Farmington Chamber of Commerce names police chief Citizen of the Year
Steve Hebbe surprised with honor after calling high school basketball game
- Hebbe said he makes a point of attending as many public events as he can in Farmington.
- He adopted that policy upon becoming chief in 2014.
- Hebbe came to Farmington from the Anchorage, Alaska, Police Department, where he had served as the deputy chief.
FARMINGTON — Even though he sometimes gets recognized as the chief of the Farmington Police Department when he is officiating high school basketball games across San Juan County, Steve Hebbe said that doesn't mean the fans cut him any slack when he makes an unpopular call.
"I think they give it to me with both barrels," he said, laughing.
But Hebbe got a crowd reaction of a different kind after working a La Cueva-Farmington girls game on Feb. 15 at Scorpion Arena. Hebbe already had retired to the officals' dressing room after the game when he received word there was a problem with the official scoresheet, and he was summoned back to the scorer's table to address that issue.
It turned out that was only a pretense to get him back on the court. Hebbe quickly found himself surrounded by Farmington Chamber of Commerce officials, who were there to present him with the organization's Citizen of the Year award.
Hebbe said he had no idea the presentation was coming.
"Believe it or not, I can be hard to surprise," he said. "I can be a little suspicious."
Hebbe's expression was hidden by a face mask, but he said he was all smiles underneath the garment.
"It was very humbling," he said. "I'm not from here, and I came here eight years ago. It meant a lot to me that people see the things I've been trying to do in my work and personal life to be part of San Juan County."
Hebbe, who said he officiates games up to four nights a week, makes a habit of serving as the public face of his department, in addition to being its top administrator. He makes a point of attending as many public events as he can in Farmington, a policy he adopted upon becoming chief of the department in 2014.
"When I arrived here, I told (former police department public information officer) Georgette Allen, 'Say yes to any public events when they want me to come out. When they want the chief there, they get the chief there,'" he recalled.
Hebbe acknowledged that approach was designed not just to help him become familiar with the community, but to help him build relationships with individual citizens and hopefully develop a level of trust between his department and the people it serves.
He said he took the Citizen of the Year award as validation that that approach is working.
"I think I'm not getting that award if people don't see the Farmington Police Department as a department for all our citizens," he said.
Jamie Church, the president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber, said Hebbe richly deserved the honor, given the effort he puts into being accessible and approachable. She also described him as very good natured, recalling how when she was the development director at the nonprofit organization Childhaven, she once organized a fundraising event that involved Hebbe taking a cream pie to the face.
The chief cheerfully agreed to do so, she said, an act that demonstrated to her that Hebbe has learned not to take himself too seriously.
"I thought it was a great choice," she said of the decision by the chamber's nominations committee to present Hebbe with the Citizen of the Year honor. "I really appreciate him and all our first responders."
Hebbe came to Farmington from the Anchorage, Alaska, Police Department, where he had served as the deputy chief. He said the public outreach he has practiced in Farmington was not something the department did in Anchorage, mostly because it was a much bigger agency and it was focused on traditional policing techniques.
"We thought crime was something we could solve within the four walls of the police department," he said. "But as time has gone on, it has become clear that we need more of a partnership with the public."
Hebbe said his philosophy since taking over as the leader of the Farmington Police Department has been to be transparent about the mistakes his agency makes.
"When we screw up, we'll fix it and own it," he said.
As an example, he cited a department scandal that developed early in his tenure. A police evidence technician was arrested after thousands of dollars and hundreds of prescription pain pills went missing from the department's evidence room, threatening the resolution of numerous criminal cases because of a broken chain of custody. Hebbe moved quickly to install safeguards to ensure such a situation could not develop again, and he invited The Daily Times to sit in on his department's daily meetings as the scope of the breach was investigated, and possible remedies were discussed and implemented.
In 2015, Hebbe was recognized by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies for his transparent response to the discovery.
"From my perspective, we messed up bad," Hebbe said. "… From that day on, we were pretty transparent with the media. I think that's the kind of openness the public likes and needs in policing."
Not every police department across America has adopted the same philosophy, and that can be a mistake, he said.
"I do think many of the problems policing has gotten into over the years are the result of leadership failures," he said. "Some of them have done a horrible job of owning their mistakes, and they have not had great vision in terms of (looking) way down the road and acting to prevent problems ahead of time. For many years, we've been resting on our laurels of lower crime rates."
Hebbe said before he came to Farmington, he was as guilty of that approach as anyone else.
"I didn't do it, either, there," he said, referring to his service in Anchorage.
Hebbe said he hopes his response to the evidence room scandal and his efforts to be visible and active in the community have led some folks to be more willing to give his officers the benefit of the doubt when a tense or controversial situation arises.
"The public needs to know me," he said, explaining that it takes years to develop the kind of trust he hopes to create between his department and the citizenry. "That's why they don't just see me out at certain times, they seem me all the time."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.