Community policing leader Ashley LaValle honored for meritorious service
Members of the Forest Lake Police Department knew soon after the 2009 hiring of Ashley LaValle that they had a rising star on their hands. Community members have come to the same realization in recent years. Now, the secret is out to all of Minnesota.
Early this month in Rochester, Detective LaValle became the first member of the department to receive the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association’s Meritorious Service Certificate.The honor recognizes exceptional achievement that is typically distinguished by a succession of outstanding acts over a sustained period of time.
The 29-year-old found herself before a crowd again Monday night, when Chief Rick Peterson awarded her his department’s own Award of Meritorious Service.
LaValle logs a case load as one of four detectives on the force but also leads the department’s Community Policing and Crime Prevention Division.
She took on the position when it was created at the start of 2012, after Peterson’s promotion to chief the previous year. He made it his top priority to follow the directive laid out in the City Council’s strategic plan to implement a community policing strategy.
At Monday’s council meeting, Peterson said the new division “has not only met expectations, but exceeded them by leaps and bounds.”
The chief was quick to point out that credit should be shared by the entire department and the community. However, as the lone member of the division, it was easy for those nominating and judging LaValle’s awards to connect the dots to her work.
“As a result of her efforts, numerous crimes and community problems have been solved, the public educated and issues affecting the safety of our community addressed,” Peterson said, rattling off more than 15 initiatives, certifications and roles that LaValle has either started or been integral to.
Mayor Chris Johnson noted his pleasure with a recent decline in property damage and theft rates, which Peterson chalked up to the community policing efforts.
“I’m very proud of the work that’s being done by the Police Department, and I know Ashley has become kind of the face of the Police Department in the sense that we see her everywhere around town,” Johnson said.
A full plate
LaValle earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and forensic science from the University of North Dakota. She realized early in her postsecondary education that she preferred law enforcement over a laboratory setting.
The Oakdale native came to Forest Lake as a patrol officer straight out of the law enforcement skills program at Alexandria Technical & Community College.
LaValle had no one to consult with when the community policing opportunity came about, because the position was new. But nearly three years on the force had convinced her of the need for such a role, and she put her name in the hat.
“I knew it was something I eventually wanted to do, and I didn’t want the opportunity to pass me by at that time,” she told the Times this week.
LaValle leaned on mentors from other communities as she endured a period of “trial and error” at the start.
“There were some people that we had to get to buy into it, for lack of a better term, but the community started responding first, and they just really appreciated this position and all the outreach we were doing,” LaValle said. “When the community bought in and the council bought in, it was kind of easy from there.”
Community policing manifests itself in many ways beyond annual events like Safety Camp and Night to Unite. The department reinstated its bike patrol in part to have a more visible presence.
LaValle has been key in launching several initiatives. She brought back the Shop With a Cop event in which children in need buy Christmas gifts for their families. She started a quarterly crime prevention newsletter, formed the Rental Property Coalition and last year coordinated the department’s first community open house.
LaValle is active with the department’s drug awareness course for fifth-graders, coordinates the dispersal of neighborhood crime alert cards and has overseen the creation of three neighborhood crime watch groups. She also serves as liaison to various city and community groups, runs the department’s Facebook page and assists families as a certified child passenger safety technician.
She is also the department’s point person for the Most of Us campaign run by the Forest Lake Area Partnership for Families. A significant grant that has been applied for relating to that program could provide a large boost to the Police Department, LaValle said.
She hopes to implement a driver awareness course for parents whose children are going though driver’s education. The parents would learn about changes in the law since they earned their license and would have the rules of the road fresh in their minds as they supplement their children’s instruction.
Such community initiatives require working with many businesses and organizations, but LaValle said her load has lightened with each connection she has made.
“This is not a one-person job,” she said.