PPD Captain Jill Lees Talks What It Means to Serve & Protect
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Darren Boston
When Jill Lees was a sophomore in high school, she attended a police camp at Indiana State University to see if she might like to pursue a career in law enforcement. The camp served to seal the deal.
“By its completion, I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” recalls Lees, who attended Indiana University’s cadet officer program where she mostly worked security at football and basketball games. The summer between her junior and senior years, she graduated from the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy and became a part-time police officer while earning her degree.
“Back then [in 1994] campus security was so different,” Lees says. “I got paid $6 an hour, wore no bulletproof vest, and I had to buy my own gun, boots and duty belt.”
She says that had she not purchased a pistol, the department would have issued her a revolver. It wasn’t exactly the weapon officers wanted to tote.
Lees worked security for concerts and even did a bit of undercover work. As graduation approached, she contemplated moving back to her hometown of Hammond, Indiana but opted for a fresh start and applied to the Plainfield Police Department (PPD).
Though Lees was to be sworn in on May 8, 1995, due to a hiccup in the medical paperwork, the date was bumped back by a week to May 15, which is National Police Officer Day.
“I thought that was the coolest twist of fate to be sworn in on that day,” says Lees, who has witnessed quite an evolution in the profession over the past 23 years, particularly where technology is concerned.
“When I first started on the force, I had a ticket book and a little file folder holder,” Lees says. “Now we have in-car computers for crash reports, printers and scanners for e-ticketing. Everyone carries a smartphone. We’re equipped with body cameras and tasers.”
The PPD has just received their eighth accreditation from CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), an organization that Lees works for part-time. The purpose of CALEA’s Accreditation Program is to improve the delivery of public safety services by maintaining a body of standards, covering a wide range of up-to-date public safety initiatives, establishing and administering an accreditation process and recognizing professional excellence.
“Our department received a meritorious award due to our longevity of being an accredited agency,” Lees says.
With the work Lees does with CALEA, she visits other police departments in the U.S. to monitor best practices.
“Through ride-alongs and interviews, I learn what’s working for them,” she says. “I always like working with anyone who shares my same goal of making a difference in the community.”
Lees, Captain of the Support Services Division, is responsible for a number of things since the Support Services Division covers everything outside of actual investigation and road patrol. As a result, Lees does hostage negotiation, grant writing and teaching DARE classes at St. Susanna School & Church. She also provides chaplain services, which means she’s often the one to make death notifications to families. Whether it’s due to a car crash, a suicide, an overdose or a death from natural causes, it’s always a difficult conversation.
“Each one of them takes a piece of your heart,” says Lees, who connects grieving families with resources in the community so that they can begin to navigate next steps.
Lees is also in charge of hiring and recruiting for the department and is always in search of good, quality applicants who are in great physical condition, are critical thinkers and can manage stress.
“You’ve got to be able to handle the stress of the job, and that’s a difficult thing to gauge when someone applies,” Lees says.
Though the PPD currently has more than 50 officers, it’s not enough to accommodate the town’s explosive growth.
“The town has made controlled, calculated growth that has benefitted everyone,” Lees says. “We’re trying to play catch-up to that growth by hiring more manpower.”
Adding to their team will mean that they can dedicate more officers as School Resource Officers (SRO). In fact, this summer they’re starting an SRO training program with the school and the town.
“It’s always a top priority to make sure our kids are safe in school,” Lees says.
Without community support, Lees notes that the PPD can’t be successful. That’s why she makes herself accessible to the community by participating in programs like “Coffee with a Cop” where the public is invited to chat openly with law enforcement officers. The PPD also participates in National Night Out, in which Plainfield officers go neighborhood to neighborhood and talk to folks who are sitting outside on their lawn chairs.
Building and maintaining a good relationship with the community starts with the kids, which is why Lees keeps stickers in her uniform pocket and distributes them to children when she’s out and about. Officers keep a stash of stuffed animals on hand and give them to kids involved in crashes. They also let young ones love on their K9s at public events.
Anytime Lees is feeling down and wonders if she’s making a difference in the community, she remembers the story of the starfish where a little boy is on a beach and sees that thousands of starfish have been washed up on shore. One by one, he starts throwing them back into the ocean. A passerby asks what’s the point as there are so many that how could he begin to make a difference? The boy tosses another starfish back into the sea and replies, “It made a difference to that one!”
“That’s what I want — to make a difference, one by one,” Lees says.
Whether she’s interacting with a student in a class, a patron at the grocery store or a child on the street, she tries to make it a positive experience. Recently she was having breakfast at a local diner when a waitress told Lees that years before her son had battled drug addiction but that Lees helped turn his life around. Another time a woman shared that several years before when her best friend died, Lees was there at the emotional scene.
“I wasn’t part of the family, but you were still so kind to me and made sure I was okay,” she said.
Lees was touched to know that her presence made a difference.
“It’s moments like these that solidify my purpose in life,” Lees says.
One of her favorite quotes is by author John Maxwell, who said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
She also likes Maya Angelou’s sentiment when she said, ‘People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’”
This is precisely why Lees cites empathy and authenticity as the two most important qualities of a police officer.
“I tell kids who want to be a cop that this is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Lees says. And it’s one that suits her perfectly.
“I love my team. I love my job. I love Plainfield,” Lees adds. “This is where I belong.”