Retired Owensboro Police Department (OPD) Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Speed will tell you that his interest in law enforcement was first sparked during a criminology course at Daviess County High School. He had no idea at the time, however, that this one high school course would lead to a 28-year career serving the community he has always called home.
On Nov. 27, 2019, the deputy chief of police stepped into his uniform for the last time after serving in a multitude of roles for nearly three decades.
Unsure of his initial career path after high school, Speed attended Western Kentucky University before transferring to Eastern Kentucky University to focus on law enforcement.
“I never wanted to work for money — I wanted to work for a cause or a passion,” Speed said. “I really wanted to make a difference. I just wanted to work with people and provide a service.”
Speed found he was able to fulfill that passion by serving as an OPD police officer, but, he said, the profession was much different in 1990 than it is today.
“When I entered the hiring process for OPD and showed up to take the written exam in the Owensboro High School cafeteria, there were over 300 of us,” Speed said. “They had ten positions that were filled and well over 300 applicants. It’s not that way today — there has been a significant decrease in applicants.”
Speed said all 10 of the officers that were hired at the time have gone on to have successful careers, including current OPD Chief Art Ealum. Despite the success these officers have experienced, Speed said they have also seen a lot of changes over the past almost 30 years, both in procedure and perception.
According to Speed, when he started the job in April of 1991, officers did not carry tasers or pepper spray. They were not issued bulletproof vests and had to purchase their own weapons.
“We were just pleased to get out and do our job,” Speed said. “Today we’re better equipped and trained than ever, (but) hiring and retention is the biggest issue facing law enforcement today.”
Many people, Speed said, have an idealistic perception of what police officers should look and act like based on the way they are portrayed in television and movies. When in reality, police departments are looking for much more than simply a man in uniform.
“We want people who are role models in the community, problem solvers, and want to coach the little league team — that are leaders away from work, not just at work,” Speed said.
Aside from the day to day responsibilities, he said, with the number of community events, such as Friday After 5, the demands required of police officers continue to grow.
“It’s the police department’s job to evolve and adapt to cover these things,” Speed said. “Hiring and retention is going to be the biggest obstacle to meeting those demands.”
While Speed has had opportunities to grow and learn during his tenure, he said the incentives to work and serve as a police officer across the nation vary and are not nearly enough to compensate and secure the type of individual needed to fulfill the role.
“They are really struggling to not just hire, but to hire the right people to go out and serve, when you can go out in the private sector and make more money and have less stress,” Speed said.
Throughout his career, Speed has served as a patrol officer, supervisor, been responsible for overseeing professional standards, support services and specialized services and deputy chief of police in charge of overseeing the entire department.
He has witnessed the many improvements, not only in standard issue equipment to officers, but in technology and community improvement as well. Speed helped to form the bomb squad in 2003 and has assisted in securing grants in excess of $500,000 in order to enhance and improve communication and begin the first mobile data terminal project (MDT). He is also a graduate of the 2009 FBI National Academy Class 236.
“Being a member of OPD allowed me to establish a network and share ideas with other officers throughout the U.S. and other countries,” Speed said.
His specific focus during his 28 years on the job, he said, was to be the best he could be in whatever role he was asked to do by the Owensboro Police Department.
“I’m a firm believer that it’s not just 40 hours a week,” Speed said. “I think it’s important to be a role model outside of work and in the community. It’s important to do it the right way and be a good example to others. I always took pride in doing the right thing whether I had a supervisor around me or not. That was my mission — to do it right all the time.”
It is not only the officer, he said, that is held accountable in the community, but the families as well.
“Everyone realizes who the police officers are,” Speed said. “It’s not just the job, it’s the perception the public has of you and what you do and what your family should be. To be a police officer is a family sacrifice — the individual that’s not the officer is going through it with you.”
With his son and daughter currently in college, Speed said he would not have been able to attain the level of success he has without his wife helping to run the household.
“To have a successful police career, it absolutely takes strong support at home,” Speed said. “My wife Deanna has been the rock and glue of the family. She has been right by my side through everything and I am very appreciative of that.”
In his newly found retirement, Speed assists with the responsibilities at home, enjoys taking scenic motorcycle trips and has found joy in helping to care for his aging parents. However, retiring from the police department, he said, was the hardest decision he has ever had to make.
“I’ve had a very rewarding career — it’s been something I’ve truly enjoyed,” Speed said. “I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been blessed. We’ve helped a lot of people over the years and helped implement a lot of change. The city of Owensboro has been wonderful to work for and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”