Drive time is a lot shorter, and less hectic, here than it was in Grand Prairie, Cleburne’s new Police Chief Robert Severance III said with a laugh.
“It’s really nice to have a short commute to get different places as far as if I need to go to city hall or even all the services available right here in Cleburne, driver’s license office, county courts and all those,” said Severance, who was a division commander for Grand Prairie Police Department. “In Grand Prairie it’s 30 minutes to an hour commute to get to any of those things.”
Selected from a pool of more than 40 applicants and hired in November, Severance officially assumed his duties on Dec. 31, replacing former CPD Chief Terry Powell, who retired last year after 32 years of service with the department.
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks exploring the city and getting to know fellow officers, city officials and residents. Monday found Severance working on situating his office.
“Everyone’s been really friendly,” Severance said. “I really enjoy the atmosphere in Cleburne. Everyone seems to know each other and is very warm, inviting and welcoming.
“My wife and I have Sea-Doos and, this summer, we went out on Lake Pat Cleburne. Which is a very nice lake, probably one of those best kept secrets. You go out on Joe Pool Lake and you have to look over your shoulder at times to make sure somebody doesn’t run you over.”
Severance may be new to CPD, but his family’s history stretches back deep into Cleburne and Johnson County. His mother, Kathy Severance, grew up in Cleburne and graduated from Cleburne High School in 1965. Severance grew up in Grand Prairie. His mother and father, Robert Severance Jr., met while attending the University of Texas at Arlington, at that time called Arlington State College. He often visited Cleburne.
“My grandparents lived here, aunts, uncles and cousins,” Severance said. “So certainly we came here for holidays and other occasions. It was always nice, and I have very fond memories of Cleburne growing up.”
Severance mentions running around with his cousins on the land now occupied by Cleburne First Seventh-day Adventist Church, land his grandparents, Samuel and Julia Waldrip, donated to the church. Severance’s uncle, David Waldrip, founded David’s Supermarkets, a company headquartered in Grandview.
Severance’s Cleburne roots stretch even further back. His great-great-grandfather, Samuel Davidson, settled near Cleburne — an area since brought into the city limits — in 1902 purchasing 341 acres. Severance’s great-grandmother, Essie Waldrip died in 1947 after being struck by a car while crossing U.S. 67 to get the mail.
The old family home remains in Cleburne, albeit owned by someone else now, Severance said. The family moved the house from Cleburne to Godley and back again in 1945 when Severance’s grandparents established a dairy.
“German prisoners of war built the barns,” Severance said.
Entering law enforcement
“I attended a town safety event in Arlington when I was a little kid, but don’t think I really had any plans to become a police officer then,” Severance said. “I pretty much assumed I’d work for my dad’s business.”
Severance’s father ran Robert H. Severance Co., founded by Severance’s paternal grandfather, which still operates today.
A high school friend whose father was a Grand Prairie police officer set Severance on an alternate career path in 1986.
“I joined the Police Explorer Program sponsored by GPPD,” Severance said.
Several friends in the same program went on to pursue law enforcement careers in Mansfield, Garland and other cities, he said.
Severance became a civilian crime technician with GPPD in 1990 and later attended the police academy.
“Grand Prairie has their own police academy,” Severance said. “I was working the evening shift as a civilian crime scene tech so I arranged with my supervisor to be able to come on duty earlier and continue working later so that I could have the middle of my work day to attend that evening police academy on my own time.”
Severance became a full-time, paid officer with GPPD in 1994, working numerous assignments through the years including traffic accident investigator, field training officer, academy instructor, drug recognition expert and detective.
Severance promoted to sergeant in 2004 and lieutenant in 2008. Among other duties, he served as GPPD’s Community Services Division commander, a position overseeing 101 employees, 57 volunteers and programs including youth services, burglary task force, IMPACT Team and Citizens on Patrol. Severance also graduated from the FBI National Academy in December, an 11-week professional course offered by invitation only.
