Wednesday, September 28, 2016

TOP STORY >> Austin cop named officer of the year

Leader staff writer

Austin Police Officer Joshua Chaplin couldn’t see into the burning van, but he heard the screams.

Without thought to his own life, he realized there was only one course of action, so without hesitation Chaplin took a deep breath and leaned his entire upper body into the van.

The event was over in a few minutes, but Chaplin’s heroism saved a man’s life and earned him the Lonoke County Officer of the Year award.

Still, for Chapin being named Lonoke County Officer of the Year by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was a complete surprise.

“I had no idea of this until my chief, (Austin Police Chief) James Kulesa, contacted me to let me know…I’m humbled by it, but I asked, why me? There are a few hundred officers in Lonoke County who deserve it as much as I do,” he said.

In addition to his service to the Austin Police Department, Chaplin is a senior airman with the Air National Guard and repairs body damage to the Air Force base’s C-130s.

He is an Austin resident, and he’s single.

Kulesa told Chaplin a few days ago about the honor and posted information online, but he made a public announcement about Chaplin’s distinction at the Monday night Austin City Council meeting.

It was one announcement Kulesa said he was “proud” to make.

“This is a prestigious award and well deserved by Officer Chaplin,” he said.


Kulesa said he nominated Chaplin, a part-time officer who has been with the department for about 18 months, for the award for a number of reasons.

“He saved a man in a vehicle fire,” Kulesa was referring to a delivery van that was possibly struck by lightning on the morning of Dec. 23, 2015, on Hwy. 67/167 in the northbound lane near mile marker 24.

When Chaplin arrived, the van’s doors were locked, and it was engulfed in flames and smoke was spreading across the highway. Because the smoke was so thick inside the van, Chaplin couldn’t see the driver from outside the van, he just heard his screams.

He wasn’t thinking about the danger of the situation or his own personal safety.

“I didn’t feel any fear, I just went with it,” he said.

Chaplin used his baton to break the passenger’s side window and then took a deep breath and leaned into the van. Basically, he was blind using his hands to find the driver.

“We were feeling for each other,” Chaplin remembered.

Fortunately, the driver escaped with no injuries.


Austin resident Dennis Williams was on a Ride Along with Chaplin that day and took some dramatic pictures of the van.

To remind himself of the incident, Chaplin saved his burned and now useless baton, and he said at the time of the fire to a reporter, “This is part of my job. It’s what I signed up to do.”

Kulesa says Chaplin’s role at the department goes way beyond hero, and he said he is “a proactive officer and community orientated. He does a great job, no matter what he does.”

When Kulesa posted the announcement about the Officer of the Year honor on the department’s Facebook page, Chaplin soon began raking up likes — 168 so far.

While the kudos are appreciated, Chaplin said, “I will continue to do what I do every shift I work till the day I am no longer a police officer.”


Chaplin was honored by the distinction but said, “It is my opinion that almost every officer in the county deserves this. If there was a way I could cut the award up and give everyone I know a piece, I would.”

He credits the entire department’s teamwork and city officials for his success.

“I will say the great leadership and information I get from the Chief, and a few of my fellow officers, has led me to where I am now,” Chaplin said.

Kulesa said the award was doubly sweet because the Austin Police Department is small, with only four full-time officers including the chief and 13 part-time officers.

“We’re not a large department and do the best we can with what we have. All these guys do an outstanding job, and the award is good for the entire department and its morale,” Kulesa said.

The chief said he also appreciates the public recognition of law enforcement officers across the state by the attorney general’s office.

Law enforcement personnel render “support and assistance whenever and wherever needed. Law enforcement is and always will be a team effort,” Kulesa said.

According to the state attorney general’s office, officer selections for the 2016 Outstanding Law Enforcement Officers of the Year awards must have “performed admirably in the line of duty within the past 18 months.”

One officer from each of the state’s 75 counties is selected, and from there, the numbers are whittled down to five regional winners.

The overall state Officer of the Year will be selected from the regional winners.

County and regional winners were selected by a panel consisting of city, county and state criminal justice professionals, and the county and regional Officers of the Year will be honored at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Summit to be held Wednesday, Oct. 5 at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock.

The 2016 Arkansas Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer of the Year will be announced by Attorney General Rutledge at the luncheon.