One on one: Schoen talks about RCPD trust

By Stephen Cameron

Brad Schoen can be funny, and he can laugh loud enough to make people stop talking across a large, noisy room.

But when Schoen has his chief’s hat on — when he’s officially speaking as director of the Riley County Police Department —he checks his humor at the door.

For this interview, Schoen sat in a local restaurant with his back to a window, allowing sunshine to beam across the table and leave him in deep shadow.

Dressed entirely in shades of black or gray, he kept his sunglasses on, hat pulled low on his forehead.

MERCURY: “How is this merry-go-round with Rusty Wilson ever going to end? This is the head of the police department and the owner of perhaps Manhattan’s most famous business. Doesn’t it need a resolution for everyone’s sake?”

SCHOEN: “I can’t discuss any specific individuals, I really can’t. I can talk about department policy and how we handle certain types of cases. You can draw some conclusions from that, I think.”

MERCURY: “You don’t have an opinion on everything that’s happened with Rusty, then?”

SCHOEN: “Of course I have opinions. We’re all human and we all have opinions. And my opinion might surprise you about some people…who you’d expect would bother me, but whom I actually kind of like.

“In our position, though, we absolutely cannot let our opinions shape our actions in any way at all. That would be compromising our integrity, and that integrity is why the public gives us their trust.

“If a member of law enforcement takes action based on an opinion he or she might have before the fact, that person is very likely going to be handing in a badge.

“No matter our opinion, every situation starts at a zero point. That is our obligation.”

Schoen has been in the news a lot recently — which is not something he seeks nor particularly appreciates.

Oh, if he’s discussing RCPD budget issues with the Riley County Law Board, as department director he understands that he’s part of a public process. And that citizens and media are entitled to listen, or even participate.

But in the past couple of months, Schoen has seen his name in newspaper headlines and heard himself quoted on the radio in completely different contexts.

Starting with this…

A group of Riley County residents, including Rusty Wilson, hired a lobbyist to get a bill introduced in the Kansas State Senate that, if passed, would make the RCPD director an elected official rather than a law board appointee — as it stands now.

The bill had almost no chance to pass, but it was a shot across Schoen’s bow, which he understands — but to which he shows no particular reaction.

“Some things you can control, and some things you can’t,” he says. “That one is totally out of my hands.”

Wilson, the high-profile owner of Kite’s Grille and Bar and longtime Aggieville entrepreneur, turned up the heat even further, basically accusing Schoen of leading a department that has been out to target him personally.

At the same law board meeting at which Wilson leveled some of his charges, a woman came forward and accused Schoen’s department of insensitivity bordering on misconduct during an incident five years ago — an event at which her son shot himself to death.

So, yes, Schoen lately has been dragged into the limelight far more than he would prefer in his role running the department.

“Do I want to be sitting there defending the actions of my officers or myself?” Schoen asks, rhetorically. “Well, there are other things I’d rather be doing, honestly.

“But here’s what I really want people to understand: If a citizen has a complaint about something we did – or didn’t do – then that person absolutely should be heard.

“We welcome it, we truly do, because law enforcement never should have anything to hide.

“So if a complaint is made — for harassment or inappropriate action or whatever – then we have an obligation to investigate that complaint. It’s not optional.”

Schoen explains that he and the department answer – depending on the circumstances—to the law board, to their own internal affairs officer, to the county attorney in extreme circumstances, and most important, to the people of Riley County.

“That’s why, if someone says, why don’t you just sit down with somebody who has some issues and work them out, that simply isn’t likely to be feasible with a conversation,” he says.

Schoen does not mention Wilson’s name, but the obvious public accusations and the fact that the two men have, indeed, discussed potential problems doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

“Look, if someone owns a bar and complains that one of my officers has improperly targeted him in a way that seems he’s being framed — my words there, not anyone else’s — then we have an obligation to investigate that complaint,” Schoen explains.

“It’s for the benefit of the person making the complaint and for the public, but also for the officer involved—most definitely for the officer.

“Anything less than that looks like a whitewash, like we’re covering up something.

“Or if I just take it into my hands and work out something with the person who was complaining, where does that leave my officer? With a dark cloud still hanging there, that’s where.

“Have we had some personnel do the wrong thing? Yes, we have. I have four badges on my desk cut in half because someone did not follow our code and therefore the law. It hurts me every time I look at those badges, because they represent a failure to all of us in the department.

“That’s why we have to look into every complaint, every charge that someone makes about any officer. We have to be absolutely clean, and be able to prove it to any reasonable person.”

In a lot of ways, the RCPD is Schoen’s entire professional life. He’s been with the department for his entire 31 years in law enforcement, and director since 2007.

He worries every day about one thing in particular.

“It takes years to build trust,” he says, voice deadly calm, “and it can be lost in a day. In minutes.

“And you can’t get it back.”

When the subject is not simply trust or integrity, Schoen is open-minded and insightful about how the police process works, and for that matter, how society works.

“We can sit here and discuss all kinds of situations, and you can ask what I’d do in this case or that case…what’s right and what’s wrong, and so on,” he says.

“But for every situation, I’d need to know the motivation. Any police officer would say the same thing.

“There has to be some color provided – because life is rarely black and white, and neither is law enforcement. So much of it is shades of gray.

“How we handle that gray, day in and day out, will basically tell you how we’re doing our jobs.”

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