He and his wife, Twila Severance, a fellow police officer, wed at midnight Feb. 14, 2005, in a ceremony officiated by the GPPD chaplain.
Coming to Cleburne
Severance said he just happened to be researching the Johnson County area because his son, Robert Severance IV, began classes at Southwestern Adventist University when he learned Powell had retired and the chief’s position was open.
City Manager Rick Holden hired the new chief, but first formed an ad hoc committee to assist with studying resumes and interviewing candidates.
“From my perspective and, I think, others on the committee, [Severance] came across as a real people person with a lot of good ideas to improve law enforcement here and in the county,” said Cleburne Fire Chief Clint Ishmael, who served on the hiring committee. “He also seems like someone who’s going to work with other agencies in the area, which is a plus obviously as crime usually knows no city boundaries.”
With Cleburne’s population predicted to boom in the coming years, thanks in large part to the coming of Texas 121, a toll road linking Fort Worth and Cleburne, Holden said he believes Severance is ideally suited to lead CPD into the growth and challenges ahead.
“Robert hits me as very forward thinking,” Holden said. “I believe he’s going to involve fellow officers, staff and citizens in the decisions and challenges upcoming for our city. He’s already had a wide variety of experience in law enforcement and, quite frankly, the FBI Academy training is a big plus. He’s also had experience in a town that grew rapidly like we’re expecting Cleburne to do.”
During Severance’s GPPD tenure the city’s population increased by about 80,000, ranking at one point as the country’s sixth fastest growing city. Severance said he hopes for similar times ahead for Cleburne.
“The main goal as always is providing a high level of service and maintaining a low crime rate,” Severance said. “But I’m also excited about the growth projected for Cleburne and having to opportunity to help plan for that. There are plenty of challenges as we look toward the future, but I think it’s an excellent opportunity to come in at this time and be part of the planning process versus coming in after its already occurred.
“I’ve talked to officers who were in Frisco during their boom and it can certainly overwhelm you if you’re not prepared. One of my brothers lived in Frisco during that time and it seemed like every time I went for a visit the town seemed completely new. So I’m real excited about the growth. But I also care a lot about Cleburne and its history and want to work to make sure we don’t lose Cleburne’s identity as we grow.”
That’s a concern Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain shares.
“In the short time he’s been here I say it’s exciting to be around him,” Cain said of Severance. “How he’s excited about our growth and embracing the exciting opportunities ahead for Cleburne and wanting to involve the community and urge them to embrace those opportunities.”
On a more immediate level, Severance said he’s busy studying his new department and the crime and safety challenges facing Cleburne. Although administrative work will no doubt occupy much of his time, Severance said he wants to be a hands-on chief and get out in the community as often as possible.
“Most of my time was spent in patrol,” Severance said. “Which helped shape my perspective that patrol is the backbone of the police department. That is one of the reasons why I really enjoy riding with our officers on the street.”
Otherwise, Severance said he’s been listening to KCLE 1460 AM while driving to work and is eager to visit the Cleburne Regional Airport. Turns out Severance has a pilot’s license and an interest in the Civil Air Patrol.
A Thursday community meet-and-greet attracted a number of police officers from throughout the county, including Godley Police Chief James Healy, a former GPPD officer who joked that he remembers Severance from his much younger days on the force. Several Grand Prairie officers also made the trip to Cleburne to congratulate their former fellow officer.
“Oh, definitely a great loss for us,” GPPD Chief Steve Dye said of Severance leaving his department. “But you all in Cleburne are getting a great chief. Robert has an outstanding work ethic in that he cares a lot about community services and outreach but at the same time couples that with an aggressive stance against crime to keep the community safe.”
Recent reports show an overall drop in crime in Grand Prairie of about 24 percent between 2009-12.
“And Robert played an integral role in that crime-rate drop,” Dye said. “Through his involvement in our community services division with Citizens on Patrol, the enhanced Explorer’s Program and other programs. I think he’s going to bring a lot of innovative ideas to Cleburne.”