Shane Sullivan, Coopertown's new police chief, says he hopes to clean up the department and change its reputation. John Partipilo / The Tennessean
By Brian Haas / The Tennessean
COOPERTOWN - Now hiring: Coopertown police officers.
Racists need not apply.
There's a new police chief in this small town, and he's looking to change his department's reputation after years of high-profile controversy. His first step: Every new officer candidate will take a lie detector test.
"Because of what happened ... every new officer I hire will go through the polygraph, and that's what it's focused at, any kind of racial issues or prejudice issues they may have toward any group," said Coopertown's new police chief, Shane Sullivan.
It may sound dramatic for such a small police force. But Sullivan becomes the 11th police chief in as many years.
The troubled Robertson County town of 4,000 people made national headlines for becoming a notorious speed trap and saw its four-member police department wiped out last summer after a video showed a reserve officer using a racial slur after stopping a black motorist.
In 2006, the city police department was accused of racially profiling Hispanic drivers, but a judge found no evidence of that. Still, the town's reputation spread.
Sullivan, a Hickman County native, was familiar with the controversies.
"I feel like with some past events that have happened and plagued this department, that I wanted to be the one that changed it," Sullivan said. "It was a big risk, actually, but I think if we do things right, I think it'll be a big reward."
For a while, Coopertown, which is about 30 miles northwest of Nashville, didn't even have a police department. The department fell apart after a dashboard camera video came to light in August of a reserve officer using racial slurs while complaining about a black motorist he had pulled over.
The officer was suspended for a day and ordered to get sensitivity training - until the video was made public. Then-Police Chief Paul West fired the officer and terminated the reserve officer program.
A few weeks later, after complaining about media scrutiny, West himself quit, leaving the city without a police department.
Mayor Sam Childs held off on hiring a police chief until he won re-election in November. He hired Sullivan on Nov. 7.
Sullivan cruises in his patrol car past the one traffic light in town, recounting his time so far since he was hired in November.
It's been rather quiet, and that's how he likes it.
Coopertown has had two burglaries, three accidents and one classically rural call for service.
"Pig at large," he explains.
Despite the small-town police blotter, Sullivan's challenges are no laughing matter, and he wants professionals on his staff.
The 17-year law enforcement veteran rose to third in command at the Hickman County Sheriff's Office, building a reputation as a strict lieutenant with a knack for policy and procedure.
He has hired one officer, police veteran Tim Reeves, who himself was once police chief in Henry, Tenn. He's also working to get the reserve officer program going again.
In addition to a zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs, he said he's going to ask the state to audit the department's paperwork once his department is fully staffed. And by fully staffed, he means 24-hour police coverage, which would eventually require five officers.
He's working with about a $250,000 budget right now.
"I want the public to know that they're going to have a police department that they can afford and one that's going to be there," he said.
Sullivan has lived all his life in Hickman County.
His father spent 37 years in law enforcement, and he followed suit when he joined the Hickman County Sheriff's office. Sheriff Randal Ward said he hated losing Sullivan late last year.
"This man comes in every morning spit polished. He's done that every morning since he got in law enforcement. He's very policy oriented, very organized with what he's doing," Ward said. "I lost a man but Coopertown gained a good chief."
Coopertown Vice Mayor Peggy Ruth said she's hopeful Sullivan will keep the police department out of the headlines.
"I hope he'll bring us along in a professional way," she said.
Sullivan couldn't agree more.
"That's what I want. And if I can't do it, I'm gonna go home and let somebody else take a stab at it."