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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Chat with the chief

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Like many Indianapolis residents, Rick Hite noticed the vacant, boarded-up former Starbucks at 2910 N. College Ave., near Fall Creek Parkway.

With legendary NBA star Magic Johnson as one of the owners, the franchise once stood as a proud symbol of a neighborhood rebounding from high crime and economic despair. That crime and corporate budget cuts, however, drove the Starbucks to close in 2008, leaving a desolate facility that remains an eyesore.

“When I first arrived I remembered riding past the business and wondering what happened,” said Hite, chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. “For some people that was the last hope for the area, and when it closed it meant the bad guys won.”

Hite noted that Starbucks reviews its demographics carefully, and said it takes an awful lot for a franchise to close.

“That said to me that the good people in that neighborhood fell prey to urban terrorists, which left a bad taste in my mouth,” Hite said.

As a result, Hite recently drove up to the Starbucks and personally removed the boards.

“Those boards had to come down,” Hite said. “We need to be able to say that we are taking this community back.”

Hite would like to work with local community groups to reopen the Starbucks location as another business, a job development center for youth or a place where residents can have coffee and discussions with police.

“We have planted the flag and the Starbucks will send the message that we won’t let a few people with negative intent dampen the values and hope of good people who want to live in a neighborhood in peace.”

Hite’s reaction to the closed Starbucks is just one of many examples of the unique style he has brought to IMPD – one that emphasizes engagement with citizens and passion for service to them. It is an approach Hite has developed throughout his life.

He was born Richard Hite in the Northwest Indiana city of Gary at a time when it was one of the nation’s leading steel producers.

Hite’s family lived in Gary’s Midtown area near 16th and Monroe, which he describes as “in the heart of the hood.” Still, be recalls having a good childhood.

“It was a tough neighborhood we grew up in, but everyone understood that we were supposed to succeed,” Hite said. “The message was, generally speaking, that we worked hard as a community to buy our homes, but each young person was supposed to supercede the previous generation and do better than their parents.”

Hite recalls being an inquisitive child, and he satisfied that curiosity by going to a library near Froebel High School. During the summer, he worked for the school system for $1.25 an hour, and took “adventures” at the library during his free time.

“We couldn’t afford vacations, so I went on vacations at the library,” he said. “I read about other places, how other people lived and what certain professions would be like.”

Hite added that from reading, he discovered a need for service and a desire to give back.

“I came to an understanding that to be on God’s Earth meant that anything that you are given is really meant to benefit someone other than yourself,” he said. “I had the choice of hanging out with the boys and doing some craziness, or being involved and trying to make something positive happen in the community.”

In the meantime, Hite’s father returned from the military in 1968 and had difficulty finding employment. He applied for jobs with the Chicago and Baltimore police departments. Baltimore accepted him and the Hite family, which included his two sisters, moved there.

Although proud of his father, the last thing Hite wanted to be was a cop, and instead had his eye on mechanical engineering.

It wasn’t until age 17, when he helped a woman who was being beaten, that he began to consider a career in public service.

“I felt that was the right thing to do,” Hite said. “Something clicked then that made me recognize that I would be helping people.”

Hite thought of moving immediately back to Indiana after finishing high school, but chose to take an opportunity to get a stable job paying $7,000 a year as a cadet with Baltimore’s police department. After graduating from the academy his pay increased to $9,000 a year.

“I was excited,” Hite said, smiling. “That was a lot of money back then for someone fresh out of high school.”

One of the drawbacks of Hite’s career is its effect on his personal life. He has children but has never married.

“When I was prepared to get married my career was a problem for my fiancé,” Hite said. “She was in the medical field and I was in law enforcement, so she thought we could never get together.”

In retrospect, Hite says a marriage would have been difficult for him to maintain.

“I was married to the job for 32 years. Honestly, I was always the type of guy who had more than one job and would be the last one to leave and cut off the lights,” said Hite, who enjoys meeting people, watching documentaries and action films and listening to blues and jazz music in his spare time.

Hite remembers having seven different W-2 tax forms to fill out in one year, and did not take a vacation between 1978, when he joined the police department, and 2005.

Hite admitted that he wished he had enjoyed a marriage when he was younger, but says the good news is that as a result of the dedication to his work, he developed a different view of life and policing.

“The community became my passion, the police department became my love and what I did was never work,” Hite said. “When you have that kind of passion you come to work every day looking to make a difference. You think about it not as work, but as the gift that God has given you to serve.”

Hite has a 32-year-old daughter, as well as two college age twins, one studying to be an electrical engineer, and another studying psychology with an emphasis on special needs children.

Hite left a lasting impression as he rose through the ranks of Baltimore’s police department, most notably as president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization representing African-American officers, and as commander of the department’s youth services division, where he worked extensively with troubled youth. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2009.

Joe Smith, director of youth strategies for the Family League of Baltimore, interacted with Hite as the two worked on programs designed to intervene with at-risk youth accused of crimes before they entered the criminal justice system.

“I found him to be a very supportive partner in connecting young people with something positive as they waited for their court hearings,” Smith said.

Hite brought the passion he has for service back to Indiana when he was hired as deputy public safety director of Indianapolis in 2010. In 2012 he was named interim police chief after the sudden resignation of Paul Ciesielski, and was later appointed on a permanent basis.

“I love to come to work and enjoy helping people, and even getting my hands dirty and doing the grunge work and dealing with the bad guys,” Hite said. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I have to eat everyday and feed this big body of mine and put clothes around it to keep me warm, I would do this stuff for free.”

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