By Bryan Alfaro | THE EASTERN ECHO
Added January 8, 2012 at 8:32 pm
In the wake of the death of Eastern Michigan University’s Police Chief Greg O’Dell on December 23, EMU President Susan Martin has appointed Lt. Robert Heighes as interim executive director of public safety and chief of police, Executive Director of Media Relations Geoff Larcom said.
Heighes was named interim chief the same day that O’Dell, 54, who was apparently suffering from depression, died from what appears to have been a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department said in a press release.
Heighes, who has already served twice as interim chief, met with the entire Department of Public Safety staff on Tuesday to share what information was available about the incident.
“People need to get together and they need to talk about things,” he said. “We just brought all of our people together, just to share with them some information on what had happened over the break. So that everybody heard the same message from me, got the same information from me, so there was no speculation on what happened [and] what didn’t happen. And to kind of just see how they’re all doing.”
At the meeting Heighes told his officers that the stigma of suicide in law enforcement culture has changed over the years, and that it’s not taboo to discuss the subject like it was 30 years ago.
“People are different and we realize that just because you’re a police officer, doesn’t mean you’re not human. We’re human beings first, before we are a police officer,” Heighes said. “I think overall we’re doing good and [officers] that … have any concerns or issues, they certainly know we’re there to help them get through it.”
In 2011, there were 147 police suicides in the United States, reported Badge of Life, a nonprofit international group of active and retired police officers, clinicians, researchers and family survivors of law enforcement suicides. The group also reported that the suicide rate of police officers remained at 17 per 100,000 in 2010, compared with the general population’s rate of 11 per 100,000.
Officers most at risk are between 40-44 years of age, which represents 27 percent of law enforcement suicides, and those who have been on the job for 20 years plus, stated a 2009 report by the organization. The study also said that 64 percent of suicides came as a surprise to survivors.
While Heighes said Martin did not express a time frame for the length of the interim position, EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft said Martin plans to move quickly to find a permanent candidate for the key university position.
Kraft added that Lt. Jeffrey Nesmith was appointed as Interim Deputy Director of Public Safety, and combined with Heighes the two officers have nearly 60 years of law enforcement experience at EMU between them.
“Chief O’Dell, Lt. Heighes and Lt. Nesmith worked very closely with President Martin over the past few years to significantly improve safety on campus,” Kraft said. “We are fully confidant Lt. Heighes and Lt. Nesmith will continue these fine efforts in their new appointments.”
Kraft went on to say that interim appointments are generally expected to last less than a year, and that Martin values the dedication both Heighes and Nesmith have shown EMU.
Heighes said he’s interested in the permanent position of chief, but plans to stay at EMU either way.
“It’s something I would like to do, but if it doesn’t happen there’s more to being here at the university, than just being the chief of police,” he said. “I’ve filled this role before, for periods of time, and obviously I must be doing a good job, because they keep coming back … If I get the position, that would be wonderful. However, if it doesn’t happen I’m still going to be the same person and still move forward. The university has been good to me. I have a lot of great relationships here.”
Per the Board of Regents’ bylaws President Martin is responsible for hiring the chief of police, but the candidate is subject to the board’s approval.
Kraft said the university will be holding a special remembrance for O’Dell, Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 3 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom, because the memorial service took place over break when many people were out of town.
The event will include video excerpts from the Dec. 29 memorial service at Pease Auditorium, remarks from EMU colleagues and friends and an open comment and tribute session for attendees.
Mckenzie Bowers, 17, an Early College Alliance student at EMU, who plans to major in criminal psychology, said she never met O’Dell or Heighes, but said the DPS does a good job of educating students.
“Officer Dorsey she’s a really big influence,” Bowers said. “She’s been in at least four of the classes that I’ve taken, and I took a class with her; her self-defense class.”
Bowers said she likes the SEEUS program the DPS offers students, and has the phone number stored in her cell phone.
“During the day I feel quite safe, but at nighttime this campus can be like a whole other world. So I don’t feel as safe at night as I do during the day,” she said.
Heighes went on to say that he loved working for O’Dell and has never had a better boss, and considered him an outstanding leader and friend.
“It’s hard to believe, but I think we all realize that this was not Greg; it was not really him. He obviously was suffering from depression and [it] was more severe than anybody knew, and I think we all kind of realize that,” Heighes said. “We were similar in age and grew up at the same kind of time, same kind of background. We had a lot of similarities to us and we got along great. And that’s what makes it so hard to, you know, understand why. When I was told I just couldn’t believe it. I could not believe that. I will certainly miss him. I think a lot of us will miss him.“
The Ann Arbor Police Department’s website said O’Dell’s family requested donations in Greg’s name, be made to the EMU Athletic Department or the Ann Arbor Police Department.
Eastern Echo article archive: Heighes Renamed Interim After Chief O’Dell’s Death
Obituary webpage by Nie Funeral Home: Gregory Alan O’Dell