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A small agency with big ideas

The Willard Police Department offers a template for community outreach and engagement

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This article originally appeared in the February 2023 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Community policing template | LE social media use | Officer Down guide and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

In the small town of Willard in the Missouri Ozarks, Chief Thomas McClain might be found in his office but he also might be in the boxing ring or out in the woods.

McClain has served as Willard’s police chief since 1993. Having served as a D.A.R.E. officer, he aspired to find more opportunities to provide character growth to young people. In 2009, he led his agency to create a chapter of the National Police Athletic Activities League (PAL), known for offering sports and mentoring opportunities and for youth with police officers.

“I knew that the program would create new opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the youth in our area, but there’s no way I could have known how deep the depth of the benefit would go,” McClain said.

Building character

The Willard PAL boxing club and school of boxing fundamentals offers boys and girls the chance to build boxing skills but also build character.

“When you are sparring and your partner is connecting with jabs, there are reasons why you are getting hit in the face. And there’s so many things you can do to avoid it. You can bob it, weave it, slip it, catch it, cover it…so many things. The truth I want these kids to realize is that so much of the time you can avoid negative situations,” McClain said.

While the boxing enterprise was reaching many of the community’s young people, not everyone was interested in that activity. In order to broaden his character-building efforts, in 2017 McClain created Camp Character in association with the PAL organization. The camp can accommodate 100 kids and emphasizes the four character traits promoted by PAL - responsibility, honor, self-control and discernment.

A community approach to policing

Both the boxing club and Camp Character operate on donations. The community has rallied around the programs with construction companies, residents and other businesses working together to fund the efforts. The camp is built on land already owned by the municipality. Camp Character features outdoor experiences with monthly camping trips, bonfires, hiking, zip lining, survival classes, nature hikes, archery and more.

McClain has also promoted Safety Town and Project Graduation programs as part of a comprehensive community approach to policing. The chief is busy keeping the donations coming, operating the programs under a 501c3 organization, and coordinating volunteers while building the department that has more than doubled in personnel while the population has also doubled during his tenure.

Keeping goals simple and articulable has been an important component of McClain’s leadership. Not only are the core character essentials identified by four words, but the department’s mission statement is also simple. It is built on the acronym HELP NOW:

  • Help people
  • Enforce the law
  • Lead by example
  • Prevent crime
  • Needs-based
  • Others oriented
  • Willard-wide.

The example of the Willard Police Department is just one template for community outreach and engagement among many. The department operates by:

  • Focusing on the essentials identified in the mission statement
  • Accepting responsibility for crime prevention by helping community members develop positive character
  • Gaining adoption of department goals by city leaders
  • Engaging the community in worthy projects.

Leaders interested in the Willard Police Department model can contact Chief McClain at

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Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.