Leading Central MA: Millbury Police Chief Kenny Howell
Monday, September 16, 2013
SW: Your background has a lot to do with your chosen career and where you are today. Can we talk about your childhood a little?
KH: I grew up in extreme poverty in a ghetto in New Haven, Connecticut. I was one of six children and my father had left the family when I was 5. We lived on welfare without money for food or anything else. Our life was lived in tenements that usually ended up burning to the ground. My strongest childhood memories are of my mom searching for food and all of us doing everything we could to help.
SW: What made you choose law enforcement as a career?
KH: I think law enforcement chose me but it took a long while to get here. My mother was very decent even in a world where she was surrounded by abuse, drugs and prostitution. She taught us right from wrong and I was horrified at the injustice that I saw everywhere around me. I decided to be a police officer at an early age, but it is tough to have the courage to break out of the mindset that comes with that culture. Of course, in the ghetto, cops were not always the heroes. They came from suburbia and abused us. We had a group of cops who traveled in a van and beat up and harassed people in neighborhoods like mine. They were called “The Beat Down Posse”. However, I always remembered one special police officer who came to my house. I had been beaten up by a group of kids, just for the crime of being quiet. He took the time to stoop down to my level and tell me that everything would be OK. He gave me humanity in a place that dehumanizes you and I never forgot that.
SW: What made you finally decide to pursue being a police officer?
KH: I observed a lot of abuse and injustice within my community but I didn’t know what I could do to help change it. I took a job as a security guard. One night, on my way home from a late night shift, it all became clear. I heard an advertisement for a position as a local police officer and it was at that point that I knew exactly how I would made a difference. I would become a police officer! Everything in my life changed and that became my goal.
When my community realized there was nothing they could do to change my mind, they rallied around me. I eventually became everyone’s hope that someone could make it out. I also had a very strong motivation to succeed. I became the father of a child 2 years after high school and knew that I could not let my daughter grow up uneducated and a teenager with children of her own.
SW: Your background and being biracial must have made it a challenge to be accepted back then?
KH: I have been in law enforcement now for 22 years and I might not have ever made it if not for Chief Nicholas Pastore. After he came aboard as chief in New Haven, he diversified the force. I also stayed focused and refused to give up my dream, despite years of rejection. I went to community college and volunteered and finally in 1991 joined the New Haven police department.
SW: What turns did your life take over the next 21 years before coming to Millbury?
KH: I met a woman, had three more children, and when the relationship failed, I became a single dad with sole custody of four children. I went through the ranks in the police department and ended up a lieutenant.
I also realized how vitally important education was and finally got my bachelors degree at Southern Connecticut State University after 7 years. That was such an accomplishment. It energized me and I wanted to lead by example. I wanted to show that it is possible to come from the ghetto and actually get an MBA and I did. I think it was then I realized that we can come from nothing and go all the way. I graduated from Mass School of Law and passed the bar exam on my first try.
Unfortunately, once I obtained my degree, I became a threat to many who felt I could possibly rise to become chief. My path to where I am meant overcoming many barriers that were intentionally placed before me so I would not more forward. Unbeknown to the people who created the barriers, it only made me stronger.
SW: Did you do anything with your law degree?
KH: I opened the Law Office of Kenny Howell, LLC and began doing pro bono work in a variety of areas including landlord-tenant relations and unemployment. I figured going all the way to chief might be a bit of a miracle so made sure I had a career to fall back on or utilize in my retirement.
SW: You made it to police chief, despite considering it a bit of a miracle, and were unanimously elected. You talked about your plans for Millbury in the publicity around your election. Have you been able to accomplish your goals?
KH: Yes. This department had a problem, which is why they brought in an outsider. There was a management study that made 100 recommendations for departmental change. In the first 8 months, I have been able to implement 55% of them even with budget restraints. We have 18 full-time police and 20 part-time.
SW: You have mentioned community policing and being open and accountable to the public. What is your philosophy around that?
KH: It is the essence of who I am. We need to be open, accountable and approachable. I know the culture that is created when a police officer is just reactive and it is not how I want my officers to be. I began my law enforcement career during the introduction of the community based policing model. We are creating a proactive department that is out talking to the community and following up on how well we are meeting their needs. I lead by example and walk a beat and expect my commanders to make numerous opportunities to be part of the community.
SW: Who or what has been your greatest influence and why?
KH: My mom. She is the love of my life. She passed away on February 6, 2011 and she is missed. She was a tiny little woman who was so strong. She taught us all the difference between doing what is right and what is wrong. It is ingrained into who I am. You don’t trust easily when you come from my world but I trusted her completely. My kids have been such a strong
influence as well. It has meant so much to me to help them to have a better life than I did.
SW: What is something that few people know about you?
KH: I am an extreme introvert but I learned that you have to come out of your shell to move forward.
SW: What is on the drawing board?
KH: I am finishing up my Masters of Laws degree in estate planning and elder law. I have my hands full instituting the management study changes and changing the mindset within the department and community about how we conduct ourselves. Other towns have called and asked for guidance doing what I am doing, which is exciting.
SW: Do you have any advice for kids who are floundering about finding the right path for their life?
KH: You have to remain focused. I know how tough it is. You have to strategically plan out everything that you need from nutrition to education to career. You will find that you receive too much advice and information at times. Find a mentor who can help you to sort things out. And most importantly, do not lose yourself in the pursuit of success, but define yourself to fit the level of success you desire.
SW: Any future goals that you hope to realize?
KH: I am in a strange place. I am what I have wanted to be for so long and love where I am. However, I still have the desire to affect people more. I want the opportunity to share my story and to tell people that there are no excuses, no matter what. You can make life what you want it to be if you are willing to stay focused, be strategic, believe in yourself and do the work. I am living proof that you can come from nothing and go all the way!
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