By Reggie Ellis
exeter – When Cliff Bush walks out the door of the Exeter Police Station this Friday, May 19, he will stand beneath the antique “police” lampposts of the building for the first time as anything other than Exeter’s Police Chief.
After 31 years in law enforcement and the last 12 as Exeter’s chief of police, Bush said it is time for him to step down and let others take over the department that considers itself one big family between fellow officers and the community. An open house to celebrate the career of one of Exeter’s most beloved and respected public safety officials will be held from 4-6 p.m. tomorrow, May 18 at the Exeter Police Station, 100 N. C St. in downtown Exeter.
“Coming to the Exeter Police Department was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,”Bush said.
But it almost didn’t happen.
After graduating from the Police Academy in 1986, Bush started his career working the Main Jail for the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office. While there Bush worked closely with Randy Rowlett, a deputy that spoke highly of the Exeter community and its department, run by former Chief John Kunkel. When an opening came up in Exeter in 1990, Bush went through the interview process and then received a call from then Lt. Paul Gomez offering him the job. Bush, who was already living in Exeter, told the lieutenant twice he would have to think about it before eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, accepting the job.
“I didn’t want to leave the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “I was really happy with the Sheriff’s Department and they gave me my first job. But I knew it was the best thing for my family.”
After joining the Exeter Police Department, Bush said he immediately noticed a difference in spending time with his family. He was able to go home for lunch, attend mid-day events for his children at school, be home for dinner more often and understand what it means to be part of a community.
“When I first started with the department I didn’t know the street names or where things were located even though I had lived there for a few years. I only knew my front yard and not the neighborhood,” he said. “These people taught me what it meant to be involved in making the town a better place, not just a safer place.”
Bush was promoted to sergeant in 1995, then lieutenant in 2004 before becoming chief in 2005, succeeding his predecessor in Kunkel and the man who hired him, then Assistant Chief Paul Gomez who retired after being diagnosed with cancer.
Once thought of as a the department of sleepy bedroom community, Bush helped transform EPD into one of the leaders in community oriented policing, crime prevention, juvenile engagement and helped elevate the role of smaller departments in countywide task forces and special units. Under Bush, the department increased its cooperation with the Sheriff’s Department and neighboring departments in Woodlake and Farmersville, launched a donation-funded K9 program, the department’s first drone, a juvenile diversion program and swore in the county’s first robotic officer!
Officer Nitro, a robot-suited officer, was debuted by EPD last summer. The youth crime prevention mascot has proven so effective in drugs, bullying and gang prevention at Exeter schools that it recently received a $10,000 donation from the Orange Belt Masonic Lodge in Exeter and has made visits to elementary schools in Tulare, Woodville, Three Rivers and Springville.
“You see the reaction on the kids’ faces and you say to yourself, ‘Wow, they are really listening,’” he said. “I think Officer Nitro has the potential to help kids throughout the entire county.”
Another one of Bush’s proud accomplishments was the formation of Exeter Responds. A coalition of public officials, private businesses, churches and non-profit partners, Exeter Responds holds a community-wide Thanksgiving Food Drive, a sweatshirt drive for Exeter youth who can’t afford winter clothes and organize Trunk or Treat, a safe alternative to traditional trick or treating. For the last few years, the group has sponsored a summer camping trip for local teens.
Bush said the hardest thing he had to do as chief is bury one of his officers. Daniel Green was a 10-year veteran of EPD when he was killed in his home on Feb. 6, 2015. The meticulous and orderly officer was hired as a 21-year-old right out of the police academy just before then Lt. Bush became chief in April 2005. Bush said time has healed some of those wounds as the department celebrates Green’s life with a potluck each year where fellow officers share stories.
“I think the department will carry on that tradition,” Bush said. “It wasn’t something I started it was something we did as a department … as a family.”
Bush’s family at home also benefitted from his EPD career. In 1998, when Bush was an EPD detective, he was called away from his family on Father’s Day to investigate a rape. The 15-year-old victim was developmentally delayed, pregnant (not related to the crime he was investigating) and unable to care for the child she was carrying. The victim’s aunt asked Bush if he would take the baby. What the woman didn’t know is that Bush and his wife Leanor had been considering having another child but possibly adopting. Bush said he couldn’t help but think of something his wife said when he had wanted another baby girl. “Find someone to give you one, and you can have it.”
“So after I told [Leanor] the news, I met with the birth mother and we set up the adoption,” Bush said. “It was the greatest Father’s Day gift ever.”
Bush said none of his law enforcement career would have been possible without the support of his wife of 35 years. He recalled Christmas morning homicides, late night car wrecks, multi-day investigations that caused rescheduled birthdays and missed anniversaries. One Father’s Day, his oldest child Jimmy had planned to buy his father breakfast for the first time. Bush said he remembers how proud his son was to make the gesture, and how sad he was to leave on a call. But Leanor was there for the family to help them understand the importance of their father’s job and why he couldn’t stay when he wanted nothing else.
“You can’t do this job for 27 years without the support of your family, especially your wife,” Bush said. “She has been an amazing support for me and my family.”
Bush said he is leaving the department with the best staff he has seen in his 27-year career with EPD. He said he had been targeting a retirement date this year for the last few years and has spent the time building up to it by trying to pass on as much institutional and professional knowledge as possible.
“It’s kind of like giving away your daughter at a wedding,” Bush said. “These are your kids and you have mentored them, not only professionally but also personally.’
He doesn’t know who will ultimately replaced him as Exeter’s police chief but is familiar with the person city administrators have selected in the interim. Retired Visalia Police Substation Lt. Jeff McIntosh will officially take on the role as EPD chief on May 20. Bush said the two went to the academy together and he is a well respected veteran of Tulare County law enforcement.
“I didn’t really have a say in got the job but I couldn’t have picked someone better if I had,” Bush said.
Since moving out of town, many think retirement means they have seen the last of Bush in the Exeter community. But Bush said there is no way he could leave his extended family of locals. In addition to spending time with his three children and three grandchildren, Bush said he will continue to build on his professional relationship with Courage to Change, a renowned home for rehabilitating courtroom-placed juvenile defenders in a military style setting, and continue to volunteer with Exeter Responds.
“I’ll still be involved in the community,” Bush said. “There are so many friends and people that are like family, I could never leave completely.”