Many citizens agree that Mount Airy suffered a major blow earlier this year when Lt. Jim Armbrister retired from the city police department after being diagnosed with cancer.
But by all accounts, a person who’s just as dedicated to crime prevention as Armbrister — veteran department member Kelly Hiatt — has been named to offset the void he left behind as head of its Community Services Division.
“Lt. Hiatt has embodied the philosophy behind community policing throughout his career,” Police Chief Dale Watson said of the appointment that occurred last week. “So he was a great fit in the Community Services Division.”
Hiatt, 47, has been a part of that unit since 2005. It encompasses the school resource officer (SRO) program, Community Watch groups, various preventative programs, the tackling of emerging problems such as prescription drug abuse and other functions to enhance the police department’s overall mission.
“Actually, community policing is a philosophy,” Hiatt explained during an interview Monday, “not just for the community police officer, but it’s a philosophy for the whole department — that the community and police partner together to solve problems.”
Hiatt acknowledges that in becoming the leader of the Community Services Division, he has some big shoes to fill.
“It’s a huge challenge. Jim is an expert in the field of community policing and crime prevention,” said Hiatt, who was promoted to the rank of lieutenant with last week’s personnel move.
“There is no way to fill his shoes,” Hiatt added of Armbrister. “It’s not possible to replace him.”
However, Hiatt believes he has the background to build on the legacy of Armbrister, who despite retiring on June 1 served on a personnel board that conducted interviews and helped select a new leader for his old unit.
“I do feel like I have the knowledge and experience to carry on the division and move the division forward,” Hiatt said.
Watson said Hiatt possesses the tools to keep the unit a vital part of local law enforcement.
“He has deep roots in the community — he has lived here and worked here his entire life,” the police chief said.
“He puts the community first and is a dedicated public servant.”
As of Sept. 1, Lt. Hiatt will have been with the Mount Airy Police Department for 27 years — longer than any of its present members.
He began his career in 1985 as a patrol officer, which led to promotions to senior patrol officer in 1990, patrol sergeant in 1992 and patrol lieutenant, 1997.
Yet his interest later shifted from dealing directly with what was happening in the streets to a more preventative role. Although each officer in the department is expected to engage in community policing as a problem-solving technique, the work of the Patrol Division is “call-driven,” Hiatt said.
“A lot of times they don’t have the time,” he said of rank-and-file officers who must respond to emergency and other situations that take their focus off community policing and prevention efforts.
“So it’s the job of the community police officer to do that full-time.”
Hiatt subsequently stepped down as patrol lieutenant in 2005 to become a school resource officer, in anticipation of such an opening at Mount Airy Middle School a year later. This gave him time to receive training for the new function, which Hiatt sought because of the opportunity to work more closely with the public and especially young people.
Hiatt served as the middle school SRO for more than two years, until funding issues caused that job to be phased out in December 2008.
Although Hiatt was himself a veteran officer, he learned much from Armbrister, calling him “a very good leader” who took a proactive approach to crime. “He was always moving forward.”
Hiatt said he wants to continue the overall program that Armbrister established and tweak it as necessary.
He explained that much of the Community Services Division’s work involves identifying problems in the community, often with input from businesses and residents, and developing solutions.
For example, if a particular neighborhood has a rash of break-ins, the unit might organize a meeting with residents to help them make their properties more secure. Or it could lead efforts to organize a Community Watch group there.
One area in which community policing has taken a lead role involves trying to alleviate a local epidemic of prescription drug abuse and misuse through an initiative called Project Lazarus. Hiatt called that “a wonderful example of what community policing is.”
He already has set one goal for his new job. “I want to work with our churches more,” said the officer, who attends Mount Bethel Moravian Church in Cana, Va.
“You’ve got a lot of people connected with churches — and that’s one of the ways we can build more relationships with people,” Hiatt reasoned. “It’s a good place to connect with a lot of people at one time.”
The Community Services Division normally has six full-time members, including Hiatt, two regular community police officers, the SRO at Mount Airy High and two traffic technicians who handle street sign and stoplight issues. The division also includes the reserve police officer unit.
Hiatt said the division is available to give talks to community groups or help with any crime-related problems that arise. It can be contacted at 786-3561.
“We’re here for the community,” Hiatt said.
Law Enforcement Roots
His choice of law enforcement as a career, Hiatt said, was sparked by his late father Bob, who had served with the Surry County Sheriff’s Office full-time from 1966-78. His brother Steve retired as a longtime member of that agency on June 1.
Meanwhile, Hiatt and his wife, Melissa, are the parents of two children, including daughter Kelsey, a recent graduate of Lees-McRae College, where she played tennis. Kelsey recently was named girls’ tennis coach at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain.
Son Ross is entering his second year at Surry Community College, where he also is pursuing a law enforcement career. The Hiatts have been married more than 24 years.
Lt. Hiatt serves on the governing boards of the Mount Airy Rescue Squad and the Greater Mount Airy Ministry of Hospitality Inc., which oversees The Shepherd’s House homeless shelter.
In his spare time, he enjoys baseball, including watching Atlanta Braves games on television.
Yet when Kelly Hiatt is on the job at the Mount Airy Police Department, he’s likely thinking of ways to make the community he has known all his life an even safer and better place.
Having him leading the Community Services Division is “a win-win for the police department and the community,” Chief Watson said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.