Overland Park police chief has seen 41 years of change

01/21/2014 4:02 PM

01/21/2014 4:04 PM

When John Douglass wakes up for work in the morning, he’s just as excited to start the day as he was 41 years ago.

“How many people can say that?” he asked, with a smile.

But this spring, his job is about to change.

He will be retiring as Overland Park’s chief of police on April 18 and starting his new career as director of safety and security for the Shawnee Mission School District.

The decision wasn’t easy. After all, Douglass has dedicated the majority of his life to the department.

In college, he had been planning to attend law school. After falling in love with a nursing student, however, he decided to take a job first until she graduated.

The 21-year-old newlywed became a police officer, thinking it would be good experience for a future lawyer. The minute he stepped into the field though, his life took a significant turn. Douglass enjoyed police work so much he decided there was nothing else he’d rather do.

“The work was exciting, rewarding and interesting,” Douglass said. “I knew right away it was a worthwhile career.”

Over the years, Douglass flew up the ranks, thanks to his hard work and unwavering enthusiasm.

Some of his most significant memories are from his days as a detective back in the late 1970s.

One case that haunts him to this day involved an adorable blonde-haired, blue-eyed toddler who was violently and physically abused to death by her mom’s boyfriend around Thanksgiving of 1978.

As the father of a son around the same age, Douglass found the incident unfathomable.

“That case really burned a spot in my soul,” said Douglass, gravely. “Every Thanksgiving, I wonder about her and what she would be like today. She’d probably have kids of her own right now.”

Despite the cases that broke his heart, and the ones that remain unsolved to the point of frustration, Douglass enthused that his career has brought his life a lot of joy.

“The men and women of the police department are some of the kindest, caring and dedicated people I have ever known,” he said. “They work long hours and they spend their own time to help people with things like getting groceries or fixing up homes. I think the public would be amazed at the generous nature of the people working in law enforcement, because it’s not something you really think or hear about.”

After more than four decades in the field, Douglass has also seen his fair share of change.

Computers came around in the 1980s and cell phones in the 1990s. DNA made it a lot easier to locate suspects and let innocent people go.

“We were able to locate Kelsey Smith using cell phone pings,” pointed out Douglass, referring to a 2007 murder case that drew national attention. “That never would have happened 40 years ago.”

Despite the advances in technology, Douglass always made sure to emphasize to his younger officers that instead of solely depending on machines, it’s better to rely on good instincts, leg work and open communication, he said.

When word got around that Douglass was planning to retire from the police department this year, the Shawnee Mission School District approached him about leading the district’s safety and security efforts. As a grandfather of eight, he couldn’t say no.

“Keeping the children in our schools safe is extremely important to me,” said Douglass. “Mass shootings are no longer unusual anymore and we need to have new strategies. The frequency with which they’re occurring is appalling and no school is immune.”

Douglass starts his new job May 1.

“In my career, I’ve always felt that I’ve spent my life in a meaningful way,” said Douglass. “I’m certain that I’ll be able to continue that in the future.”

His colleagues at Overland Park City Hall have no doubt about it either.

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