As a kid growing up in an Irish-Catholic
neighborhood of South Omaha, John O’Connor never gave serious thought to having a career in law
enforcement. In fact, if he had wanted a public service job as a young man, he probably could’ve called in a family favor and became a firefighter.
“Back then, it was pretty much who you knew with the P.D. (police department) and the fire department,” O’Connor said. “My uncle was a training captain on the Omaha Fire Department and I didn’t even consider that line of work. All of my aunt’s relatives were ranking officers on the fire department. It was just that inner-connection thing in South Omaha.”
Instead of becoming a firefighter, or a police officer, after graduating from high school, O’Connor went to work for Hinky Dinky. He spent 18 years working in the produce department at the grocery chain’s warehouse in Omaha.
It wasn’t until O’Connor moved to Mills County in the early 1980s that he became interested in working in law enforcement. In 1985, he accepted an invitation to join the Mills County Reserve Deputies Association as a part-time officer. Then in 1987, at the age of 43, O’Connor answered a newspaper ad and was hired as a full-time officer for the Glenwood Police Department.
Twenty-two years after his hiring, O’Connor is retiring as Glenwood’s Chief of Police. His last day with the department will be Aug. 26, one day before his 66th birthday.
O’Connor, who still has the looks and physical build of a man in his early 50s, says he isn’t retiring because he wants to. He’s leaving his job because the state of Iowa has a mandatory retirement age of 65 for all full-time firefighters and law enforcement officers.
“It wasn’t a mutual decision between me and the city management, or anything like that” O’Connor said. “It was a case of that code is in existence. The city attorney looked into it and that’s what it is.”
O’Connor, a lieutenant at the time, was appointed to the chief’s position in 2000 by former Glenwood mayor Greg Schultz, who happens to be a police officer himself – in Council Bluffs.
During O’Connor’s tenure as chief, the department has grown and kept up with the latest trends in law enforcement. In 2006, the Glenwood Police Department was one of the first law enforcement agencies in southwest Iowa to issue Tasers to all of its officers.
“I saw those as a very valuable tool,” O’Connor said. “I did the research. There was a bit of concern registered by some of the council individuals, but they’ve proven to be very effective for us.”
The department has upgraded much of its equipment over the past nine years, including vehicles, communication devices and computer software.
“We have very good equipment, thanks to the current mayor (Dyle Downing) and some planning by the city manager (Mary Smith),” O’Connor said. “We’re proud of that fact.”
O’Connor said Glenwood officers have always taken pride in their work, their appearance and the overall manner in which they serve the public. The chief is most proud of the response time his officers are able to provide in emergency situations.
“One of the things I’ve very happy with and everyone here is, too, is our response time,” he said. “Nowhere else can you go and get a minute to two-minute response time on a call, if it’s an emergency, of course.”
The Glenwood Police Department, O’Connor pointed out, is a pioneer when it comes to community policing.
“I read a variety of police publications,” he said. “For a period of time, the large issue was community policing. I think we originated that idea. Read the criteria for community policing and I see we’re doing this and we’re doing that. We make appearances and we’re always around when an event is going on. We’ve been community policing for a long time.”
O’Connor’s investigated and been involved in many memorable incidents during his law enforcement career, including a double-homicide his first week on the job back in 1987. There was also an early-morning incident in April 2002 that resulted in one of his officers, Gary Chambers, and Mills County Sheriff’s Deputy Eugene Goos being ambushed by a gunman while driving into a residential neighborhood.
“We were all pretty appalled at that time,” O’Connor recalled. “Deputy Goos was injured by the gunfire. It was pretty amazing to look at the vehicles that were shot full of holes.
“When we all arrived at that location, everybody divided duties, from interviews to gathering evidence. We enlisted the help of several outside agencies.”
O’Connor said the officers in his department responded well in the aftermath of the incident.
“We had meetings in regard to that incident and everyone did well (psychologically),” O’Connor said. “They’re well aware of the risks they take every day.”
In his 22-year career as a police officer, O’Connor never found himself in a situation where he had the need to fire his weapon, although he admits that he came close a few times.
Mayor Downing said the vast majority of Glenwood residents have a high opinion of their police department, and that’s a direct reflection of the leadership O’Connor has provided.
“I, personally and professionally, think John’s done a tremendous job,” Downing said. “He’s worked under some adverse conditions when it comes to numbers on the force. The department has done good things with our schools and other areas of the community during John’s tenure.”
O’Connor has yet to finalize all of his post-retirement plans, but definitely plans to spend time completing some projects around his home. He’ll also set aside ample time for hiking with his wife, Kim, and his favorite winter pastimes – snow shoeing and cross country skiing in Colorado.
The chief says he’s leaving his career in law enforcement the same way he leaves the police station when he goes home at the end of the day – without regret.
“Do your business well. That’s my belief,” O’Connor said. You think about it and you say, ‘I’ve done the best I can. I’ll put this in the business file and carry on.’ That’s what I’ve done. We survived and thrived.”
O’Connor will be honored at a public reception Saturday evening, Aug. 15, at the Glenwood American Legion Hall from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.