Chief Daniel Sharp of the Oro Valley Police Department never planned on being an officer. But 40 years later, he’s now the mentor and leader of an entire police fleet.
“At the beginning, it just seemed like something interesting to do,” he said. “Sometimes things just happen that way.”
Chief Sharp started his law enforcement career in 1978 with the Tucson Police Department. His neighbor worked at TPD and suggested he work there, at least for the time being. Sharp was looking at the final years of college, and didn’t really know what he wanted to do after. He volunteered in college and had what he called a “helper mentality.”
“It fit my personality,” he said. “But I didn’t think it would be a full career.”
The then 23-year-old joined the force and quickly found his calling. Two years later, in 1980, Sharp was assigned to a special unit for traffic safety and discovered the field that would be a passion throughout his career. That passion culminated with him receiving the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s J. Stannard Baker Award for lifetime achievement in highway safety.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize the difference you could make in people’s lives if you did the job right,” he said. “I’ve always had a passion to teach, and I did a lot of teaching in addition to my assignments. I was able to combine this with my passion for traffic and highway safety.”
Chief Sharp feels he joined law enforcement at a particularly good time; according to him, in the early 80s, police departments began working more on their professionalism and community engagement. However, he did mention that there were some drawbacks to working as an officer in those years.
“Back then, the only radios police had were in their cars,” he said. “Whenever I did a check inside a bar, if there was a fight I had to break up, I just had to hope the bartender would call for help.”
But as Sharp advanced through the police department, so did technology. Now with automated fingerprint systems, drones, infrared and night-vision, today’s departments are a far cry from where Sharp started.
“Technology is an interesting thing,” he said. “Most people see technology as allowing you to need less people, but with the police, the more technology you have, the more work there is. When we first started with our automated fingerprint system, the detectives’ workloads skyrocketed.”
Sharp joined OVPD early in 2000, moving from assistant chief at TPD to chief in Oro Valley.
“What Oro Valley represented was the opportunity to do more ‘community policing,’” he said. “It was very different than what was going on in Tucson in the ’90s. I was able to bring my philosophy of community policing and engagement and really practice it here.”
Kara Riley, OVPD commander, first met Sharp when he trained her at police academy. He was such an influence on her that she strove to have her career and law enforcement education just like his.
“He always strives for continuous improvement,” Riley said. “Besides being one of the finest leaders, he’s also a mentor... It’s a family environment here, and that’s very critical for the agency.”
As part of community engagement, Chief Sharp helped start the OVPD’s “Coffee with a Cop” program in 2014. The program helps break down barriers between the police and the public by opening dialogue between the two.
“The Oro Valley Police Department has always been community driven, but he took it to a different level,” Riley said. “What’s interesting about him is that ‘community policing’ became a catchphrase in the 2000s, but he’s been doing it since the 80s.”
Riley said that, because he’s the longest-sitting police chief currently serving in Arizona, most of the officers in the department have served under his wing their entire careers.
“Those are going to be some big shoes to fill,” Riley said.
Sharp has already planned to retire multiple times, but every time he was called back. He planned to retire this March, one year after deputy chief Larry Stevens retired last year. He also planned on retiring for his 40th anniversary in law enforcement, but this too was delayed after he was appointed committee chair for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Highway Safety Committee. His true retirement date, at least for the time being, will be on his 20th anniversary of being police chief: February 2020.
“Although it delayed his retirement, I know he’s very honored, because it’s a passion of his,” said his wife Lynn, speaking on his appointment to the highway safety committee.
Lynn describes her husband as a natural teacher from the beginning, saying he viewed the switch to OVPD as an opportunity to make a difference both in the department and the community.
“He’s really left his mark on the agency,” Lynn said. “And from the beginning he’s prepared his staff to be his successor, and there are some great candidates.”
Although he’s spent decades as a teaching officers, Chief Sharp also said his profession is one of his biggest teachers of all.
“Police officers see things that the general public doesn’t and shouldn’t see, and that takes its toll,” he said. “You see people at their worst, but you also see them at their very best.”
Sharp said the job changes your mindset and decision-making in nearly every situation; whereas most people base their actions off of what’s probable, police need to think of what’s possible. And although he says it’s a dangerous job where lives are on the line every day, he wouldn’t change his career choice.
“It’s a phenomenal place to work,” he said. “It’s the best career move I ever made.”