Gardner Police Chief Jay Belcher plans for retirement

After 25 years of service to the Gardner community, Chief Jay Belcher is retiring on March 31.

He began his career in March 1998 as a firefighter and police officer for the City of Gardner’s public safety department. Belcher said this is what the police department was known as at the time. Since then, he has served as a police sergeant, police lieutenant and police captain.

He has been the Gardner Police Chief since July 2019.

“I feel honored to have served as Chief of Police for the last three years,” Belcher said. “I have had the opportunity to make lifelong friends and feel very fortunate to have worked alongside some of the most dedicated men and women serving a community I love.”

Belcher said it was exciting and scary.

“Absolutely, I am going to miss it,” he said about his time serving Gardner. “It has been my life for the past 25 years.”

Belcher said he could remember his first day like it was yesterday.

“I remember sitting in the car with the sergeant, Bob Mason, and driving around town and him talking about the job,” he said. “It’s funny some of that stuff you can remember.”

Belcher grew up in Spring Hill, and a little known fact about Belcher is about his time spent as a former pitcher for the Minnesota Twins minor league affiliates. He was drafted right out of high school for the Minnesota Twins.

“I didn’t sign,” he said. Belcher went to Allen County Community College in Iola, Kansas and played baseball for them for one year. He played for four years in the Minnesota Twins minor leagues.

He said even though he played for Minnesota, he grew up a huge Kansas City Royals fan and was disappointed he wasn’t drafted by them.

“I have kind of held a grudge against them ever since,” he said. “It’s not like I don’t root for them, but Minnesota is my team. I am grateful for the time spent with them and the opportunities they gave me.”

Belcher said when they released him it was the end of his baseball career.

“It was a great time of my life,” he said. “I cherish those memories of those times. And now being able to talk to my kids about that time playing baseball, they think it is pretty cool.”

Belcher said his kids do not play baseball. His youngest son plays basketball and football after trying baseball and quitting, and his oldest son is actively involved with the performing arts at Gardner Edgerton High School and qualified for State with his cello.

He looks forward to spending more time with his family and said his wife is 100 percent supportive of his retirement.

“She has been 100 percent supportive of my entire career in law enforcement,” Belcher said. “I can tell you from personal experience this job is extremely hard on family life.”

He said the stress, shift work, the things an officer sees and hears on duty affects them when they are off the clock, “no matter how much you try to not let it affect you.”

“My wife has been an amazing person to help me through my career,” Belcher said. “And she’s been very understanding.”

He said it worked out great fortunately before they had kids because he worked from 2-10p.m. and she worked mornings, so they were able to have part-time child care. He said the only downfall was they only saw each other for a couple hours a night because by the time he got home she was ready to go to bed. This schedule was for 17 to 18 years. His wife is not in law enforcement.

Belcher joked that maybe that was “the secret to our success.” He said the kids being of teenage years they have a “whatever” attitude about his retirement.

He treasures the friendships and connections he has made throughout his career.

“There were a lot of people I got to know that I am going to walk away from this job and still have some sort of relationship with them,” Belcher said. “And then I am going to miss very much the interaction with the employees on a day to day basis. Sometimes you hear athletes when they retire say the locker room stuff and hanging out with their teammates they are going to miss that—in my mind it is very similar to that. We laugh and joke around here, but when it is time to go to work we go to work.”

He said the department feels like a family atmosphere that he will miss greatly.

Belcher said the one thing he won’t miss is the late night phone calls when something major has happened.

“The reason I am not going to miss that is because I am the type of person who my mind starts going and something happens in the middle of the night that is a major incident, if I don’t go out on it, I will not go back to sleep,” he said. “My mind will be going 100 mph or about for what’s happening. But I think that is a common response you will hear from law enforcement—the late night call outs, the weekend call outs.”

Belcher said the position he is in and along with other ranking positions, “you may be off, it may be a Saturday, but in the back of your mind if you are with your family and the phone rings, it is work.” He said an officer is never really off from work.

Belcher said there is stuff officers do every day that the public doesn’t know about, but there are calls he will always remember.

“It may seem insignificant to someone else, but the person you are dealing with it is the most important thing to them,” he said. “It may not necessarily be a call where you save someone’s life but it is walking away from a call going I had an impact on that person’s day today, and it could impact their life in a positive way moving forward.”

Belcher said there were a lot of positive calls over the years.

“There are really bad calls that turn into positives,” he said. “Those are things you look back on and know that they came to a life and death situation and you made a positive impact for the good of somebody.”

