North Strabane police chief is right where he wants to be

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When Brian Hughes began his career in law enforcement more than 20 years ago, his goal was to be a police chief.


And after a rather unusual career path, the 46-year-old native of North Versailles was hired in May by the board of supervisors as police chief of the 18-member North Strabane Township department. He replaced Dan Strimel, who retired at the end of 2013 after serving nearly 31 years as chief.


Instead of sticking with one department while waiting for the chief’s position to open and then hoping to get appointed, Hughes opted to go where the job was available. After spending four years as chief in Webster City, Iowa, Hughes applied for the North Strabane job after hearing about it from a friend.


“I had been contemplating about a larger department, but the prospects of coming back to my home area was a plus,” Hughes said. “There is so much potential being at the helm of a department in a growing community.”


In looking for a new chief, the township supervisors wanted the successful candidate to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, as well as 10 years’ experience as a police officer, with five of those years at the rank of lieutenant or higher and supervising at least five officers.


Hughes began his career in law enforcement in 1992 as a part-time officer in his hometown after he graduated from the police academy. He moved on to Duquesne, where he was later named school resource officer. Hughes then went to work in Marco Island, Fla., in 2000.


Originally, the Florida city was looking to create a public safety department that would encompass police, fire and emergency medical services. Hughes thought that would be a good fit since he had experience not only as a police officer, but as a volunteer firefighter and as a paramedic and operations manager of an EMS service.


“I got to Florida, and the firefighters’ union did not want a public safety department,” Hughes said. “It was decided to keep the police department separate.”


Hughes’ chief in Florida was supportive of his desire to attend college and allowed him to arrange his work schedule around classes. Hughes earned associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business management from Hodges University in Naples, Fla.


“I knew that to make myself marketable, I had to first start with the law enforcement skill set,” Hughes said. “Then it was learning to manage people as I moved forward.”


From Marco Island, Hughes took a position of captain with a sheriff’s department in Wyoming. While he liked the area, his wife, Vicki, did not, so Hughes took the job in Iowa, about an hour north of Des Moines.


Hughes likes what he sees in the North Strabane department.


“I would like us to be the premier department in the county,” Hughes said. “But, we have a lot of competition for that.”


In building the department, Hughes said he is not interested in having the best cars or equipment.


“It is about having capable people and processes of accountability and what works,” the chief said. “You have to have good policies and practices.”


Education and training of the officers is paramount. Hughes said it is important the officers have the skills and tools they need.


“Then I get out of their way and let them do their job,” he added. “I don’t believe in micromanaging. They get the tools so they can fix the problem. But they have to realize the means justify the ends.


“I believe you also have to concentrate on the small things, like the appearance of the uniform and having shiny shoes,” Hughes said. “You tend to avert bigger problems if you don’t let the little things go.”


Hughes said he has made a few changes, but nothing major.


“Before I prejudge, I want to understand what is going on,” Hughes said. “Things are always different when you go to a new place. But that doesn’t mean it is wrong.


“I want to understand the strengths of each officer and their goals,” he added. “Most importantly, I want to put them in the place where they are best suited. We can get everyone on the bus, but they have to be in the right positions on the bus to be successful.”


Several of the officers have already gone to various training, with more planned. Three officers will be certified to teach civilians and school personnel what should be done in an active-shooter situation. Hughes said a similar program was offered by the department in Iowa and was very successful.


“There is a lot of confusion about what to do when you haven’t been trained,” the chief added.


Hughes also wants a stronger partnership with Canon-McMillan School District. As part of that, Officer Eric Spicer will now work as the school resource officer at the high school.


Hughes also would like to hire two more officers to bring the department up to its full complement of 20 roster spots. Several officers will receive field training so they can work with any new officers hired by the department. Each new hire will train for 12 weeks, working with three different trainers who will grade them based on a manual.


The new chief is working with officers on the design of a new uniform patch that will be more symbolic of the township and its roots. He also wants to develop a crime-prevention program.


“When you look at a police department that is successful, the residents buy into it,” Hughes said. “And you get support from your community.”


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