Photos by Charity Maness/Fall River County Herald Star
LEFT: Hot Springs Police Department Chief Ross Norton embraces his career as well as the community he calls home.
RIGHT: Under Chief Norton the Hot Springs Police Department is now fully staffed; ready to protect and serve Hot Springs. Pictured from left is: Thomas McMillan, SRO (School Resource Officer); Ross Norton, Chief; Ryan Walz, Reserve Lieutenant; Phillip Shively, Captain; Cherelle Hughes, Officer; Kenneth Ayers, Officer; Justin Richardson, FTO (Field Training Officer); Matthew Maxfield, Officer; LexyJo Deneke, Officer; Not pictured: Kyle Ellerbeck, Reserve Officer.
The second in a series of stories focusing on the law enforcement departments of Hot Springs and Fall River County
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – Hot Springs Police Chief Ross Norton is settling into his position as Chief, yet has no intention of slowing down or resting on his laurels.
“I enjoy the interaction with the community,” said Norton of his role as not only Chief of Police but as a law enforcement officer.
When Norton accepted the promotion to Chief, he faced a department that was understaffed and overworked. So, his first order of business was to create a fully staffed department, one that functioned on professionalism, respect for each other and the community and were a family.
He has met that challenge head on.
“We are fully staffed now,” he said with pride, “I am really proud of the fact that we got here as quickly as we did. We hired good officers that bring all their own benefits to the table.”
Born in 1990 in Rapid City but growing up and graduating from high school in Hot Springs, Norton recalls the fact that being raised with a father in law enforcement had piqued his interest in the career, but, “my dream had always been to coach and to teach,” he admitted. His father is current Fall River County Sheriff Lyle Norton.
By the time he was 20, he was “kicking around the idea of dropping out of college,” he said, “and I did.”
But it wasn’t to goof around.
“I would be turning 21 in November 2011, so I began submitting applications to law enforcement agencies as soon as August that year,” he said, all the while participating in civilian ride-a-longs with Hot Springs PD in hopes of getting his foot in the door in his hometown.
“I was only 21 years old for two weeks when I landed my first law enforcement job with Jackson County Sheriff Department as a Deputy,” he said, working in a two-man department with an 1,871 square mile county to patrol.
“I worked every 12 out of 14 days,” he recalled. “I lasted three months,” which was when he was offered a job with Hot Springs PD.
In 2012, Norton came to Hot Springs PD where he received his certification but soon afterwards left for a larger department. His departure was in part due to an issue that has plagued the HSPD for years, until recent wage increases created a more promising and profitable career for new officers.
When Norton left Hot Springs PD he went to Custer County Sheriffs Office and became a deputy where, over the years, he climbed the ladder to Sergeant.
“I loved it,” said Norton of Custer Sheriff’s Office, “the staff was great, and there was great leadership. Plus I enjoyed the freedom of working in that great big county.”
During this time, he was also committed to not only his job and his ever growing family but furthering his education and earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Chadron State College.
Yet, having been in law enforcement for 10 years, Norton wondered if a change of pace would be good for him.
“I was tired of shift work,” he said of the constant night shifts. “I thought if I could find a job that would pay as well as a cop but let me be home at night and on the weekends I should try it. So I went to work for an escrow company. It was a great business with great people but those four walls, being stuck inside, that wasn’t for me.”
One year into his new career, he listened to his soul crying out to return to law enforcement and applied to Hot Springs PD.
“I interviewed for school resource officer job,” he said, but again, the pay was not going to work for him. However, the City Council was on the verge of creating a more competitive wage to retain officers. “When the wages were adjusted, that was a different story and I applied for a police officer and got hired.”
“I wanted to be here, in Hot Springs. Our whole family lived here and not having a fully staffed police department was taking a toll on our community.”
“I was supposed to start in June 2021 but with the department being three officers short and one injured I told the Chief I could start whenever they needed me and so I started within a couple days of being hired.”
With South Dakota one of the only states fully open for business in 2021 and 2022, it was a busy couple of years.
“We worked our butts off this past summer, and being short staffed and the Chief leaving we put in tons of hours and responded to tons of calls. After the summer I was offered the position as Chief. I accepted.”
Norton credits his time at Custer for much of his skills and his vision for his career path as Chief saying, “I think it gave me the experience I needed to land this job.”
Once on the job in command, his first order of business was to create a fully staffed Police Department.
“We got to work trying to recruit and make this a more appealing job,” said Norton. “We have an Indeed account and worked closely with Jeff Temple, Hot Springs City Administrator, to recruit qualified personnel.” There were many times Norton would get calls at 2 am from potential applicants and he would jump right into gear to explain to them what the job would entail.
Once hired, lateral hires are not subject to a contract, however, if there is a cost incurred by the city to send the officer through the police academy, a two-year contract from the date of completion of the academy is required. A contract that Norton stated, “protects our investment.”
Now with a fully staffed department of eight officers, Norton is turning his full focus to the community they serve.
“We no longer have to be reactive,” he said, “we can be proactive.”
However, being faced with a community that has not had an adequate police presence for many years now, he believes he will need to spend time “re-acclimating the public to having a law enforcement presence.”
He assures that there is no such thing as quotas to fill and encourages all his officers to make community connections by getting out of their patrol vehicles and talking with people. “Be it out at the park, or a walk through at a restaurant or bar,” he explained, “every place is gaining added presence everywhere because of our staffing; making a positive connection with the public.”
Making contacts in the public also aids in the fight against drugs in the community.
“It starts with contacts,” he said, “making contacts in the public is how you find the users which snowballs into dealers and then suppliers.”
Norton is proud of the DARE program at the schools and hopes the early connections will provide prevention, especially when faced with the influx of Fentanyl.
“The program explains the seriousness of that drug and how lethal it can be if ingested or consumed,” he explained.
“While meth and marijuana as the most prevalent drug in the community, Fentanyl is definitely here,” he warns.
Involving youth in healthy choices has been a large part of Norton’s life for many years, as he has actively coached high school football since 2009 and added middle school basketball coach to his repertoire this past year, with his brother Tyler by his side.
“I’m not sure it’s having an effect immediately,” he said of his work with local youth, “but somewhere down the road I hope it does.”
Norton has high hopes for his career as Chief.
“I am excited about this opportunity to take what I’ve learned in my law enforcement career from those I keep in high regard to protect and police the community of Hot Springs,” he said.