When she was 3 years old, Sgt. Jessica Billmeyer’s dad died, leaving the city of Newport without a fire chief and Billmeyer without a father. But local police officers who had worked with her dad stepped up, acting as paternal figures.
The experience affected her more than she realized, Billmeyer said, and it’s part of why she became a police officer.
After 17 years in Inver Grove Heights, Billmeyer, 40, is moving into a new role on Feb. 10 as police chief in St. Paul Park, next door to Newport in Washington County. She will succeed Chief Mike Monahan, who is retiring after three decades with the department.
Billmeyer discussed her new position in this edited conversation.
Q: Why did you want this new chief job in St. Paul Park?
A: I actually wasn’t actively looking because I’m moderately new to my position as a sergeant. But I knew I eventually was going to work my way up the ladder. Because cops always go on sixth sense, it just felt right. It’s where I grew up and I’m still familiar with the area, and that just drew me.
Q: What made you want to be a police officer?
A: I went to Hamline initially with the intent of being a criminal attorney, so I always liked the law aspect of things. I had several instances in my early adult years where police were just a good, positive presence for people around me who needed help.
Thinking back, my father [Wesley Danberg] was fire chief in Newport. When my father passed away, because of his involvement with the Fire Department we knew the police officers really well. There were two officers that were definitely a stronger presence, especially after my father’s passing. They stopped by to make sure my mom was OK. I’m pretty sure that had a lot more impact than I realized when I was a kid.
Q: Are there any aspects of being a woman that make police work more challenging?
A: Every once in a while you’ll run into an occasional stereotype. It didn’t happen so much with the personnel who I worked with and for, which is great. It was more on the street with the people you interact with there. You kind of just grow a thick skin over the years. Usually you just ignore it, unless it’s a violation of some type of policy. But I’ve never really run into something like that. I don’t think we really see the difference in sex when we’re hanging out. It’s just: We’re all cops.
Q: Is there anything you plan to do to connect with residents and build some bonds?
A: Just going out and introducing who I am and relating to each other and trying to strike up conversation. Everybody, more so these days, they see a uniform and they’re a little more guarded, which is unfortunate, so you have to break that guard down a little bit to develop the relationship. And, of course, we’re a little bit more guarded as well.
Q: You mentioned that there’s some distrust of police in communities today. Does that change anything that you do, knowing that there’s a lot of tension?
A: I try not to [let it change what I do] because I never had any ways of doing things that should have been offensive or difficult to understand. I think it’s just keeping an extra watch on things to make sure policies aren’t violated, laws aren’t violated. Sometimes there’s maybe a little bit more explaining as to where we’re coming from with certain decisions. People question law enforcement a lot more than they used to.
Q: What’s something you might explain now that you never explained before?
A: There’s times where we really have to try to get into the nitty-gritty as to why we stop somebody. Even if it’s just [telling someone] we are allowed to randomly run a license plate and pull the vehicle over if the driver’s information status came back that they shouldn’t be driving. We have to do one step more. ‘No, we’re not profiling you, this is the information we get from the state, this is the law.’
Q: If you were to describe yourself, what kind of officer are you?
A: [I’m] personable and a big communicator. So I hope to develop and keep open lines of communication. Otherwise you can’t get anything done if you don’t know where people are coming from.