By Zack Polyak
Southlake is considered one of the best places in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex to live and conduct business. Few people have done more to make the City a safe haven than Police Chief Robert Finn. As a 31-year-resident and 23-year public servant of the City, Chief Finn has helped make the Southlake Department of Public Safety second to none.
Chief Finn has served as a volunteer fire fighter, EMT, professional fire fighter, fire chief and presently police chief. In retrospect, Robert told us, “I have never gotten bored or stagnated at any one position with the City. It seems like every time I have needed a different challenge in my life or felt like I had outgrown my surroundings, Southlake’s population grew, and I grew with it.” He laughed and continued, “And I guess after 23 years, I have finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.”
In our interview, we asked Chief Finn about his unique leadership philosophy, delved into his day-to-day responsibilities, and discovered some practical tips he believes would help our residents.
You were the Southlake Fire Chief before becoming the Police Chief. How do those two jobs differ?
“You wouldn’t think that the two jobs would be that different; after all, they’re both divisions of public safety. But in terms of the makeup of the personnel, people who are in fire services versus people who are in police services require a different style of leadership. For example, fire fighters function in a team setting. As the head of a fire department, you’re almost more of a coach trying to make the team function well. You can’t take one guy, put him in a fire truck and send him somewhere by himself. All four go on that fire engine together, whether it’s to the grocery store or to go work out. When the bell rings, that whole team has to be intact. Police officers are close, but they’re not together all day. Many times, they’re on patrol for 12 hours by themselves looking for the negatives in the world. That’s definitely looking at the world through a different lens.”
“The community perception of fire fighters versus police officers is different, too. The community seems to love fire fighters, regardless. Whereas, people are not always excited to see policemen. Fire fighters never turn on their lights to tell somebody they’re doing something wrong. So I have to realize as police chief, when police officers leave our building, they’re not met with open arms when they stop someone for speeding or for running a red light. It really comes down to creating a culture based on valuing how we treat each other so that good things happen, and our police are not always faced with the negative aspects of the society.”
What is the focus of the Southlake police?
“Much of our focus is derived from community input. Our Citizen Survey is a good example of that. The community has told us that their concerns for safety are speeding in residential neighborhoods, speeding on the major thoroughfares, and people running red lights. When we ask people how they feel walking alone in their neighborhoods, the scores are really high, and that’s great! Our community feels safe! So our focus in Southlake has to be a lot more on quality-of-life issues. For example, the community has expressed concern about teens congregating in Town Square. Families don’t feel like it’s a family environment anymore when you have teens running wild, blocking sidewalks, and cursing. Moms and dads are concerned about their 8-year-old children being exposed to that. All in all, we focus much of our attention on quality-of-life issues.”
In what ways can Southlake residents help police do their job?
“There are three practical and easy things they can do:”
1) Whether you are at home or not, close your garage doors.
“Just like any businessman, a criminal has a business model that he follows. The model for criminals is to acquire goods at the lowest cost possible and sell them where they can get the most money. Southlake is attractive to thieves because people here have nice stuff, and nice stuff sells for more money.”
“Picture a guy driving a truck through Timarron looking for an open garage door. He can easily grab power tools, lawn tools, and golf clubs, and be in and out of a garage in 30 seconds or less. Thieves drive through neighborhoods just after dark and really early in the morning. We’ve caught them in the middle of the day, too. We have about 50 garage burglaries a year in Southlake, and most of those could be avoided if homeowners would simply keep their garage doors closed.”
2) Lock your car and remove or hide valuables in your trunk.
“In 2008, we had 220 reported instances in Southlake where things were stolen out of people’s vehicles. We made a push in 2009 to see those numbers come down, and they did. You might have seen our sky watch tower in Town Square. Our officers are patrolling more in parking lots to watch people and cars and see what’s going on. Also, the camera system we put in Town Square in the parking garages helps us see different things going on; it makes a big difference.”
“If people can keep their vehicles from being such an easy target, it will go a long way toward reducing our number of thefts. We have just as many cars getting broken into as we have people stealing from stores through basic shoplifting.”
3) Remain vigilant.
“It’s very easy in a safe community like this to become complacent. People see something that looks out of place, but because they are complacent, they don’t call us. From a public safety perspective, we would much rather get the call and go visit with someone who thinks something looks off, than not get the call at all. In my experience, when something seems wrong, it usually is.”
From a police officer’s perspective, what do Southlake parents need to know about their kids?
“It’s really about being aware of what your kids are doing. There are a lot more risks for kids today than there were when we were growing up. They all have cell phones and constant contact with each other. They are faced with different dangers that are present on the internet. Here in Southlake, parents are busy, and it’s hard for them to be with their kids all the time, but they really need to be more involved with their kids’ lives in order to know what’s going on. A lot of times, the parents give their kids some freedoms, and trust them, but become blind to what’s really going on. When we look at reports coming out of the schools, there’s probably more drug use going on, especially at the high school and senior high school level, than the community wants to admit. We have parents hosting parties where they provide alcohol for teenagers to drink, and that’s illegal. Parents can wind up going to jail for providing alcohol to minors.”
“One way for parents to be aware of what their kids are doing is to attend the SPARK meetings in our community. SPARK covers topics such as bullying, teen drinking, eating disorders, internet safety, and emerging drug issues. SPARK helps educate parents about dangers that are out there and helps them be on the lookout for those dangers in their kids’ lives.”
What does an average week look like for you as police chief?
“An average week starts off with all the department directors meeting on Monday mornings at Town Hall for staff meetings and updates on what happened over the weekends with our command staff. On Tuesdays, we have city council meetings, so the day may start at 7:30 and end at midnight; the hours are long.”
“I spend a lot of my time planning and meeting with community groups. On any given week, I may be speaking at the Rotary Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, or doing breakfast meetings for the executive forum. Because most people in our community work and commute, evenings are devoted to those meetings. We hold meetings about three evenings a week because the community is usually available after 7 PM. Council meetings, crime, neighborhood watch, SPARK, and other community events like SPIN meetings are in the evenings. The key for me in this position is to make myself accessible to the community so that I can know their perceptions of community problems. I try to get out and walk Town Square, visit with people, visit with families if they are walking in their neighborhoods, introduce myself, and see what’s going on to make sure folks feel like they are getting the service they want from the police department. I enjoy getting out and being among the people. I like hearing what the community thinks, and showing them what we do, how we do it, and how it impacts our lives.”
In a city that is focused on excellence, Chief Finn is highly thought of by many residents and city officials, including City Manager, Shana Yelverton. “Chief Finn has been here longer than most residents and city officials and has been in a position to watch the City develop and grow. He has high expectations, both for the City and for himself and is a great example of how we do out-of-the-box thinking in Southlake.”
Long-time Southlake resident and city leader, Mike Farhat, told the Pulse, “Commitment, respect, devotion, and leadership. That’s what I have known Chief Finn to have for the past 20 plus years.”