Salem police officer ending long career of service

SALEM–You get out what you put in — that’s what now retired Salem Police Patrolman Austin French said he believes.

The 63-year-old practiced what he preached during a law enforcement career that spanned the last 40-plus years, serving the city of Salem full time since July 8, 1999 until his last day on Feb. 10.

The younger officers called him “Pappy” or “Grandpa” — a sign of respect for an experienced elder. But most of the community recognized him as the officer with a soft heart, always with a stuffed animal in hand to comfort a frightened child or even a shaken adult. He always had a tote full of the furry creatures available in the trunk of his cruiser, along with a closetful back at the station.

“I gave a lady a stuffed animal one time, her car broke down. She crocheted me a stuffed monkey,” he said.

That’s what he’s going to miss the most about the job, the interactions with the people he was sworn to protect and the camaraderie with his fellow officers.

Most of the stuffed animals he handed out were donated by members of the community for the community — that’s why he loves the area so much.

“I’ll miss the people. Salem is such a nice place,” French said.

Technically, he lives in Perry Township, but has called the Salem area his home for a long time, saying he “liked living, working and playing in the same place.”

A Sebring native who graduated from Sebring McKinley High School in 1974, French started out working at Morgan Engineering and American Steel, both in Alliance, but an ad in the Sebring Times caught his eye. It was advertising how to become a cop. He was a hometown boy and thought, hey, why not?

He started as an auxiliary officer in Sebring in October 1978 and went to the Salem Police Academy and became certified as an Ohio peace officer. In February 1979, he was hired part time for Sebring and became full time for Goshen Township in 1981, then full time for Sebring later the same year. While full time in Sebring, he was also working part time for Goshen Township in 1983, later becoming the full time police chief in Goshen Township in April 1988. In May 1989, he left for Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. where he worked until going to the Palm Beach County School Police Department which he served as K-9 officer. After his dog was retired, he left, coming back to Ohio on Oct. 1, 1995 and working for Sebring again, handling Drug Task Force cases. He served as a juvenile officer and detective with Sebring. He also worked as the Sebring Parks Director.

His experience with the Salem Police Department began as a part-timer in October 1997, also working for Pinkerton Security at the Salem Country Club. Once he got full time at Salem, he quit everything else.

“Columbiana County law enforcement and the Salem Police Department lost a lot of experience with Austin’s retirement,” Salem Police Chief J.T. Panezott said.

He wished him the best and said he hopes to join him for some rounds of golf. He said he’s probably most well-known for handing out the stuffed animals — a practice that Panezott said is all part of community policing. French also helped Panezott get his start by sponsoring him for the Salem Police Academy while he was Goshen chief.

When asked about the case that stuck in his mind the most, French recalled the murder of a 19-year-old girl found near an oil well on state Route 165 in the fall of 1988 when he was Goshen chief. Within three days, they had someone arrested, a teen male acquaintance who ended up sentenced to 15 years to life. He recalled getting help from the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, Sebring and Salem, noting how everybody pulled together and everybody cooperated.

He loved being able to work outside and adjusted to the many changes over the years, including getting used to the technology.

French said he has no regrets. He had people who weren’t happy after getting arrested, but he was never afraid to go down the street. He saw a lot over the years, dealt with suicides, with people who questioned how the police did their job. He got hurt on the job more than once. He even got shot at (not in Salem), but he never had to fire his weapon. He has a strong faith in God.

“I believe He watched over everything,” he said.

His advice for fellow officers, especially those just starting out, was this: “don’t take it personal, let the judicial system work”; “stay strong,” “use common sense.” He also said to separate home life from work life – don’t bring feelings from work home. Never forget where you came from, everybody starts as a patrolman. He asked that the citizens of Salem “back the blue.”

French said it’s nice to sit down at home and relax. He’s looking forward to taking time off before starting something new and sees a lot of golf in his future.

His memberships include Fraternal Order of Police Quaker Lodge 88 and Columbiana Nazarene Church.

His family includes wife Patricia, daughters Destiny and Tiffany, sons Austin III and Trent and stepson Timmy, along with five grandchildren and one on the way.