BELLVILLE — Chief Ron Willey has spent his entire career with the Bellville Police Department.
Now, after almost four decades, he’s stepping down on July 31.
“I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have served this village in this capacity,” Willey wrote in his resignation letter. “Through it all, I have always felt the support of the community and am proud to have been given this opportunity.”
Willey joined the Bellville Police Department in 1985 as a part-time patrolman and worked his way up, taking over as chief in 2001.
Unlike many budding law enforcement officers, Willey didn’t have family or friends in the profession. His interest began when he signed up for the Bellville Police Department’s exploring group.
Law enforcement exploring programs allow students to learn more about careers in the field through training, competitions and other hands-on activities. Willey enrolled in the program at 13 and remained active through high school. After graduating from Clear Fork, he enrolled in the Knox County Career Center’s police academy.
Willey said his ties to the community are the main reason he’s stayed put.
“Could I (have) went other places? Absolutely. But the biggest draw for me is I knew, who I was dealing with everyday,” said Willey, who was born and raised in Bellville.
“You know your people. You know the differences, what’s not normal, and it’s just easier to help the community that way.”
Mayor Teri Brenkus and former mayor Darrell Banks both praised Willey’s commitment to the village.
“He was a man that showed a caring attitude for not only the people that he was sworn to protect, but his staff and also he was true to the law,” said Banks, who now serves as a Richland County commissioner.
Brenkus said she could sum Willey up in a single word — dedicated.
“He always answers the phone when I call. He also has dropped everything to arrive instantly to take care of different situations,” she said.
“He’s also had that same dedication as our assistant cemetery sexton for the past 11 years.”
Over the last 38 years, Willey has watched the department go through tremendous changes — from adding more manpower to expanding its jurisdiction.
When he was an explorer member, Bellville’s was a part-time department with a single police car.
“When I came on in 1985, they expanded to three (cars). And now we’re at six cruisers, six full-time people and about five or six-part time,” Willey said.
Six years after Willey became chief, the village built a new police station.
“Before we were in a little tiny room in village hall,” Willey said. “That was the entire police department.”
Willey said the department’s growth has coincided with the village’s expansion. In the 1990s, Bellville annexed a substantial portion of former county land, encompassing a stretch of land on State Route 97 all the way up to Interstate 71.
“We basically came close to doubling in size just from that,” Willey said.
The addition of the exit doesn’t just mean more territory to cover — it also means Bellville officers are exposed to a wider variety of crimes.
Willey said the department has been called out to address robberies, drug manufacturing and wanted criminals fleeing other communities near the intersection of the two highways.
“With the addition of the interstate, we can go from Mayberry USA, if you will, to Cleveland in a minute drive because of all the people coming and going,” Willey said.
“We see all kinds of stuff out there. So you’ve got to be prepared for anything.”
Nevertheless, Willey said the biggest change he’s seen in law enforcement isn’t the number of cruisers or even officers at Bellville PD — it’s the ever evolving technology.
“When I first started, cell phones didn’t exist,” he said. “Now we’ve got license plate readers.
“Technology’s a challenge, especially for smaller agencies, we don’t have the budgets, some of the others do.”
Like other police departments, keeping a full roster is also difficult. The department currently has about five part-time openings.
“It’s been a struggle to find people with everybody hiring,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there and very few candidates. So obviously, the bigger paying areas is where they’re going first, which I understand.”
Fortunately, Willey said Bellville can depend on help from municipalities in a bind.
“Richland County’s fortunate,” he said. “The law enforcement in Richland County – everyone collaborates with everybody.”
For the outgoing chief, the best part of the job isn’t chasing criminals or making arrests. It’s working with people and helping community members solve their problems
“You’ve got to have people skills. You’ve got to be able to relate to people,” he said.
“Training is one of the things you’ve got to keep on top of because everything changes. It’s not just patrolling the streets and pulling over speeders, there’s a lot more to it.”
During his tenure, the department has expanded its outreach to Bellville’s youngest citizens with a school resource officer at the elementary school.
“A lot of times they see us under not-so-great circumstances, so my goal when I took over as chief was to find a way to bridge that gap and interact with them,” he said. “That’s paid dividends like crazy.”
Willey himself has worked at Bellville’s safety town for the last 18 years.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve enjoyed is working with the kids,” he said. “I can go to the school and 10 or 15 run up and give me a big hug.”
Several years ago, Willey founded The Bellville Chief’s Giving Hand, a non-profit that offers financial assistance to residents in need. The organization has helped families purchase Christmas gifts, meet material needs and pay unexpected bills in the wake of tragic events and unexpected deaths.
Willey said the 501c3 is funded primarily through community donations.
“People sometimes need help they won’t ask for,” Willey said. “Because people know that it’s staying here and helping the people who live here, it’s been very successful.”
When asked what he’ll miss most about the job, tears sprung to Willey’s eyes.
“All of it,” he said.
As of this article’s publication, the village of Bellville has yet to select his replacement.
Willey said his advice for the next Bellville Police Chief is to get to know its needs and its people and to be approachable.
As for the outgoing chief, he’ll still be around. He’s hoping to find a part-time job where he won’t have to be the decision maker for a change.
“It’s a stressful job. You’re thrown into a lot of things. You’re problem solving every day, whether it be a small thing or a big thing,” Willey said.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot. I willingly did; I don’t regret it. But it’s time for me.”
With his newfound free time, he plans to travel, hunt deer and spend more time at his camper on Pleasant Hill Lake.
“When you’re doing this job, you’re kind of tied to it a way. It’s hard to get away,” he said. “I won’t have to worry if that shift is covered.”