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As a member of Kentucky State Police Cadet Class #1 in 1948, Chester Potter was a ground floor witness to the birth and growth of an organization that would transform law enforcement in Kentucky. Recently, the 83-year-old Pikeville resident, who retired in 1975 as a lieutenant after 27 years on the force, recalled those early “trailblazing” days.
“The training lasted about three weeks in Frankfort,” he recalls. “It ran from 8 Monday morning until about 9 Saturday evening. It was a busy time with instructors from the FBI and the Indiana State Police. Together they taught us enough to get our feet on the ground.”
Potter was initially assigned to the Pikeville post. “But in those days, they’d send you wherever they needed you, so you always had to keep a bag packed,” he says. “No car was issued to you,” he explains. “There were ‘pool’ cars which you could draw out for a certain length of time in order to complete your business.” He even remembers renting a horse at one time to get where he needed to go. “Often, once you got where you were going, you could just let the horse go and it would go back home on its own,” he chuckled.
Communications could also pose challenges. “Since we had no radios at the time, we would have to call in by phone every so often,” he says. “Generally, we knew everyone in the area that had a phone we could use or we would find people to relay information back to the post.” “Many a time I wished we’d had better communications. There wouldn’t have been as many knots and bruises on my head if we had,” he recalled with a grin.
Tracking was Potter’s specialty. “When someone had took to the mountains to hide out, they would call me in to track ’em down and bring ’em in,” he says.
“I always liked to work alone if it was reasonable,” he noted. “I always felt if there was someone with me that I was responsible for their safety. If you had several people out with you, it created more targets, especially if the one you were tracking was a good marksman. By yourself, I felt you had a better chance of capturing the person without injuring anyone.”
Safety was always a priority for Potter.
“Sometimes I would track someone for a week through the mountains to get in the right position to take them without anyone being seriously injured. That was always my goal,” he said.
Research was key to achieving that goal. “The first thing you wanted to do was to learn as much as you could about the person you were tracking,” Potter said. “Talk to people who live close to him or knew him well. Find out what he’s like and how good a marksman he is.”
“The trick,” he continued, “was to pursue the person and make them believe they were going to get away. You don’t press them too hard. Wear them down. Just keep on pressing him until he runs out of food or energy and gives up without a shootout.”
“Many a night, with snow fallin’, I’ve rolled back under a cliff, raked leaves up into a pile for warmth, slept for a few hours then would get up and go again,” he recalls.
Overall, Potter says he had many nice experiences as a state trooper and some that weren’t so nice. “I remember one instance where I was slipping around a house trying to locate a murder suspect and I must have gotten tired or careless because the first thing I knew I was looking down the barrel of a double barreled shotgun. The guy had a real mean look in his eyes and was kind of grinning. He said, ‘You know I’ve always wanted to know how a person feels when they are about to die. Can you tell me?’ I said if you’re talking to me, I don’t feel too good.”
“We had a disagreement and it turned out alright,” says Potter. “I’m still here.”
Another time, Potter remembers driving by a little country store and seeing a truck with a Georgia license plate and two guys wearing cowboy hats “that cost more than my whole outfit.”
“They got in a nice, slick Cadillac,” he said, “and I wondered what those strangers in a slick Cadillac were doing at that little store. I went back and found out they had put in an order for a truckload of sugar going to Georgia. I thought to myself, ‘Now they sell sugar in Georgia surely.’”
After further investigation, it turned out they were running a moonshine operation out of a cattle farm in Central Kentucky.
Overall, it was an interesting career,” Potter notes. Although he hadn’t planned on a law enforcement career, the more he became involved, the more he saw the need for change.
“Commissioner (Guthrie) Crowe was a wonderful man who was really a cornerstone of law enforcement in Kentucky. I liked his chain of thought about improving law enforcement in Kentucky. I guess that’s the reason I chose KSP as a career,” said Potter. (Guthrie Crowe was the first KSP commissioner.)
“I had the privilege of working with some very fine people,” he recalls. “It was the type of work you get some comfort from. You had the opportunity to improve things a little bit and that’s what makes the world go around,” he says. “The most important thing that I have ever done was giving someone else a helping hand.”
“What I see and hear about the state police today is a comfort to know that it’s going in the right direction,” he says. “It’s come a long way and when I think about some of it — and all the knots and gashes in my head — I have to grin and smile a little bit.”
KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer recently had the opportunity to visit with Potter and thank him for his service. He also presented Potter with a certificate naming him Colonel, Aide de Camp to the Commissioner’s staff.
“We stand on the shoulders of folks, like you, who went before us,” he told Potter, “those who have blazed the trail for the agency we enjoy today. That is a very strong signal for us to not soil that reputation. Many, many people have endured many, many hardships, trials and tribulations to make our agency what it is today.”