Do you know Joe? Island’s new police chief gets personal

There can be only one, as everyone well knows.

And, from a field of carefully selected finalists, Joseph “Joe” Clark won out and was recently chosen to be Bainbridge Island’s new police chief from a trio of qualified contenders.

Clark has been in law enforcement for 34 years. His last position was that of deputy chief of the Norfolk Police Department in Norfolk, Virginia. He was worked for that department since 1986 and became deputy in 2017.

He will take over here from Acting Police Chief Scott Weiss, who was installed after interim chief Jeff Horn resigned in November.

Clark chatted with the Review Monday by phone from Norfolk to discuss his priorities, hobbies, and why you should never watch a cop movie with him.

* This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

BIR: Have you found a place out here yet or are you in the process of moving?

JC: I am still working in Norfolk. I’m closing out my last duties here and the intent is to start at the end of the month. We have not yet set a specific date yet, we still have the council meeting [Tuesday] pending, but that is the goal depending upon everything that’s going on with the virus.

BIR: Right, what a heck of a time to move across the country.

JC: It’s a challenging time right now, but we’ll get through it.

BIR: You’d been with the Norfolk department a long time, so what attracted you to the Bainbridge job in the first place?

JC: It was a little unusual how this came about because I was looking for a new position, so I came across the Bainbridge Island [job] announcement just by chance. I was not at all looking to move away from the East Coast; I absolutely was not. And I came across this one and it kind of stood out to me and I’ll tell you why. I have some friends, they actually lived next door to me, and they were relocating to Washington state and I only paid a little attention to where they were moving to, but as I’m reading through this announcement I had to pick up the phone and go, ‘Where is it you guys are moving?’ And they have actually moved out to Bainbridge Island. They moved out at the end of the summer last year.

So when those two things kind of connected by chance I started doing some more reading about the island and the police department and the community in general, and that’s really what sparked my interest. I just followed through with the process.

BIR: And I guess you must have liked what you saw when you got here.

JC: I did, I absolutely liked it. When I was out there I had some time to drive around the island. I’ve been out there twice since that and I’ve had time to kind of explore the island and then out into the county; beautiful part of the country, just absolutely beautiful. The island’s nice, it’s kind of got that mix of small town plus the rural parts of the island. There’s something for everybody.

BIR: It must be very different from where you are now. Norfolk is a big place, lots of people. Is it a very drastic change for you?

JC: You know, not really. I live here on the coast, live in a waterfront community. I’m about a block and half from the beach. I think the only big different might be the weather — I’m going to leave the humidity behind. The heat and humidity are being left here.

BIR: I’ve heard it can get muggy.

JC: It’s a tad warm and humid here in the summer. I’ve lived here all my life so I’m used to it, I’m fine with it. But I can’t say that I’ll miss it. [But] it’s a waterfront community, same thing out there. Bremerton’s got the Navy base, much like we have here, different size, different scale.

BIR: During the public meet-and-greet here, did you hear many of the same concerns raised by residents? Are there a few shared interests that stood out to you?

JC: I think what everybody is concerned about is they enjoy a fantastic relationship with the police department and they want to see that continue. That’s one of the things that’s attractive to me, when you have that. It really comes down to public service. People sign up for government service — whether it’s the police department, fire department, or working over at city hall — because they want to work to make the community better and you want to do that hand-in-hand with the community. Because that’s really what drives it: the residents’ needs and desires.

In order to have that you have to have that two-way communication, that face-to-face, that relationship. You have to know the people you serve.

BIR: Were the concerns of the officers similar as well? I understand you met with most of the department.

JC: I think all but two or three officers made it to that [meeting], really just a brief opportunity to speak, but they enjoy that relationship just as much, I think, as the residents and they want to see that continue. They want a professional, very service-oriented department.

BIR: Did you always want to be a cop? Was it a job you saw in your family growing up or how did you come to it initially?

