Hittin’ the Road
HARLAN – Frank Clark never hid the fact that he was a heavy drug user in his younger years.
Marijuana, speed, LSD, cocaine, and lots of alcohol. “It was in eighth grade when I started,” said Clark, and it lasted for years. “I was into the dope really bad.”
His past substance abuse is no secret and never has been. He doesn’t hide it, but also doesn’t broadcast it. “It comes up all the time though,” he said.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when he was hired as a police officer with the Harlan Police Department back in 1992. By then he had been clean for four years after checking himself into treatment, and had been working for about 15 years as a light equipment operator with the City of Harlan.
“There was kind of an outcry when I applied the first time,” he said. Clark wasn’t hired then, but the second time around then Chief Lee Gordon took a chance on him. “Against a lot of people’s naysaying,” Clark remembers.
“It wasn’t hard for me to get hired, but I think it was hard for the city to hire me in that role.”
Clark jokes that in his first years as a patrolman, they didn’t need a K-9 officer.
“I knew every place in town that had dope,” he said. “They called me the department K-9 for a long time. On a drug case looking for dope I’d say ‘Yep, here it is. That’s where I’d have put it.’”
The day Clark got his badge was somewhat surreal. His parents had passed away, and much of the reasoning for him deciding to give law enforcement a try was to make them proud because, in his view, he had disappointed them horribly through a good part of his life.
“I remember the day I got my badge pinned on me,” he said. “The very first day I went to the cemetery and put it on my Dad’s grave and cried like a baby.
“He never got to see me where I was at that point in my life as compared to where I had been. He did get to see me straightened up, but he had passed before I got into law enforcement.”
Fast forward another 11 years, and Clark was named chief of police. Imagine the surprise then, he said. “For some odd reason, they picked me,” he said. “Nobody was more shocked than I was.”
• • •
Clark is now among the longest serving, most respected chiefs in Harlan, and as of February 1 is officially retired after decades of service to the city. As he looks back, he suspects that his life experiences have made him a better law enforcement officer -- still tough, but a little more sympathetic and understanding to those in crisis, in particular those with drug issues.
“Those experiences made me more compassionate to people who had drug and alcohol problems,” he said. “Understanding what they’re going through more so than just treating them like they’re worthless and I’m taking you to jail.”
Even into this past year before retirement, Clark said the drug thing would occasionally be brought up, especially among those he used to hang with decades ago.
“When you have to arrest people you used to run around with, that was difficult,” Clark said. “I’d say you’re absolutely right. I did used to smoke a lot of pot with you. That was years ago.
“I quit, you didn’t, you’re going to jail, I’m going home.”
But then after an arrest, it was amazing the people who reached out for help, just because of Clark’s past experiences. “A lot of people called me when arrested and asked, can you help me?,” he said. “Damn right I’ll help you.
“I think I’ve looked at things from a lens that a lot of people didn’t have.”
He doesn’t mince words when talking about his past. The reason he became an officer was to prove to himself that he was worth more than he had been.
And as for being named chief, that was an incredible moment. Yet he remembers sitting at his desk the next day and asking himself “What the hell do I do now?
“There’s nobody to teach you.”
Learning about budgets, working with city administration and the city council, and management of the department came more by the “school of hard knocks,” he said.
He practiced patience and humility, and points to colleagues Steve Davis and Rod McMurphy as keys to not only a successful transition, but critical for their friendship and professionalism in helping build an amazing team in the department.
“I learned a lot of what I know about law enforcement from Steve,” Clark said. ‘For some reason we clicked really early.
“I will forever call him my partner. We worked cases together – conducted interviews and interrogations. I wouldn’t have been doing this this long if not for Steve.”
• • •
Law enforcement isn’t easy, and Clark has had his share of difficult cases. There have been hundreds of burglaries to solve, thefts to investigate, calls to locate missing children, or helping at an accident or fire scene.
There was the time the guy robbed the bank across the street from the police department and then sat on the bench outside waiting to be arrested. He just wanted a hot meal at the jail.
