New Huron chief looks to partnership with community

By Benjamin Chase of the Plainsman
Posted 5/25/24

Huron Police Chief Derek Layher looks forward to partnering with Huron community

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New Huron chief looks to partnership with community


HURON — Huron Police Chief Derek Layher has been on the job for just over a month after longtime chief Kevin Van Diepen retired on April 19, but he’s already faced a significant “incident” in the community and feels good about how things are looking moving forward.

Layher has been very pleased with how the changeover from Van Diepen to him in the chief’s role has gone for himself and for the department as a whole.

“I think (the transition) is going very well,” Layher said. “I think the time from when Kevin announced and I was announced as the next chief allowed for that smooth transition. It was very beneficial for me and for our department.”

He continued, “We have a young group of officers - this is probably the youngest our department has ever been. It’s gone very well. Everyone is working well together.”

Reviewing the age of the department, he noted that Van Diepen’s retirement was the last of a generation of Huron officers that served together for many years, and he and Deputy Chief Adam Doerr now look to shepherd a generation of officers that have the opportunity to grow up within the department in the same way.

“Turnover is a big issue in law enforcement, and it’s detrimental to the department and the community when we have consistent turnover,” Chief Layher explained. “You want to see young officers come to the job and enjoy it, and a lot of that is going through things with someone else who’s in the same boat as you are. We think we have a really good department right now that could be together for a while.”

With a very diverse community in Huron, Layher says that he’s very pleased with the diversity of his officers.

“They say that your department should mimic the diversity of who you serve, and we’re getting really close,” Layher observed. “Our hiring practices have changed drastically in the 15 years that I’ve been part of the department.”

He further explained, “Before 2020 (riots and anti-police messaging nationwide following the death of George Floyd), we had a lot of people who would come from Minnesota to South Dakota because law enforcement jobs were extremely competitive there. We would get people that came to a town like Huron and get certified, work for a couple of years, and then they’d move back to Minnesota.”

“We were content with that because we’d usually get three or four good years from that officer, but it was a sort of unending cycle,” Layher concluded. “Now, you could walk into any department in Minnesota and likely get a job, and we really can now focus on the ‘grow your own’ mentality and develop officers that will be here long-term.”

He mentioned that the department has been open to those without a law enforcement background in order to build up the staff, sending new recruits to the academy and taking the time to train them, especially those who have indicated a desire to remain in Huron long-term.

The goal of building up a staff from within, says Layher, is to develop a long-term bond between the department and the community, and he quickly identified the schools as one area where officers can build a relationship.

The department currently has two school resource officers (SROs) within the Huron School District, and the relationship that many former SROs have with children has led to post-law enforcement roles as paraeducators and other roles around the school district.

“The second SRO position came from a traffic enforcement position. We looked at the things going on around the country with acts of school violence and thought, ‘this position can be better-used to benefit the community as a whole’ and to have that person in the school to not just enforce rules or be a presence, but, more importantly, to build a relationship with the kids,” Layher commented. “I walk through the schools and I get to see kids giving our SROs fist bumps and high fives; they know each other by name. That’s a big thing.”

Layher says the involvement in the school of the department while in uniform is only the first step of being involved. He named multiple officers who coach youth sports, are part of their church’s leadership, get involved with service organizations within the city, and all of it is encouraged from his chair as chief.

“We are very lucky to have a very supportive community in Huron,” Layher smiled. “A big way we can repay that support and continue to build it is for the community to see us in uniform or not being out there at events in the community, helping out to coach youth sports, things like that where we are visible.”

He sees transparency as another key component of building that relationship with the community.

“When I started, social media was just barely getting off the ground, now it’s a vital part of what we do,” Layher emphasized. “We can show our officers interacting with the community and also utilize social media to communicate to our community in a very effective manner. Our goal is to be present on social media platforms.”

That has included recent department profiles on the Huron Police Department Facebook page that highlight members of the telecommunication staff or other members of the department that often are more behind-the-scenes positions that support the work of uniformed officers.

