Bluffton Police Chief Joseph “Joe” Babkiewicz stands in front of a mural of Bluffton inside the Bluffton Police Department headquarters in Buckwalter Place. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

After a five-year hitch in the Marine Corps working in electronics, Joseph Babkiewicz went to work for Nextel Communications, the company that invented push-to-talk phones.

Electronics wasn’t his first choice as a Marine, but his recruiter persuaded him that he could go into law enforcement later while learning something new and expanding his opportunities.

When 9/11 took place, Babkiewicz was living in Connecticut, and Nextel needed a volunteer to go to New York and set up a portable cell site down at Ground Zero. 

“I instantly raised my hand and went down there for five days. When I was down there, I saw the way law enforcement and the firefighters were working, and what they did to help people. That was something I wanted to get into, something I always had an interest in,” he said. “But after seeing that, I (thought) that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. Their dedication and putting themselves aside for the good of other people. That is truly who I am. That’s the way my dad raised me. And I knew that law enforcement or even firefighter was the route.”

Babkiewicz has 20 years’ experience in law enforcement, a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, and a master’s in criminal justice and public administration. He joined the Bluffton Police Department in 2008, stayed for 13 and a half years, took a year off, and, out of a pool of 75 applicants, became the new chief as of Dec. 29, 2022.

The year away from law enforcement work gave Babkiewicz a different line of work experience, working for Pulte Homes coordinating the building of houses in the Malind Bluff neighborhood.

“It was something completely different. I’ve always been interested in construction,” he said. “It’s a great company and great people working there, but I remember coming home after six months and telling my wife I missed law enforcement. This is not me, this is not who I am.”

The break also gave him a chance to think.

“It was kind of good to get away from here for a year to be an outsider looking in and saying, ‘Okay, what would I do differently if I ever get the opportunity?’ From that aspect, I think it helped kind of refresh me, and then get me back into this,” he said.

A few months later, Babkiewicz heard about the opening for a new police chief, and wanted to have a conversation with his wife before he applied, but even before he could discuss it, she knew he wanted to apply for it. With her blessing, he did, and was ultimately hired

“I love this department. I love this community. And I love law enforcement work, the work of law enforcement officers and what it represents,” he said. “It’s rewarding in so many different ways.”

Babkiewicz said his predecessors have laid the groundwork for programs that he would like to see expanded.

“Chief Price had her focus on the mental health and well-being of our officers. She did a great job with that. We’re looking at various other things that we can add on to what she’s already implemented here. Chief Chapman really focused on the community partnership and the community outreach programs,” said Babkiewicz. “We have such an amazing community that we just want to continuously build and serve our community in various ways. It’s really just kind of implementing into our culture, where it’s not just a select few going out and being a participant in these outreach programs. It’s the entire department with this entire belief that that is our priority. Our priority is keeping this community safe, but also serving the members of this community as well.”

The Bluffton Police Department and the MLK Observance jointly hosted a community open discussion in late Januaray, following the murder of Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop. 

“After that meeting, I met with our advisory committee, and one of the things that we discussed that we take for granted for is ‘Do people know what to do when they’re stopped by a police officer?’ One thing we’re going to focus on in March is, we’re going to team up with our driving schools to include an instructional blog saying, ‘Hey, this is what you do if you’re stopped. These are what the officers expect,’” said Babkiewicz. “We don’t want people to be nervous or anxious when they’re stopped. Anytime somebody feels like that they’ve been profiled or anything like that, we encourage them to call us and we’ll look into it, because that’s not going to be tolerated here at this department.”

He believes community policing is a major component of law enforcement.

“Community policing is really building a partnership with our community in order to improve the quality of life within the entire town of Bluffton, and it’s not just with our residents. It’s with our businesses as well as visitors that come here,” Babkiewicz said. 

He said when the officers are walking in Old Town Bluffton, they’ll frequently greet people from out of town, and talk to them about some of the places they might want to visit. 

“When we talk about the Bluffton State of Mind, you want to give visitors that impression that this is the place to be, and it starts with our law enforcement officers,” he said. “I tell them that every single day, you have an opportunity to have some type of impression on somebody. Make sure it’s a good one, because we sometimes see the worst of the worst, but that’s your opportunity to make a situation better.”

Babkiewicz said the best thing about police work is there is something new every day. The hardest thing is dealing with the ups and downs that it comes with. 

“You have to have a good work-life balance. For me, I rely on my faith to help keep the ups and downs even and neutral. But it’s being able to go home after experiencing some of the difficult things that officers face each and every day, and trying to have a normal life at home. It’s very difficult,” he said. “You know, there’s been books written about emotional health for law enforcement officers. But I think if you have that good balance, and then like I said, for me, faith is going home and just being able to put the job aside while you’re at home, so you can enjoy your family and you can enjoy your kids. So you need help, you need to have good sidekick – and by ‘sidekick’ I mean for me, my wife – somebody that you can go and talk to, and open up and have conversations with. One, so that they’re understanding but also, two, to kind of allow you to vent about other things that you experience.”

One of the initiatives to come in the near future is a community survey that will influence the department’s strategic plan.

“We want the community to have a voice in what we do. We want their viewpoint and we want them to have a say in how we move forward as an agency. I think that’s important,” Babkiewicz said. “Sir Robert Peel was the creator of policing as we know it today. He always said ‘The community is the police and the police are the community,’ and it’s something I believe in.” 

Babkiewicz said he wants citizens to “view this department as their own, and I want them to say ‘this is where we want our department to be in the next five years.’ That can be some of our guidance for how we’re going to move forward as an agency.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.