Belcher said he doesn’t want to beat a dead horse, but the suicide calls are some of the toughest calls.

“The ones where someone is having a rough patch, and you’re able to go there and talk to them and get them to realize they need help,” he said. “We all need help at some point in our lives. Those are very gratifying moments.”

Belcher said when he began his career at the Gardner Police Dept. Chief Francis instilled in them that they were a “full-service police dept.”

“And it didn’t matter what the call for service was,” he said. “If a citizen called us, we went to see what we could do to help. And always try to never downplay in your mind someone’s calling 911, because that is probably the most important thing that has happened to that person in a long time. You had an opportunity to walk away from that person with them feeling they have a great police dept. to count on or they are never calling us again because that is awful. I have tried to live that and teach that my entire career to all our people.”

Belcher said the thing he hated hearing throughout his career was “that is not a police matter.”

“It may not be a police matter, but we are problem solvers, and why not try to talk to someone and try to help them figure out an angle they haven’t thought of,” he said.

Belcher said the reason he got into law enforcement after his baseball career sounds cliché, but he went on a ride-along and came home and told his wife, who was his fiancée at the time, “this is exactly what I want to do.” His wife encouraged him to apply.

He said she has been his rock.

Belcher said he had always planned to retire after 25 years because of his age and their retirement system, and it was a family decision. He plans to remain active in the community and working full-time in a different capacity that is less stressful with less responsibilities and fun.

“Something that just grabs my attention,” he said. “A good night sleep, not having to worry about the phone going off in the middle of the night worrying about something bad that happened. Very seldom does the phone ring and the other person at the other end says hey, we did a really great job here, and wake you up at 2 a.m. to let you know.”

Belcher said his top calls for service are for animal control and this is common in most jurisdictions. The calls range from stray animals to barking dogs.

“We are so fortunate here that we don’t have to deal with the serious crimes, shootings and stuff other cities have to deal with,” he said. “We have them occasionally, but not a lot. We have a great community here.”

Belcher said fortunately he has never been shot or shot someone even though he is always on guard and come close throughout his career.

“I never really thought about it,” he said. “I never concerned myself with getting shot. You’re always on guard. I just never thought about getting hurt or shot or anything like that.”

When asked about his feelings about police departments that receive bad press in the media for shooting incidents, Belcher said no one hates a bad cop more than good cops.

“Those bad cops give the good cops—they have to deal with all the backlash as well,” he said.

Belcher said cops rely on their training to kick in during high stress situations. He said the Gardner Police Dept. had recently received a grant for a virtual reality de-escalation simulator headset that helps train an officer through thousands of scenarios.

“You’re put in situations where your communication skills are going to be a crucial factor as to what happens in that situation,” he said.

Belcher said communication skills are one of the most invaluable assets for a police officer, and they will do anything to train their officers better because it only makes their people better and they have an obligation to do so.

“Nothing replaces any officer with great de-escalation and great communication skills,” he said. “It is required for the job. It is such a key in law enforcement.”

Belcher said in his experience someone with great communication skills will be really great as a police officer.

“It is all about talking to people, having an effective communication with each other, having a listening and understanding,” he said. “I felt like I was pretty good at that my entire career.”

Belcher said he looks at this retirement as closing one chapter and another one starting.

“I am so fortunate to be able to do this for a long time and friendships I have made along the way are lasting friendships that I will have for a long time,” he said. “I can’t count how many people I have met and had a relationship with over my career.”

Belcher said his wife gives him a hard time for them not being able to go anywhere in the Kansas City area without them running into someone he knows.

“It has become an inside joke in our family,” he said. “I’ll look at my wife, and she will say that’s odd.”

Belcher said he has an outgoing personality and has never met a stranger. He believes this is what has helped him in his career.

“I think in my opinion it was just communication again,” he said. “One thing I got a lot better at was being a better listener. I think to have effective communication is you being able to talk, but you also listening, hearing and understanding.”

Belcher said his first plans after retiring will be to play golf with his friends on Saturday, April 1. He said the biggest question he has received from people are about his retirement plans. His retirement reception will be at the Gardner Police Dept., Friday, March 31st at 10 a.m.

Mayor Todd Roberts said he had a lot of respect and admiration for the work Belcher has done for the community.

“He has been a solid, calm leader that will be difficult to replace,” he said.

Jim Pruetting, city administrator, said they are currently interviewing people for the role of police chief.

“His leadership and connection to the community will be missed,” he said. “He will be impossible to replace.”