JC: I can’t say it’s something I thought about at a young age. I can remember growing up in my neighborhood, one of the neighbors, a few blocks down, their son, who was a few years older than me, he came on the police department and I can remember seeing him drive by in the police car going in to see his parents. But I don’t know that at that time I planned — I had an interest in going to law school, but something about the police department just attracted me to it. And when I turned 21 I was old enough to apply and I did.

I worked in a business where the officers would stop by occasionally. I actually worked in a movie theater so they would stop by once in a while so I got to know a few folks. It looked like a good opportunity.

BIR: I guess that’s the kind of job you know quickly if it’s for you and a lot of people would likely find they just couldn’t do it, that they didn’t want to and it wasn’t a good fit. Clearly, you had the opposite reaction.

JC: I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve evolved a lot over the years. There is not much that surprises me anymore. I’m sure there’s something out there, but you do kind of become a jack-of-all-trades, a mediator; you get to learn all the services available throughout the city so that you can kind of refer people. Because we certainly can’t fix everything, but it’s important to have that knowledge base so that you can hopefully refer people in the direction they need to go.

People say, ‘I wouldn’t want to do your job,’ and there are lots of jobs that I wouldn’t want to do. This one was just the right one for me.

BIR: It seems an especially tricky time to be a cop in America. Things have changed a lot since you started in the job.

JC: Things have changed a lot and I think it’s always for the better: truly becoming community-oriented over the years and understanding that we’re here to serve the community’s needs and not the other way around. I think in the past there may have been a belief that our way is the right way and really that’s not the case. Really, it’s about what’s best for the community, and that changes from community to community. You have to be flexible. Follow best practices, but you make those practices align with community standards.

BIR: I was going to ask about your leadership style or policing philosophy, but that’s kind of what you’re talking about right now, isn’t it?

JC: Yeah, I would say for it’s more of a mentoring or coaching type of style. People don’t respond to just being told what to do. People want to be involved; they want to be engaged. So you kind of help people along in that direction as a coach and let folks make some decisions. You’ve got to learn from mistakes. Nobody’s done any job this long and not made mistakes along the way [but] it’s what you take from that, what you learn from that and how you adjust so that you can kind of hopefully keep it from happening again. So when you’re leading an organization you have to let people have those same kinds of opportunities. I would rather than have somebody coming to me and asking me what to do, I would rather turn it around and say, ‘What would you do?’ and ‘How would you go about doing that?’ And then we can work together and come up with a plan.

BIR: You mentioned you’d worked in a theater. Are you a movie buff?

JC: I can’t say that I’m a movie buff, but I worked in a movie theater. It was a high school job that was actually the job I was working in right before I came to the police department. That was a good job, you got to see all the movies. But that’s a customer service position, so you learn a lot of humility, learn how to deal with people and interact. It was a good all-around experience.

BIR: What’s your favorite cinematic depiction of police work? Is there a film that gets it more right than most?

JC: Gosh, I try to avoid those movies.

BIR: You don’t like cop movies?

JC: People don’t like to watch cop shows with me because I critique it too much and sometimes it’s difficult to just sit back and enjoy. I can’t say that I can necessarily name a favorite cop movie.

BIR: What do you do when you’re not at work?

JC: I will tell you I have a 2000 Harley Davidson Road King Classic that I bought brand new and I have ridden that to all 48 contiguous states. So I’ve got just a little over 105,000 miles on that motorcycle now and there are no trailer miles, that’s all from my driveway to wherever and back. I’d been out to Washington once on the motorcycle and I’m looking forward to spending some time exploring once I get settled out there.

BIR: Are you married and do you have any children?

JC: I’m engaged and [she] and I each have two kids. I have a boy and a girl and she has a boy and a girl. My two are the oldest, they’re 27 and 24, and then she has a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old.

BIR: Is your fiancé also excited about the move?

JC: Probably not as excited as I am but she’s looking forward to it. The moving, it starts to sink in, the challenge of moving across the country. [She] sells real estate here and the youngest has to finish school, although they may be finished without knowing it. Initially, I’ll be coming out there by myself and then they’ll join me later on in the year.