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'I am ready' to be Chester's police chief, says Robert Helmers

  • Chief Robert Helmers has assumed command of the Chester Police Department.

    Chief Robert Helmers has assumed command of the Chester Police Department.
    Jim Beers photo

  • The chief is congratulated on his appointment by daughter Ashlyn Breanne, right, and his significant other, Kendra Wingerter.

    The chief is congratulated on his appointment by daughter Ashlyn Breanne, right, and his significant other, Kendra Wingerter.
    Courtesy of Robert Helmers

By Jim Beers
Contributing writer
updated: 1/16/2019 11:37 AM

He's been in the U.S. Army and the Army Reserves; he's been a combat engineer, a heavy equipment operator, a scuba diver, a deputy coroner, a police officer, a flight medic -- which nearly killed him -- and he's a decent baseball player and terrific cook.

Today, Robert "Bobby" Helmers, 51, is a little more than a week into his newest gig -- chief of police in Chester, which he calls the "premiere" department in the region.

And you could argue that all those years amassing all that experience, has led him to this moment.

An Air Force brat growing up, Helmers got to Chester in time to attend both Chester Grade School and High School.

"We moved around quite a bit," said Helmers, who was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and also lived in southern California before his dad landed a more permanent assignment at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville.

The family set up residence in Chester, and Helmers left behind military schools for the public schools.

"The military elementary schools were extremely disciplined, so most of us did really well in class," Helmers said. He was so well prepared, in fact, that Chester Grade School promoted him up a grade. In high school he was a hardworking student who didn't go in for many extracurriculars.

Because of the double promotion he graduated from high school at 17, and enlisted in the U.S. Army. His five years of active duty were spent mainly in Texas and in Europe, where he was a combat engineer and heavy equipment operator.

"I learned a lot about explosives, knowing how to destroy things, and I also spent much of my time rebuilding things," Helmers said. He also developed a love for baseball.

When he left the service in 1988, Helmers came back to Chester, where he has been ever since.

"My dad lived in Steeleville and my mom was from Cora City, so Chester was a nice middle-of-the-road location," he said.

Helmers enrolled at Belleville Area College (now Southwestern Illinois College) to get an Allied Health degree. He worked for Med Star for 14 years, learning how to be an EMT flight paramedic, and advancing through the ranks to eventually win top-level classification as an EMT supervisor.

He left Med Star for Lifebeat Air Medical, based in Cape Girardeau, where he was a flight medic, picking up patients by helicopter from accident scenes and getting them to hospitals.

"It was very rewarding and exciting being involved in air flight rescues and transports," said Helmers.

One fateful day in 1995, while flying from Cape to Anna for a motor vehicle accident, the helicopter carrying Helmers and his crew flew into severe weather.

"The weather over the Mississippi River from Cape was terrible," Helmers recalls. "As we got near Wolf Lake our copter flipped over and hit the ground at 129 miles per hour. We landed upside down. The skids from our helicopter are still sticking up in the ground in that field where we crashed."

Members of the crew were seriously injured. But after waiting for help in vain, they eventually realized no one knew where they were.

"(At) 4:03 a.m. we finally got tired of waiting to be rescued, and we walked to Route 3 and flagged down help. We were very injured and lost, but we knew we needed medical help of our own, so we foolishly walked for help," said Helmers.

Helmers was out of work for a year, recovering from severe injuries. He went back to work and flew as a flight medic for almost two more years, but by that time he'd decided to pursue law enforcement, an idea he'd been toying with for years.

He re-enrolled at Belleville Area College to get a degree in Administration of Justice, and then joined the Chester Police Department part-time.

He scouted around for full-time work. In 2001 the Missouri Highway Patrol offered him a job, but he declined.

"I knew I wanted to work for a small, community police department," he said. "By that time I had worked enough for CPD that ... I knew that I didn't want to spend my career just driving around the interstate handing out tickets.

"In the small town department I would get to do a full-range of police duties and experiences, so I held out for a full-time position, preferably in Chester."

His wish came true. Helmers was a full-time police officer until 2004 when he became the CPD Field Training Officer, responsible for training all new officers.

From 2008 to 2012 Helmers was deputy chief, working closely with Chief Ryan Coffey and getting experience with the administrative side of policing. In 2015 Helmers tested for sergeant, and got the job.

At about this time, the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program at the elementary school was defunded. Three fifth grade teachers -- Mary Bohnert, Tammy Liefer and Stephanie Kennedy -- went to the district to ask that some type of police involvement remain in the classrooms.

The Unit 139 administration agreed, and Helmers (who had been a DARE teacher), CGS Principal Tim Lochhead and Chief Ryan Coffey discussed developing a program that would be more comprehensive than DARE.

"Coffey called me and gave me the good news," Helmers recalled, "but also said that I had just two weeks to develop the program."

Helmers, consulting with the fifth grade teachers, created a program he called COPS, or Challenging Ourselves and Promoting Safety, that contained six different units.

"It is interesting for the kids and is interactive," he said, adding the program has grown to 14 sessions. I hope I can continue to be involved now that I am chief. This is one if my crown jewels and I would love to see it through."

Coffey had directed that Helmers teach COPS for the first year, then told him he could hand it off to someone else. He never did.

"I loved it so much that I refused to give it up," Helmers said. "We have made such a huge impact in the community it has been a real game-changer.

"We constantly have students, parents and teachers coming up to us in the community thanking us. Kids hug us and they are excited and comfortable seeing us."

Asked for other career highlights at CPD, Helmers mentioned the development of the Active Shooter training.

Helmers was deeply affected by the death of 22-year-old Chester Officer James Brockmeyer, who died in a crash while pursuing a suspect on Oct. 26, 2016.

"I trained James as his field training officer," he said. "We rode together and we became very close. I carry him with me every day."

Helmers was sworn in as chief on Jan. 7. He follows Coffey, who has joined the Randolph County Sheriff's Office.

"Ryan and I worked together for a very long time," Helmers said. "We shared information, constantly had discussions regarding a wide array of cases and issues, and bounced ideas off each other. I have learned an immense amount from him.

"I have worked in almost all capacities at CPD and serving as Chester's police chief is (a) natural progression for me," he added. "I am ready to assume this new position as chief."

At the swearing-in, Chester Mayor Tom Page acknowledged that Coffey and Helmers "are much alike.

"I look forward to seeing the Chester Police Department continue to flourish under Helmers' leadership," he added.

Helmers intends to bring his experience, all of it, to his new position. But he won't rush into making changes.

"I believe that if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it," he said. "We currently have what I consider to be the premiere police department in the region. We are constantly upgrading our department and we have a phenomenal staff. I look forward to the challenge."