HUNTINGTON — In his 25 years with the Huntington Police Department, Chief Ray Cornwell said he learned about the importance of empathy.
Cornwell’s retirement was announced in June. His last day was Friday. Mayor Steve Williams appointed HPD Capt. Eric Corder to serve as interim police chief.
Cornwell was appointed to become police chief in April 2020. He spent about four months serving as interim police chief after former Chief Hank Dial became city manager. Cornwell said when he began his career, he did not have plans to become chief of police.
“When Hank decided to leave, there was a void and I felt obligated to step up. I had always planned on working 25 years and then retiring, so it was a hard debate on whether I should stay longer or not,” Cornwell said. “But after a lot of deliberation, consideration, discussions with my wife, we just decided it would be better for me and my family to follow through with our plans.”
He said he feels like he is leaving the relationships between the department and different groups, like the city government, City Council and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, in a better place. The estimated police department budget for next year is over $15 million.
“With the way things are right now, with the state of the city and the leadership, not just there at City Hall, but also here, too, I genuinely feel like I can walk away leaving it in good hands,” Cornwell said.
“Chief Cornwell led the Police Department through the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was the architect of HPD’s adjustment to the new 12-hour work shifts, which allowed the department to increase the number of officers patrolling our neighborhoods,” Williams said in a news release about Cornwell’s retirement. “Furthermore, property crimes have fallen 8% and violent crimes have decreased 5.6% under his watch.”
Cornwell said he didn’t consider becoming a police officer until Dial encouraged him to do so. Before joining the police force, Cornwell worked as a night manager in a video rental store. Dial stopped by the business to put up a police officer recruitment sign.
“He came to where I was working and he asked if he could put up a recruiting poster, and I said, ‘Sure,’ and he left,” Cornwell recalled. “And he turned around and he came back in and he goes, ‘You’re going to come take our test, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
Dial said it was a privilege to serve with Cornwell on the force. He said he recruited Cornwell because he believed he had good ethics and intelligence to be a police officer. Cornwell’s term as chief was extremely different as it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dial said.
“I think that he was able to manage the police department at a time unprecedented for anyone else and he looked out for our community and the members of the department extremely well,” Dial said.
The reason Cornwell decided to join the police department was to help the community.
“This is my home, this is where my family lives, all my friends live here, and I wanted to try and make things better,” Cornwell said.
Cornwell served in various roles within the department, working his way up from patrol officer to corporal and then to work in Records and Administrative Bureaus. He also served as midnight shift watch commander, managed the Office of Professional Standards and was captain of the Patrol Bureau.
For about half of his life, Cornwell has been part of HPD. He said he believes serving the residents of Huntington is “a worthy job.”
“Obviously, you know, there’s good times and bad times. We see some traumatic things, but I genuinely feel like this is a worthy job. A lot of us think of it as more of a calling than a job, you know,” Cornwell said. “But I believe it is necessary. I believe it is worthy, and I genuinely believe we do good out here in the community every day.”
Cornwell said his career with the department taught him a lot about empathy. He said some may think that working in a police department would make you not want to work with people, but it’s been the opposite for him. He said one of the things that he is most proud of is how HPD officers conduct themselves each day.
“We deal with people oftentimes on the worst day of their life. And you just try to help them through it as best you can. I would say the world could probably use a little more kindness and a little more empathy,” Cornwell said.
The chief said the world has changed a lot since he became an officer in 1996. The problems and how they are addressed are different. Cornwell said HPD has advanced areas like forensic investigation and officer training. The process to join HPD has also become more selective.
“The kind of things you look for in a police officer today are different than they were 20 years ago. I would say we have evolved,” he said.
Training is a key change, the chief said. The department has made steps to have more non-lethal options. Force training revolves around de-escalation, he said. In a recent City Council Finance and Administration Committee meeting, Cornwell discussed a proposal to buy 25 new Tasers and supporting equipment for officers as part of certifying more officers for that device.
“We’ve always had a strong respect for human life here, but tactics and training change and evolve in response to what the citizens and the community expect from us,” Cornwell said. “And I would say that I couldn’t take credit for that myself. I would say that it’s just something that we’ve had to learn and we’ve had to grow, not just for our safety, but the citizens’ safety.”
Manpower is a national concern as there is a shortage of qualified police applicants, Cornwell said. However, HPD has hired 14 people in the past year. On Aug. 28, the department will have another test for new officers.
During Cornwell’s tenure as chief, the department switched to a 12-hour shift model. The new schedule has shifts that overlap so officers can cover more areas. The change came about after the FOP approached the department’s administration. After mapping out the schedule, a team from different areas of the department looked into the idea. The department planned to try the shifts for a year. Cornwell said it has worked out and is well received by officers.
Huntington crime rates continued to fall under Cornwell’s tenure. Since 2017, overall criminal offenses have declined. From 2017 to 2020, there was a 31.89% decrease. For 2021 from January to May, crime was also down when compared to the first five months of each year since 2017.
“The reality of it is any successes I’ve had are owed completely to the hard work that the men and women of this police department do every day and our citizen partners out there, the people we work with that support us,” Cornwell said. “They do a great job every day. My job is just to facilitate and to help make sure they have the tools and the resources they need to succeed.”
The search now begins to find a permanent police chief. Williams has previously said that after naming an interim chief, he will begin the application process for potential candidates.
“I know the mayor has plenty of good choices for the next chief of police,” Cornwell said. “And regardless of what happens, whoever he chooses, I have no doubt whatsoever that the men and women here of the Huntington Police Department will step up and rise to the occasion.”
And for that next chief, Cornwell said it is important to have faith in the co-workers.
“Have faith in them, have faith in their training, have faith in their values and just let them do the job,” he said.