Behind the badge: How John Gaffin changed NKUPD culture and conquered law school

NKU Police Department Chief John Gaffin stands outside his office which overlooks Truist Arena.
NKU Police Department Chief John Gaffin stands outside his office which overlooks Truist Arena.
Emory Davis

An 18-year-old John Gaffin walked onto NKU’s campus with the idea that he would be a radio deejay, or at least something media related. He even wrote a movie review which was published in The Northerner.

Nearly 20 years later, Gaffin remains at NKU, although he fulfills a much different role than he anticipated as a college freshman. Gaffin currently serves as police chief of the NKU Police Department. The chief began his tenure at NKUPD in 2007 as an officer and then began ascending through the ranks, serving as chief since 2017. 

Whether he is patrolling campus from his squad car, working diligently on the department’s budget or dealing with more grave circumstances—like the August 2023 possible presence of explosives or the March 2023 discovery of human remains on campus—Gaffin does not fit the stoic police chief stereotype.

Sitting in his office which overlooks Truist Arena and the Haile College of Business, Gaffin takes a welcoming “open door” approach to his job. Police department employees and students alike are encouraged to get to know the chief and bring new ideas to the table. His values are rooted in seeing people succeed and understanding the complexity of their lives outside campus.

“We understand that yeah you’re an employee, but you’re a mom or you’re a wife or a sister, son, husband, all these things. You can’t really be healthy in the employee role if all the other things aren’t taken care of,” Gaffin said.

One look at the chief’s office takes this message to heart. Photo frames featuring his wife, 8-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter are spread across his desk; a card reading “Daddy… another word for love” sits atop a shelf; a cup reading “Best Boss Ever” is perched amid certificates and frames.

One important new document also sits in his office, safely tucked in a manilla folder: his law school diploma.

Chief Gaffin holds his recently earned law school diploma after graduating from Chase College of Law in August 2023. (Emory Davis)

The police chief graduated from NKU’s Chase College of Law in 2023. But he wasn’t any ordinary graduate: he was also the valedictorian of his class. Speaking at Chase’s May 2023 Commencement, Gaffin showed off his humor and genuinity, wrapping up his speech by saying, “Now I’m going to move on before they recalculate GPAs and decide that maybe someone else should be up here.”

Conquering law school was no easy feat for the chief, who attended evening school part-time while balancing his career and family. 

“It was a mountain to climb,” Gaffin said. 

Gaffin spoke to the support he experienced as part of the part-time program, which constituted  many working professionals and family-oriented individuals. The cut-throat, competitive aspect that many full-time law students encounter was not the experience he dealt with, although the courses were still rigorous and time consuming, he said. 

Many nights were spent reading and studying, and while Gaffin’s children were still young, they knew “Dad was studying,” he said.

“They knew I spent a lot of time reading these big boring books with a lot of pages and not one picture,” the chief joked. 

NKUPD Lieutenant Will Love has served at the campus police department for about 15 years. He spoke to his experience working with Chief Gaffin while he maintained the pressures of law school.

“You could tell when he had class the night before,” Lt. Love said. “You could just tell when he was deep in thought about something very quiet in his office.”

While Gaffin’s police career provided unique perspectives to what he was learning, he was careful to hone his identity to just “student” when he went to class.

“I didn’t want to be the police chief going to law school,” Gaffin said. “I didn’t want to have to carry that with me every night. There’s lots of people who don’t know and I don’t think ever knew because I just didn’t want to bring it up.”

One individual who did know his career identity was Chase College of Law Dean Judith Daar. The dean spoke to the value Gaffin was able to bring to Chase inside and outside of the classroom. 

“I didn’t teach Chief Gaffin in his Criminal Law or Constitutional Law class, but I suspect his level of experience added tremendous value to the conversation and to the class. It added a diverse point of view,” Daar said.

Lt. Love pointed out that Gaffin is able to look at the legal aspect and liability of circumstances more profoundly than he did before attending Chase. 

The chief explained that his tenure at law school changed his thought processes. It taught him that there are few absolutes, and nearly everything is gray. While reading through Supreme Court opinions, Gaffin found it common to agree with the reasoning of the majority, and then feel that the reasoning of the minority made sense as well.

“Sometimes there’s more than one right answer,” the chief said. “Sometimes there’s not a right answer at all.”

Serving at NKU for nearly 20 years, Gaffin honestly says he didn’t imagine staying in his line of work for so long. Being from a blue collar working class background, he didn’t have much of a plan before going into college. He even says he ended up at NKU by chance, after applying to four to five other schools. Coming to NKU as a first generation college student, he described his undergraduate experience as a journey. 

“I came here thinking that I was going to be like a radio deejay or something,” Gaffin said. “I ended up with a political science degree with a criminal justice minor.”

While Gaffin didn’t have a solid career path mapped out, he knew he didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day. Gaffin worked at NKUPD as a student worker beginning in 2005. Fighting through offers from other departments, he took the job as an NKU officer in 2007. 

“I just kind of fell into it. I’m not even sure when I started that I thought it was going to last this long,” the chief said of his NKUPD tenure.

The current police chief sits at his desk in his on-campus office, decorated with frames and certificates. (Emory Davis)

Other campus police employees, like Lt. Love, are grateful for the dedication and persistence Gaffin has shown on campus. Love began working at NKU in 2005, then left for three years and returned in 2017 when Gaffin became chief. 

“I will say this—the only reason I did come back is because I knew who [Gaffin] was and how he was as a person… his philosophy and personality was more positive than it was when I left,” Love said. 

Under Gaffin, the police department went from having zero women to hiring six or seven female employees, Love said. This diversity helped the department be able to reach out and meet the needs of the campus community, the lieutenant said. Gaffin’s persistence also helped the campus police department move from their old building, which Love said was “terrible,” to their new on-campus facility last summer.

Now, Gaffin is able to provide mentorship for other employees in the department, like dispatcher Essengo Goz, who is currently attending Chase as a part-time law student. Goz said that having a boss who has walked in his shoes is an invaluable resource.

“Every class that I’m taking, he’s taken,” the dispatcher said. “So he can give pointers like, ‘Hey, you’re three or four weeks out from your midterm, you need to start studying.’”

The dispatcher, who has been at NKUPD for about a year and a half, said that Gaffin sets the tone of camaraderie, encouragement and a great workplace culture. Goz said he sees the chief as a role model who is wise beyond his years, and Gaffin’s success at Chase is something he strives for.

“Obviously I’m not going to be the valedictorian of my class like [Gaffin] was, but you know you’ve got to strive for something, right?” Goz joked.

As for the future, the chief says he has no plans to change careers, and he didn’t go to law school to look for a path out. For at least the next three to five years he pictures himself at NKUPD, but he is not remiss to the strains of police work.

“This is a hard job. I have been on call since the middle of 2016,” Gaffin explained. 2016 was the year he became interim police chief, which came with many new responsibilities.

While time has brought him ways to cope with the challenges of the job, he can’t escape the feeling of “a pit in his stomach” when the phone rings after hours. Looking ahead, Gaffin says his line of work is probably not something a person would want to spend 50 years doing, which is why he believes it’s important to think about the next chapter.

“At some point it’ll be time for another chapter, and hopefully one that doesn’t have a lot of emergencies in the middle of the night.”