A valuable resource
Hazelwood school resource officer recognized as Police Officer of the Year for community involvement and reaching out to others with the Help Families in Need program
By Charlotte Beard
“If you ever lose your compassion for what you’re doing and the people you’re helping, you’re no longer doing yourself a service or the people that you serve. It’s time to look for another job.”
Those were the words that Hazelwood Officer Timothy Benning recalled from one of his mentors when he started out as a young officer for Jennings. As of Jan. 16, the St. Louis native has served as a police officer for 36 years. Benning began his service in law enforcement in 1982 and has spent the last 30 years serving Hazelwood.
Benning, who was awarded a Police Officer of the Year Award by the Florissant Rotary Club in December 2018, shares what it means for him to serve the community, particularly as a school resource officer for Hazelwood West Middle School.
“I’ve always been interested in working with kids. When I first started in law enforcement my goal was to be a juvenile detective. That’s what I wanted to do. When you work for a small department you don’t have the opportunities like you would if you worked in St. Louis County or St. Louis City where you have a 1,000-man department. So, when opportunities present themselves you take advantage of them. I had worked undercover in narcotics, I had worked as a detective and I had worked as a field training officer. When this new position came up in 1997, I really believed in it. I believe that you need to make connections with your community. You need to let people know you’re involved, you’re just not someone that shows up and drives around in a car for eight hours and then goes home. So, I thought that the school resource officer position was a great opportunity to be able to build those bridges and make those connections.”
Benning applied and received the position. He shared that Hazelwood was one of the first police departments along with St. Louis County to have a school resource officer program. He served as a resource officer from 1997 to 2002 before transitioning to the detective bureau for a while.
“There weren’t many departments that were involved. I got the position, I went through the training. I just saw it as a really good thing to work with the kids and to be a positive role model (to) build some relationships with people – something that’s going to last.”
He returned to the resource officer role in 2008. The greatest impact he believes he has had as a resource officer is making a positive impact on how youth view law enforcement.
“I didn’t plan on being there 10 years, I thought I would be there another five years and go back to the road, but it just seemed like it was my calling. I was making the biggest difference by staying there and doing that. I think I built that trust to help serve our community better. When you work with someone day after day after day, you’re able to change someone’s life. So, when a kid comes up to me and says, ‘Hey Officer Benning. I just want to let you know because of what you did and the time you took talking with me it really made a difference and I just want to thank you,’ that is the biggest (compliment) someone can get, just to know that they changed somebody’s life for the better.”
The thirty-six-year law enforcement veteran, who has announced his plans to retire this year, is not only leaving a legacy with youth but also with families. He shared that as a young officer he saw other officers who during a call would go to a house and find it without heat during the cold temperatures and resort to privately paying the gas bill or providing blankets and space heaters out-of-pocket.
“You’re not able to do enough but you’re able to make a little bit of a difference,” shared Benning. “So, when I came into Hazelwood one of the reasons that brought me there was that Chief Carl Wolf was there at the time. He was one of the leaders in St. Louis Metropolitan area that believed in community policing. He built the concept of the police department on community policing that at that time was pretty much unheard of. You didn’t hear that terminology. He wanted his men and women not just to respond to a call. If you responded to a call and it took you an hour to help solve the problem, then you ‘stayed there’ an hour to help solve the problem. He wanted to bridge that gap between the community and law enforcement. I thought that was important because of the way I was trained as a younger officer in Jennings.”
During the Christmas season of 1994 he was part of a call to a residence that included an additional family due to loss of their home which resulted in some household tensions. Benning suggested to other officers that they work together to provide some needs to the family to help better their experience during the holiday. The department ended up adopting three additional families for Christmas of 1994.
“I went to the chief and I said, ‘This seemed to work out really (well) this year. Would this be something that we could start as a project within the department?’ He said, ‘Tim, if this is something you want to undertake, I will support you 100 percent. I know you worked with the (association) this year. How about making this a community program through our police association and use them for support?’”
The Hazelwood Police Department’s Benevolent Association that was originally set up to primarily assist officers in need as well as the department’s civilian employees, functions year-round. In its bylaws there are stipulations that allow the association to provide some support to family needs within the community.
The association agreed to become a partner in the Christmas initiative which became the Help Families in Need program. In 1995 the initiative served seven families and has grown in service yearly. Under the guidance of Benning, the program has served over 300 Hazelwood families to date. This year, 14 families were sponsored due to families being adopted by bioMerieux, Bommarito Ford Superstore, Nature’s Bakery, Burner Design & Control, and the Hazelwood Police Department. In addition, students of McCurdy Elementary School (Florissant) held a gift drive and donated approximately 50 gifts for the families, and city employees and residents made generous contributions towards the families.
The program utilizes information from a domestic violence and victims advocate to determine the individuals that will be assisted through the program each year. Other referrals may also come through the department’s chaplains, churches, or other community resources.
When Benning became an officer in Jennings, he had two mentors there. He credits them both in ensuring he understood the need to build bridges in the community and that his service as officer was not just a job.
“Their philosophy and their guidance (somewhat) taught me that,” stated Benning. “(Also) I was with some policemen that don’t like a lot of attention, they don’t like to be singled out. They don’t do it for the praise or recognition.