwood's performance.

``We're elated that he's here and we hope he stays a long time,'' Collard said. ``He's already made a big impact. The community loves him, but he's already earned that in a very short time.''

John Timoney, who was Philadelphia police commissioner and is now police chief in Miami, recommended Chitwood for the position in Shawnee.

``I spent 29 years in NYPD and four years in Philadelphia, and he's the best I've ever seen,'' Timoney said. ``He's tenacious, he's got a great work ethic and he will hunt them down.''

While Chitwood's ultimate goal is to head a big city department, he holds out the possibility that he may stay in Shawnee for many years.

``You can't talk about the future because who knows what the future holds,'' he said. ``As long as I'm effective and as long as the community wants me to be here, then I'm going to be here.''

And after 17 years chasing criminals, kicking down front doors and putting thieves and murderers away, Chitwood said he wants to remain an active law enforcement officer and not just a desk commander:

``Even though I'm chief, I still like to be able to jump out of a car and run the bad guy down.''