In a career full of firsts, Ellen Hanson is preparing to step down from what could be her last.
Hanson, the pioneering former police chief of Lenexa, is wrapping up a yearlong stint as the first female police chief of Kansas City, Kan.
Late last year, she came out of retirement to take on the challenge of leading her hometown police department after the retirement of Rick Armstrong.
What was supposed to be a six-month temporary gig has stretched into a full year as officials continued the search for a new chief.
With a chief expected to be chosen early next month, Hanson is preparing to retire from what proved to be a busy and rewarding assignment.
“It’s been such a fabulous experience,” she said. “The level of professionalism and the excellent police work being done here has really impressed me.”
Mark Holland, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., called Hanson a “breath of fresh air” who has been a pleasure to work with.
“We would have loved to keep her for five or 10 years,” Holland said. “But obviously she has retirement plans.”
Hanson said she jumped at the chance to head the department when the then county administrator, Dennis Hays, asked her to do it on an interim basis.
After all, she was raised in Kansas City, Kan., before leaving for college when she was 18 and had family and longtime friends who live there.
“I really wanted to do this,” she said.
Even though the job was temporary, Hanson didn’t come in just to occupy the position until a new chief was named.
“If you’re going to be here, you might as well earn your keep,” she said.
She has kept busy working with the department’s command staff as well as meeting and working with members of the community.
That community engagement has been one of the best parts of the job, she said.
After spending her entire 37-year law enforcement career in Lenexa, where she rose to the rank of chief in 1991 — becoming the Kansas City area’s first female police chief — Hanson said it has been an adjustment to deal with the scope of crime in some of the urban areas of the city.
Although violent crimes were rare in Lenexa, in some Kansas City, Kan., neighborhoods there is the potential for such crimes on a daily basis.
What she has found is that there are many good people in those neighborhoods eager to work with police to solve problems.
“They will call us and ask, ‘What can we do to work with you and make our neighborhood safer?’” she said. “That’s new for me.”
Ladora Lattimore, who recently retired after 34 years as executive director of Friends of Yates, which provides services to women and children in domestic violence situations, said she has been impressed by Hanson’s openness and willingness to be a partner with community groups.
“She makes sure everybody has a voice at the table,” Lattimore said. “I feel that it will be a loss for Wyandotte County when she leaves.”
Hanson said good working relationships between the department and the community already existed when she arrived, but she has emphasized the need to improve those ties.
She encourages officers to remember that they must be ambassadors of the department in their interactions with citizens.
“It’s easy to forget sometimes that getting out of your car and smiling and talking to people can make a big difference,” Hanson said.
A gift basket in her office testifies to that effort. It came from a woman who had a negative attitude about police until she went through the department’s citizens academy.
Hanson herself recently played ambassador when she heard a young man at a community event speaking critically about police. Hanson approached him afterward and invited him to spend a day at the department, which he did. He later thanked her for the opportunity.
She believes it’s imperative for police departments to promote themselves in a positive light.
When a local media outlet contacted the department about allegations of police misconduct during an arrest, Hanson had the reporter view the police dash camera video of the incident. It showed the officers acting politely and appropriately when the person they were arresting was unruly and uncooperative. The video now is being used as a training tool for the department, she said.
“I believe I owe it to my officers to get their side out there,” she said.
Even in cases where information may be unfavorable to police, Hanson said the best policy is to be truthful and open.
Earlier this year, after two fatal traffic crashes involving police pursuits, Hanson took action to suspend the department’s chase policy to investigate if changes needed to be made. She also approved the public release of the policy over the objections of some other officials.
“Being up front as best we can is a good way to gain the trust of the public,” she said.
Lt. Kelli Bailiff of the Wyandotte County sheriff’s office calls Hanson a mentor who, as a woman in a predominantly male profession, has demonstrated how to succeed.
“The way she treats everyone with respect is the key to her leadership,” Bailiff said. “She has a true gift.”
Although one year is not enough time to talk about leaving a legacy, Hanson said she believes she has helped the department break down barriers between rank-and-file officers and their commanders as well as barriers between the department and the community.
“I believe she’s made a serious impact on the Police Department and the community,” she said.
As for retirement plans this time around, Hanson said she didn’t have any when she retired from Lenexa in 2012 and she really doesn’t have any now.
But as her stint with Kansas City, Kan., shows, you never know what kind of opportunities will come.
“I haven’t had a bad experience since I’ve been here,” she said.