Or the one that got away – the passers-through who robbed the Fast Stop at gunpoint. That was tough to let go.
There’s one case that Clark says he’ll never forget.
“I got called one night and was told we’re pretty sure we’ve got a shaken baby case,” he recalled. The baby had been taken to Children’s Hospital in Omaha, and the parents were there.
Clark remembers walking in, and the doctor and nurse led him into the hospital room.
“I will never forget that tiny body laying there with more tubes and wires hooked up to it,” Clark said. “It disturbs me today just remembering that. The nurse said he has 100 percent brain seizure, 100 percent of the time. Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t talk. It just killed me.”
The next day while in his office reading the doctor’s report of injuries, Clark said he took a moment, shut the door, and broke down for 20 minutes. “I knew I had to get that out of my system because I had a job to do,” he said.
Clark was able to get a confession from one of the parents, and that individual was sentenced to jail.
“That’s probably the case that sticks with me the most,” Clark said.
A more positive, yet unconventional, outcome came in a sexual abuse case involving teenage siblings. A 16-year-old male had confessed and was facing second-degree abuse charges. “We charge him with that, and his life is basically over,” Clark said.
There’s no sex offender program for juveniles in Iowa, but Catholic Charities in Omaha offers a lengthy and expensive option of rehabilitation for the offender and extensive counseling for the victim. Clark said it worked fantastically.
“We need this to start happening for some of our young offenders rather than just throwing them away,” he said.
“Since that first case, we’ve been able to do this twice more here in Harlan. We’ve never had to file the charges, and all three were successful.”
Clark said from a law enforcement standpoint it may not have been deemed successful as there was no arrest, but it was by far best for all the families and for society in general.
“It was a huge amount of work for no arrest, yet a great outcome,” he said. “Kind of made me think, maybe I am doing some good.”
• • •
The department is in good hands, Clark says, with the appointment of Derrick Yamada as chief to succeed him, and with the current, dedicated officers and three new hires within the past few months.
Law enforcement definitely has changed over the years. “The negativity directed at law enforcement overall right now just makes me sick,” he said.
The Harlan Police Department has always treated residents here with respect, and much of the new training, including diversity training, the officers have been practicing for a long time.
“We have been doing what they are mandating for years,” Clark said. “I feel pretty good about that.”
Clark is proud of the great relationship his department has with the citizens of Harlan, including the school, the hospital, public health, etc. He sees those relationships continuing.
That’s not to say there won’t be challenges. Methamphetamine use is a problem in western Iowa, leading to everything from domestic abuse and assaults to burglaries and thefts.
“That’s a battle we fight constantly,” he said. “The meth is such an insidious thing. It destroys families.” Clark said they’ll get calls about a family member who has spent all the money on drugs.
“They’ll say we don’t have diapers; we don’t have food for our children; we can’t pay our utility bill,” Clark said.
Domestic abuse is being reported more frequently, and those calls can be among the most dangerous, Clark said. Citizens are helping out more as well, providing information, video, and photos from a scene.
Clark says the increasing use of body cameras for officers and video cameras from the vehicle are a positive. The Harlan department was on the cutting edge of camera use.
“They’re great to protect the public, protect officers, to preserve evidence,” he said. “Video is just an expectation now.”
• • •
After 44 years, Clark says he plans to “kick back a little bit.”
He’s available to Yamada and the department should they have questions, and says he’s happy to assist. He knows there will be changes and new ideas. As example, Yamada’s knowledge of technology will be a huge benefit to the department.
“I’m excited about the future,” he said.
Clark and his wife, Mindy, plan to take some vacation time. Once the weather breaks this spring, they’ll jump on the Harley and ride. For years they’ve traveled the Midwest and participated in many poker runs for charity.
Clark says he’ll never get tired of getting out and meeting people. And for him, the Harley is a safe place.
“I get on that thing and my stress just goes away,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Read this story and the entire paper for only $1 online
Search back issues, email stories, flip through pages and skim headlines just as you would with a newspaper in your hands.
Create an account and buy a paper anytime you want for only $1 per issue Or buy a year subscription for $39.95