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A legacy of service: Looking back at Chief Art Howell's career

Posted at 11:10 AM, Apr 19, 2021

A drive-by parade took place for a man many call a local treasure. It saluted the retirement of Racine Police Chief Art Howell. He got hundreds of well wishes on his last day on the job.

From Racine Mayor Cory Mason said, "The chief treats everyone with dignity, he gets things done by building partnerships, and he's earned the trust of the community."

From Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave, "The chief will undoubtedly go down as one of the finest community leaders Racine County has ever seen."

From Racine native and former NBA legend Caron Butler, "Thank you for being an example we all needed. Seeing is believing."

Howell is known widely for leading in a bipartisanship way.

The secret, says Howell, "Just don't choose sides. We have people of different political persuasions throughout the community. And I never tried to choose sides because there's this common denominator that we all want. We all want a safe community. We all want a higher quality of life."

Howell treated his job as more than just law and order, it was about reaching out to people.

"My success here is 100% connected to community relationships," said Howell.

Like his strong support of the "Cops and Kids" reading program featured in Positively Milwaukee.

"When you connect with people, and you listen to what they need. I understand what I need to do from a law enforcement perspective but then there are other elements that contribute to the quality of life in the neighborhood. Community connections are literally what makes our department successful. Going out into the community, that's where you figure out what your purpose is. If you listen to people, they'll tell you what they need. We know that we want to diminish crime or reduce crime, but there's other issues quality of life issues that determine how a neighborhood will function and how it will flourish or not flourish," said Howell.

Ironically, Howell's nickname was chief long before he became one.

"We have a funny story. My wife called me chief in public once," said Howell. "After I became chief and the person that was nearby said, 'Oh, that's neat. You know she refers to him as chief.' I said 'no, no that's not like the police chief, that's just my nickname.'" He laughs.

Howell was the son of sharecroppers born in Mississippi. He's one of six children and he's thankful for the values his parents taught him. What would he say to his late father today?

"I would first thank him for just the structure discipline, leaving a safe space where he was to come for a better place for his children, I get to be born when they came up here but you know I'm the manifestation of why they came, men from the south, weren't very emotional right and so, but he told me that he was very proud of me and that he loved me and this is something that you don't always hear. Sometimes people will show you that they love you, but they don't always say it, and, and he was one of the types of people that didn't always say it, but he said it when I was appointed as Sergeant."

His mother still lives in Racine and they text a lot.

"She just keeps me grounded because like at her house I'm not the chief. I'm just like the little chief. She keeps me humble on a regular basis by letting me know where I came from, and so it's hard to get the big head around her," said Howell.

Howell knows he's the sum of past sacrifices from his parents' generation.

"My struggle coming through the department for 36 years is nothing to be compared with the struggle of 40s, 50s, 60s as a person of color. My father was e was able to persevere through that and still maintain a positive attitude. That's how we learn to be successful," said Howell.

Howell says he kept his composure on the day of his retirement. But one moment was tough. It was when the family of Officer Hetland showed up. Hetland was killed in 2019 during an armed robbery.

"When we had a farewell motorcade the Hetland family came by. I was in pretty good shape until they drove by. It reminded me of the sacrifice that officers. Up until that time, make-up until that time, June 17, 2019, we had not lost an officer in the line of duty here since 1974. I was 12 years old. We had never experienced that. We all knew John and, and who John was. You're not going to find people who were enemies of John. To process that was very difficult," said Howell.

But the chief is proud of how we're seen rallied around the department.

"We must stress our commonalities, but we just have to find a way to bridge this gap between those two spaces. We all share the same community. In our community, you could have a million-dollar house a few blocks away, a $50,000 house. So, we have to share the space. We have to figure out a way we can do so in a non-confrontational way. "

Howell leaves the department with pride and respect for the men and women who wear the badge.

"It's a noble profession, even when we have some of the backlash," said Howell.

Howell hopes to be remembered as a man who cherished his hometown.

"I would just hope people would remember that he actually cared about the community, about the officers, about his family. It was more than just a job; it was more of a calling."

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