Dowagiac’s Rick Behnke named Cass undersheriff

Published 1:26 am Tuesday, April 15, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
CASSOPOLIS -- Cass County Sheriff Joseph M. Underwood Jr. today announced the appointment of Dowagiac graduate Lt. Richard J. Behnke to undersheriff.
Behnke, 39, effective Wednesday succeeds Larry Gorham, who retired in December after 29 years with the Sheriff's Office.
Behnke, born in Dowagiac in January 1964, is the youngest of Bill and Janice Behnke's five children. He graduated from Union High in 1982 and earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Ferris State College in 1986.
He flirted briefly with the business curriculum, but quickly returned to criminal justice.
Behnke began his law enforcement career in July 1986 as a patrol officer for Marcellus Police Department. He continued with the village until March 1987. April 1, 1987, he joined the Sheriff's Office under the department's longest-serving sheriff, James Northrop, who retired the following year after serving more than 19 years.
Behnke's tenure at the Sheriff's Office also spans the administrations of Paul Parrish and now Underwood, who was elected in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
There was also the move from the 1958 jail since torn down to the "new" jail opened in May 1990.
Only three members of the department besides Underwood possess more seniority than Behnke -- Dan Covey, Bob Babcock and Bill Riley.
Behnke's rise through the ranks included: patrol deputy, April 1987-June 1993; patrol sergeant, June 1993-May 1997; community policing sergeant, May 1997-September 1999; dispatch sergeant, September 1999-January 2001; and dispatch lieutenant, since January 2001.
Although the family business is Behnke's Paint and Floor Covering, it nevertheless proved instrumental in Rick becoming a police officer.
His parents always employed police officers part-time starting with Sgt. Michael Heidenreich's father, the late Donald Heidenreich, who was a Chicago firefighter.
As dispatch lieutenant he oversaw staffing, training and equipment for the 911 dispatch center which is being enlarged. "With this new building project they're going to have the tools to do the job properly," he said.
For the past 12 years central dispatch has been in cramped quarters within the sheriff's office/jail complex, but it will be relocated to the renovated "north" building by the courthouse.
Underwood, who was Northrop's undersheriff, said the growth of that component and Behnke's overall experience figured in his selection as undersheriff.
As undersheriff, "I'm going to have a role in dispatch -- as I would in every division of the department," Behnke said. "The undersheriff has to have a finger in every area to pick up where the sheriff leaves off. I think I'll have more to do with dispatch than past undersheriffs" because there is more to do. "Back then we dispatched for Cass village. Now we do the entire county -- all fire, police and ambulance, as well as state police when they patrol in Cass County. They flip their radios to our frequencies and dispatch through us, as well. With my background in dispatch, I'm sure that expertise will be relied on."
Behnke has been grooming himself for this day almost since that April day in 1987 when he joined the sheriff's department.
For the Police Officers Association of Michigan union, Behnke spent a decade in union activities, including vice president of the Cass County Deputy Sheriff's Association from 1991 to 1993 and vice president of the Cass County Sergeants Association from 1994 to 2001.
Another board he got involved with in 2002 was for the Wesley House at First United Methodist Church in Dowagiac.
Behnke is a member of the Michigan Communication Directors Association, the Michigan Deputy Sheriff's Association and Michigan APCO, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
If he wasn't in law enforcement, he figures he'd be teaching, as evidenced by his 1999-2001 stint at Kalamazoo Valley Community College as an instructor for the KVCC Police Academy.
Behnke also expected to return to his alma mater today to address Kyrie Krenz's law class. "I really enjoy going back into classes and talking about law enforcement. If I wasn't doing this, I'd be teaching," like Robinson is at a college in Florida.
In his spare time the "sports junkie" -- he and Road Division Capt. Lyndon Parrish were recently part of the record lowest crowd at a Tigers game at Comerica Park -- enjoys golfing. He's an avid Michigan State fan (his sister and wife went there), although Underwood roots for Notre Dame.
Behnke has Spartan season tickets, usually takes in a couple of Red Wings hockey games each season and NASCAR events.
He played football in the fall (and was on the '81 9-0 team that didn't get to advance to the playoffs) and track in the spring. He and Joe Carpenter, didn't play winter sports and were "talked into" trying out by teacher Teri Frantz.