When Prior Lake Police Chief Bill O’Rourke retires early next year, it will be the first time in more than 100 years that a member of his family hasn’t worn a police officer’s badge.
O’Rourke, 65, knows it will be bittersweet when he hangs up his shield for the last time come January.
“If I could go back to just pushing a squad car around for another year on day watch — because I can’t stay up late anymore — I think I would do that,” he said. “I still really like the job. I like the true-life whodunit.”
Policing was a far different world for the first 22½ years of his career than for the last 17 as chief of a well-heeled outer-ring suburb.
O’Rourke was the fourth generation in his family to join the Minneapolis Police Department when he was sworn in July 1, 1975. That was 50 years to the day after his grandfather, also William J. O’Rourke, took the same oath.O’Rourke rose from patrol officer to sergeant to commander of the Third Precinct on the east side of south Minneapolis. He headed the department’s emergency response unit for a time, then emergency communications.
He earned the trust and confidence of his superiors as well as the officers in the trenches and, as he said in 1997, he saw “some of the absolute worst things that human beings can do to each other” but also was “associated with some of the happiest moments.”
He worked inside the Metrodome during both of the Twins’ World Series championship series in 1987 and 1991. He posed with President Bill Clinton in 1995. He also responded to the homicide of a young man killed over a couple of quarters left on a pool table and countless other equally senseless killings.
When Bob Olson was named Minneapolis police chief in 1995, the two men didn’t see eye to eye.
“He, in fact, told me one time that he thought there was a wall between the administration and the troops and he wasn’t convinced that I was all the way over on the administration wall,” O’Rourke remembered. “I said, ‘Chief, I knew in 1985 when I first got promoted that, because of my rank, I could [simply] give orders. But I also knew that if I got them to want to do the job, I’d get a much better product.’ ”
Good fit for Prior Lake
In 1997, he answered an ad seeking a police chief in Prior Lake after longtime Chief Dick Powell resigned.
“I didn’t even know where Prior Lake was, to be honest,” said O’Rourke, who has three grown daughters and makes his home in Eden Prairie. “But ya know, it wasn’t Minneapolis.”
He said he was impressed from the first interview when he sat down with 15 to 20 members of the community. He started Nov. 1, 1997.
Since then, O’Rourke has earned the trust and confidence of the community.
“It’s fun sometimes to see the chief wearing a police uniform, driving the department Harley, driving a squad sometimes, being a police officer,” said Jack Haugen, former mayor and longtime insurance agency owner in Prior Lake. “He gave the perception that he knew what it was like to be a cop and didn’t lose perspective.
“I think his leadership fit,” Haugen said. “He can interact with any group of people, tremendously eloquent speaking and he can call a spade a spade. He’s a good person.”
During O’Rourke’s tenure, Prior Lake has grown from about 14,000 residents to nearly 25,000. There have been just three homicides, all domestic-related — the first after just a month on the job.He’s had to make do with fewer cops than he’d like. Prior Lake has 24 sworn officers, a ratio of about one per 1,000 residents, while the statewide average for similar-sized cities is 1.3 per 1,000.
Still the same crimes
Prior Lake handles law enforcement not only for the city but for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and its Mystic Lake Casino. In the ever-expanding city, he’s had to learn all about things like lake enforcement issues, sovereign immunity, setbacks, variances and other technical hoo-ha.
He’s still all about making sure his officers do the best job they can do.
“The same crimes happen in Prior Lake that happen in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but with far less frequency,” he said. “The officers in Minneapolis and St. Paul are used to dealing with it; the officers out here are new to it. When it does happen, there’s more of a challenge to make sure we’re doing it right.”The challenges for a new police chief will be largely the same, O’Rourke said. The city will continue to grow and expand to the south and southwest. The lake cuts the city in half diagonally, making it a challenge to keep response times low for police and firefighters. Eventually, the city may need a satellite station to serve its residents.Technology will continue to evolve, too, raising new issues about data storage and security. Officer diversity and making the police force more reflective of the community are ongoing problems.
But come Jan. 15, those problems won’t be O’Rourke’s to solve. He’s likely to be found on golf courses in Arizona or Minnesota or traveling with his wife.