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May 26, 2021

Chief Priority For Price is Relationships: Bluffton’s new police chief brings big-city experience but is focused on fostering personalized policing.

Celebrate Hilton Head Magazine

Photography By

M.KAT Photography
Stephenie Price spent 20-plus years working her way through the ranks, from officer to detective to sergeant to captain in Kansas City and as assistant chief of police in Savannah. She hoped to fulfill the dream one day to make the next career leap but never expected the opportunity to come up just over a year after moving to the Hostess City.

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“We came over to Bluffton all the time to ride bikes and just soak up the Lowcountry vibe. Bluffton is the type of town you dream of leading; it’s the type of moment I simply could not pass up,” said Price of potentially moving across the Talmadge Bridge. “It’s the chance I’ve been preparing for my entire career. When I saw the job posting, my husband and I looked at each other and smiled. I just had to go for it.”

Price emerged as the clear choice among a strong field of finalists and was sworn in to succeed interim chief Scott Chandler
on Oct. 11, 2020. And yes, she’s the first female chief of the department. It is a historic moment for the town, but for Bluffton officials, it’s merely a fringe benefit of finding the best candidate.

“She won the job on her own merit. If it had been The Voice and we were doing blind auditions, it would have been the same pick,” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “It’s great we’ve hired our first female chief, but more importantly, we’ve hired the best person to lead this department into the future.”

Price said her experience in Kansas City, a city of 538,000 residents, 1,500 sworn officers and 500 civilian officers, has given her a bigger picture of policing that gave her a strong foundation for leading. She worked every beat, from property crimes to internal affairs, domestic violence to narcotics and vice.

“K.C. is a well-oiled machine. They’ve experienced everything, and I was exposed to every kind of interaction with the citizens we serve. But there’s always room to improve personally. I needed to go to a place where the department worked on a more personal level with the community and the city council, and so I treasure my time in Savannah,” Price said.

She supervised the administration and management bureau of the SPD, including budgets, the canine unit, emergency management, recruiting, technology, and training.

Her résumé was impressive, but her preparation was even more exemplary. “She spoke to concerns we had before we even asked them. She did her research,” Sulka said. “She had a plan for training officers to better assist in our mental illness efforts, and she had a clear focus on community policing. That was huge—two areas we want to improve on.”

The Northwest Missouri native put herself through college and grad school as a hairdresser, a job she said helped grow her love of service and communicating with others. It’s where she met her husband Chris, a long-time sergeant with the KCPD.

As much as she still enjoys cutting hair, being part of a police force was always the dream. She has two brothers in law enforcement; the draw to serving others is in her blood.

The public’s relationship and views of the police are arguably at an all-time low nationally, but the Bluffton community has a love and appreciation for their police—so much of an industry anomaly nationally right now that BPD uses that appreciation as a selling point in their recruiting efforts.

“It’s an atmosphere that lets officers do what they got into policing to do, get to know the people on a personal level, to establish trust and get in to help better the neighborhoods. So many of our officers have been in Bluffton for a long time, they are part of the community. They love taking the time and initiative to interact, both in and out of uniform,” Price said.

“That’s what policing was supposed to be since the time of Sir Robert Peel. It’s a relationship and I’m so proud of our officers and their commitment to growing that connection all the time.”

She started in the middle of a pandemic, with tensions high over mask mandates and overall community mental health a major concern. But Price came in with the kind of even keel positivity that her peers say is a trademark of her career.

“I observed and listened out of the gate. It’s not ‘my’ department. This is all about our officers, and I made it clear that they will have a say in how this department evolves and grows,” Price said. “We are a growing community; we’re recruiting to meet the challenge of that growth.” And she and her staff are attracting talent with an approach historically unheard of in the state—organizing a multijurisdictional recruiting event on June 26, where departments from across the region will gather in one place for a career fair.

Price said that the focus on building community faith and trust is critical when the BPD must do the hardest parts of the job, such as the investigation into the March 5 death of beloved Bluffton teen Dwon (D.J.) Fields Jr.

“Our officers knew who to talk to, who to lean on to progress the fact finding and the pursuit of justice there, and that only happens through strong community relationships,” she said. “It’s a tragedy; it has left a hole in this town, and this was personal for so many of our officers. They coached D.J., they know the family well. We’re focused on building airtight cases across the board, but there was extra motivation here.”

Price brings an abundance of field work to better her staff’s training efforts, but she knows her most important job is ensuring her team nurtures the trust that citizens have put in the BPD. She has started Operation Conversation, where she will do live A sessions from a business or a front porch that are streamed via social media. And she has launched an initiative to bring community leaders in to share experiences and mentor her staff in leadership and accountability. The BPD has also launched a program where department leaders hit the streets with patrol staff to introduce themselves to business owners.

“I’m at the Farmers’ Market, I’m in the schools meeting kids, you’ll see me walking around The Promenade. I’m focused on educating myself as a resident and a neighbor so I do my job even better,” Price said.

Sulka said that while she does not directly supervise Price (the department is under the guidance of the town manager), she has been impressed with Price’s visibility and focus on getting to know the people she serves.

“It’s crucial. You can’t lead behind the desk all the time in a special place like that, and the chief knows that,” Sulka said.
“She is walking the walk she sold us on.”

The job of police chief has become a far from secure gig nationally, with studies showing chiefs last three to five
years on average. Bluffton has not been immune to that volatility. Joey Reynolds served five years from 2012 to 2017, but
the department is now on its third police chief in less than four years.

Price is focused on ending that tenure trend. She’s planted roots here with her children, 14-year-old daughter Quin and 18-year-old son Jase, a Georgia Southern student. Chris is headed here full-time after retiring from the K.C. force
in 2022.

“It’s the first question you get asked applying for the academy: ‘Why do you want to be an officer?’ It’s simple. To serve my community. Nearly 25 years into this, I feel the same way,” Price said. “This community reignites that feeling in all of us daily.”

The latest example: a five-year-old boy and his mom came to BPD headquarters on April 14. The boy told his mom that all he wanted to do during spring break was bake cookies for the police and deliver them to the chief. Price gladly accepted the cookies and a painted picture and swore the boy in as an honorary officer.

“That’s what it’s all about right there. That’s our why,” she said. “We have a lot of tough days and hard work in law
enforcement, but at the heart of it, those connections, that’s what drives every single one of us.”

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