When asked about what perceptions of officers that he would like to be able to dispel with the increased transparency of the department, Layher was quick to respond.

“We don’t have quotas. Never have,” he said, shaking his head. “We will never tell an officer that their job is to write X amount of tickets. The job is to patrol the community and to be proactive in making sure the community is safe. There are a number of ways that can be done, and we have officers who approach it in different ways. As long as it is effective in being proactive to help the community, it works.

“But we will never tell someone that they need to write more tickets.”

Communication is a key component that Layher wants to define his legacy as chief.

He observed that some chiefs are “all for” change, while others are resistant to that. He wants to be open to ideas of change.

“Just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean it can’t be done better,” Layher said. “I want all of the department to know that they come to me if they think there’s something we can do to improve.”

He explained that changes don’t happen overnight and some things don’t end up working out, but having an open mind to evaluate processes to potentially change along the way.

Layher notes the changes in mental health training that the department receives and the partnerships with community mental health providers as a big example of the changes over the last few years that have occurred.

“So much has changed in mental health, from the relationship that we have with Community Counseling (Services) to the training that our officers get,” Layher stated. “We’re by no means experts, and there are people that know more than we do, and we’ve set up a system that we can work with those who do know better than us, whether it’s mental health or any other thing that we are working with that another agency or person in town can help us with better than we can do on our own.”

Layher also explained that the mental health of officers is much more emphasized, encouraging officers to talk about mental health stressors that are affecting work and home life.

Having that understanding allows officers to understand how to refer and communicate with those who are in a stress point mentally.

He also observed that one of the most common comments against the department comes from those who were charged with something but didn’t get the sentence that community members felt they should. That’s another area of cooperation for the department, according to Layher.

“(Sentencing) is not something that we really have control over, but we hear from people when sentences aren’t what they expect,” Layher commented. “We do work with the state’s attorney’s office to prosecute, but we can only do what we can do.”

That leads to a tough situation where social media accounts that are hoping to get clicks on their information put out information that should not be public during an investigation. Layher explained that the department works with victims, victim families, and proper legal procedure before releasing names.

That led into a discussion of the first major “incident” that Layher has overseen, the juvenile event that occurred on May 9.

Layher said that he was scheduled to be off work that day, but got a phone call early in the morning that he needed to come in.

He explained that the partnership between the department and the school district allowed for a very quick response to keep the community safe. He also referenced the department’s relationship with the highway patrol and the Beadle County Sheriff’s department to assist in police presence and investigation on that day, including the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s S.W.A.T. team.

“We probably had more law enforcement presence in the city of Huron than we’ve had in years,” Layher observed. “It went so smooth, though. Everyone worked together to get to a resolution point that day so the community could be assured that there was no further risk. It’s nice to know you can handle something on your own, but it’s also nice to know that you don’t have to.”

While it has worked hard to get fully staffed, Layher said the department is currently training multiple officers, so they’re not yet active on patrol, but they will be very quickly. He is pleased that the two most recent hires for the department have been Huron High School graduates.

Derek and his wife Brittany have five children. He says that he first got into law enforcement to get into something different that was going to be active. He explained that once he began in law enforcement, he didn’t plan to stay in Huron long-term, planning to move back to the Sioux Falls area to be near his hometown of Brandon, but once he got started, he says that he moved up quickly within the department and became involved in the community.

He now laughs that he views Sioux Falls as “too big” and remarked that “Huron has that hometown feel for me now.”

This allows Layher to relate to the young department that he now oversees, encouraging them to seek out the advancement they desire and to involve themselves in the community. Beyond that, he encourages his officers to understand that partnering in the community is going to help balance when things do get very busy in the day-to-day work of law enforcement.

“The work doesn’t stop because you’re busy,” he laughed. “That’s why it’s nice to work with partners in the community and other law enforcement partners to ensure the community is safe and well-informed.”