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Top cop looks back on first year

In some ways, Lee Vague says not much has changed in the way he approaches his job on an everyday basis.

"I love being a cop," said Vague, who is nearly a year into his tenure as director for the Woodbury Public Safety Department. "It's a job that always presents new challenges on a daily basis. And I love the people I work with."

But as he begins the second year in what he hopes will be a lengthy stint as the top official representing the city's recently integrated police and fire department, the longtime Woodbury resident says he's beginning to truly understand how public safety fits in with grand scheme for one of the fastest growing communities in the Twin Cities.

"I think this last year has really given me a better perspective for how we fit into the bigger picture of what the city has to offer our residents," said Vague, who was appointed to the top public safety spot upon Bill Hering's retirement in March 2007.

"As an officer you can get pretty focused on what your job is, but that sometimes makes it tough to see that we're just one part of the whole. In a city like Woodbury, we're really here to support our economic development and growth as a city."

A 19-year veteran law enforcement officer for Woodbury, Vague said the community's growth is best represented by memory of his initial interview for patrol officer.

"I remember the day I came to town. They had just put in the four-way stop at Valley Creek and Radio (drives)," Vague said. "Population was about 20,000 and we had very little retail at the time. So obviously our focus in public safety has grown with the community."

When he was hired, Vague served on a staff of fewer than 20 full-time patrol officers.

One year after his promotion from sergeant, he now presides over a workforce of more than 60 full-time police officers and 12 fulltime firefighters.

The police and fire departments, which officially merged a little more than five years ago, are also making ground on a crossover training program developed for police officers. Currently, 10 patrol officers also serve as firefighters and 20 others also function as emergency medical technicians.

"That's something that makes working for us pretty unique," Vague said. "It hasn't been an easy implementation, but I think we're learning a lot. The positive thing is we do have people who are showing a genuine interest in both aspects of this integration."

Vague said the department also heavily relies on its 80 paid on-call firefighters, who have been essential in the few large-scale emergencies that the city has experienced.

"Firefighting is not their fulltime job, but if Kowalski's is on fire, you can't put it out with 12 firefighters and cops. That paid on-call contingent is a big deal for us. I know our fulltime firefighters really appreciate their presence."

Issues and goals

Vague said from the outset of his appointment, he was determined to lead the public safety department through the last two years of its five-year integration plan. But along the way, he's also been presented with the everyday concerns: An increase in home burglaries, an increase in retail crime and a recent wave of youth crime in city parks.

"It's been a busy year for us," Vague said. "And when that happens you bet we hear from citizens who have concerns; and we should. The good part of that is people will contact me and say 'What's going on in my neighborhood?' But that starts a dialogue and when you have concerned citizens and concerned cops, you can start a great relationship that helps with those issues."

Over the last year, Vague said more neighborhood watch groups have been formed and have begun proactive relationships with patrol officers.

He also said the department has been committed to curbing the juvenile crime issues seen last summer in Ojibway Park. Plans are in the works for police to establish a substation this summer in the Ojibway Park building.

"Ojibway (Park) became a place where we had a specific group of youth who thought they were gonna run the place," Vague said. "We've dealt with the situation, but we're going to make sure it doesn't come back."

Administratively speaking, Vague said the department is in the midst of an in-department evaluation of its core goals, which he said will assist the police, fire and EMS integration.

The department recently held a retreat weekend, where leadership and subordinates spent time breaking down the changes made in the integration process and discussed how those changes correspond with the department's two core functions: response and prevention.

"It seems so simple, but I can tell you response and prevention are always the only things we've done," Vague said. "We want to be able to serve the citizens in any way we can, but we also want to make sure we are keeping those core functions at the top of the list."

Vague said he's also focused on fitting the public safety department's growth plans in with the city's 2030 comprehensive growth plan. Even as he helps lead the department into the future, will he be there 20-plus years from now?

"I've been here in Woodbury my entire career," Vague said. "I live here, my family's here, this is home. I think I'll be here for a while. And I wouldn't have it any other way."