New Morrilton police chief appointed despite opposition

By Tammy Keith Originally Published January 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 18, 2013 at 12:41 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Sonny Stover, 39, was appointed Monday night by Mayor Stewart Nelson to be the new Morrilton police chief.

— Sonny Stover, 39, of Oppelo is coming back as Morrilton police chief to a department he knows and loves, and he said it doesn’t bother him that not everyone is welcoming him with open arms.

He was appointed Monday night — just barely — by Morrilton Mayor Stewart Nelson.

The council’s vote, at 5-3, fell one short of overriding Nelson’s appointment. It takes a two-thirds vote of the City Council to override an appointment, according to state statute.

Stover is chief deputy of the Conway County Sheriff’s Office and a former Morrilton police officer.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate” on why five aldermen voted against the move, Stover said. “I still think I have the support of the City Council.

“I just hope that [the police officers] have an open mind and go with the changes and give them a chance and listen to some of my ideas.”

He will take over Tuesday as chief.

Nelson said one of the complaints he heard was that he should appoint the chief from within the Police Department.

“Sometimes it’s good to bring in fresh blood, new ideas,” Nelson said. “Right now, we’re looking to try to come up with new ideas, new thoughts and make some changes, not necessarily that everything we’ve done in the past is bad.

“I felt like maybe somebody who was close to the department but still outside the department would make the best choice.”

Stover started with the Morrilton Police Department Reserve Unit in 1998 and was a police officer from 1999 until 2007, when he joined the Conway County Sheriff’s Office.

Jim Bowles, in his first term as alderman, said his vote wasn’t against Stover.

“I’ve done business with Sonny in the past, and he’s a great guy,” Bowles said. “Basically, my vote came because I’ve had a lot of people call me recently, and they were in favor of somebody else.”

He said that someone else was Lt. Curtis Russell, who has been in charge of the patrol division for several months. Former Chief Norbert Gunderman Jr. was elected in November as Conway County tax collector, although he didn’t officially resign as chief until the end of the year.

Bowles said Russell “has done a good job for what he’s had to deal with the past six months, or seven months.”

When word leaked out that Nelson was going to appoint Stover, the calls in support of Russell started coming in, Bowles said.

“After 3 o’clock [Monday], I probably had six calls, and I don’t know how many till then,” Bowles said.

Bowles said although council members were “passionate about their stances,” they were respectful during the meeting.

City Council member John Lawrence also voted against the mayor’s recommendation.

“Basically, the reason I did, I felt like we had a lieutenant, Lt. Curtis Russell, in place,” Lawrence said. “He’s done a good job. He has like 27 years on the police force. I feel like he has earned the right to that position.”

Lawrence said that as far as he knows, Russell has “an exemplary record.”

“Even though he didn’t have the title of interim chief, that’s actually what’s he’s been. I just felt like he was the man for the job,” Lawrence said.

“If you don’t promote from within your ranks when you have a qualified person to promote, it sends a message to the other officers that ‘there’s no future here for me.’ It kind of hurts the morale,” Lawrence said.

Bruno Hoelzeman, a councilman, chairman of the police committee and former Morrilton police officer, said Stover “aced it” on the interview.

“He was just articulate, real professional, real calm,” Hoelzeman said.

“Sonny walked out of the interview, and [Nelson and I] looked at each other, and my jaw was probably on the table,” Hoelzeman said.

He said Stover’s experience as chief deputy, successfully overseeing a large budget and personnel, was a key factor.

Hoelzeman said Russell also made a good impression in the interview.

He was put in charge several months ago, Hoelzeman said, because Gunderman had a lot of vacation and compensatory time.

“I think this is where we erred — some of the aldermen just believed Curtis would step on in because he had been there a while, he’s well-versed, he’s up to date on everything; he’s got seniority there,” Hoelzeman said.

“I think the problem is they assured him he’d be chief of police.

“We’ve had years of — I guess turmoil is a mild word. We’ve had years of turnover as far as personnel, and it wasn’t getting any better.”

“When an opportunity comes up to correct it, that’s what we went with. It’s what we needed.”

Hoelzeman said the community was concerned about the Police Department.

“The public was coming to the mayor, the public was coming to me, relentlessly, and the question was verbatim: ‘What are y’all going to do about that police department?’” Hoelzeman said.

“We have well-trained professional officers, college-educated men,” he said. “They’ve got to have direction; they’ve got to have someone in charge and not be guided by fear or intimidation by whoever’s in charge.”

Hoelzeman said there are 22 sworn officers in the Morrilton Police Department.

“I’ve had phone calls, texts, going to the grocery store — people saying, ‘Y’all made the right decision,’” Hoelzeman said. “I don’t think the Police Department realized how much the people were concerned — the attitude, the demeanor.”

Nelson said he talked with community members about what they wanted in a police chief, and he sent letters to current officers asking for their input.

The mayor said he wants to see the department get back to community policing.

“I like the officers to get out of the car and talk to people,” Nelson said. “We have had a fairly high turnover rate. I want the officers to know the people and the people to know the officers.”

Stover said he’s a “firm believer” in community policing.

“I grew up around a lot of the officers and knew them personally,” he said.

“It puts officers out on the street and puts them one on one with the people of Morrilton,” Stover said. “It builds a good communication base.”

Stover is a lifelong resident of Conway County and a 1991 Morrilton High School graduate.

Stover said he worked for a year as a pipeline welder with his uncle and worked at what was then AmTran, now IC Corp., which formerly manufactured buses in Conway.

“I went to work straight out of high school and began my law-enforcement career in 1998,” he said.

“I really enjoyed it, working for the people and trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Stover was a criminal investigator prior to becoming chief deputy.

“I really enjoyed working the cases, solving the crimes and knowing you’re helping people find their property,” Stover said.

He and his wife, Alicia, have two children, a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.

The police chief job pays $50,000, Nelson said, but with benefits is a “$70,000-a-year job,” he said.

Stover was one of seven finalists for the job, culled from 16 applicants, the mayor said.

In addition to Russell, the other five finalists were as follows:

• Lt. Rusty Quinn with the criminal investigation division of the Morrilton Police Department;

• Sgt. Trent Anderson, shift commander for the Morrilton Police Department;

• Shane West, deputy with the Conway County Sheriff’s Office;

• Bill Hartman, Plumerville police chief; and

• Lt. Keenan Carter, formerly with the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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