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On the wall at the Bloomington Police Department are portraits of all the chiefs since the 1950s. Some are grizzled and stone-faced, others smile genially. They are all older men, balding or gray-haired.

Jeff Potts' portrait hasn't been added yet to the lineup, but when it is, the new Bloomington police chief will stand out not only for a full head of black hair but also because of his youth. He is just 40.

He's also the first chief in 35 years to come from inside the department, which has 148 employees and an annual budget of about $18 million.

"I considered myself a long shot for the job, but the transition has been great," Potts said. "I didn't have any chief experience, but I know the community and I know what I'm doing in terms of law enforcement. I can hit the ground running."

Despite his youth, Potts is a veteran of the Bloomington force. He joined when he was 23 and worked his way up. Starting as a patrol officer, he worked in narcotics and administration and established the department's branch base at the Mall of America. His latest position was commander of patrol operations, where he supervised 56 officers and 10 sergeants with patrol responsibilities.

He is passionate about the city's use of "directed patrols," which encourages officers to keep in contact with people in the community and quickly assigns police and patrol cars to troubled areas to tackle crime problems. That means if there's a rash of car thefts in a certain neighborhood over a weekend, police can be in the area in force the next day instead of waiting for the next weekend, Potts said. It also includes old-fashioned policing like having patrol officers make regular stops to chat up night clerks in hotels or gas stations.

"If something happens, maybe that clerk won't be bashful about calling us," Potts said. "I'm convinced that the better we partner with the community, the more successful we'll be in keeping Bloomington a safe and good place to raise families and do business."

Dad was a policeman

Potts grew up in Coon Rapids. His father was a policeman there, though he switched careers to become a computer programer. Potts said he grew up surrounded by cops who knew his dad. But the thought of becoming a policeman himself didn't really enter his mind until he left a two-year stint in the Army jobless, married and the father of an infant.

"My in-laws said, 'Now Jeff, you better figure out what to do!' " he said with a laugh, wagging a finger at his imaginary self. When he got back to Minnesota, he asked to go on a ride-along with his best friend's father, a Coon Rapids policeman. It was a revelation.

"After two or three hours I was absolutely convinced I was going to school for law enforcement," Potts said. The duties he saw were routine -- mostly stopping and talking to people. But Potts saw a bit of himself in the rapport the older cop had with people.

"I'm a talker," he said. "It was clear to me that I could do this."

Potts earned a law enforcement degree from North Hennepin Community College, and since has earned a master's degree in police administration from the University of St. Thomas and has additional training from the FBI and Northwestern University. After earning that first two-year degree, he took a written law enforcement test that included a sheet asking the test-takers to check the names of local police departments in which they were interested. Potts checked nearly all of them and got a call from Bloomington inviting him to interview for a police job.

As a loyal native of the north metro, Potts said he was disappointed that Coon Rapids hadn't called first. Somewhat reluctantly, he had one interview in Bloomington, then another. His attitude changed when Coon Rapids police told him about the strong reputation of Bloomington's department. "You'd be a fool to turn them down if they offer you a job," one veteran cop told him.

Bloomington did make an offer, and Potts accepted. He said he's never been sorry.

Still has Blaine ties

Earlier this year, in his first attempt at a top job in a police department, he applied for the chief's position in Brooklyn Park. He didn't get it, but he wasn't too disappointed, he said. "I didn't really want to go anywhere else."

Potts' new job pays $131,784. He and his wife Jill, an elementary school teacher, and their two children live in Blaine. He has been too busy of late to pursue old joys like playing softball and riding motorcycles, though he still follows the Blaine High School football team and found time recently to go deer hunting.

But concentrating on the new job takes priority right now. He is proud that Bloomington, after years of plucking department leaders from the ranks of Minneapolis police, this time looked to its own ranks for a new chief. "This police department has one of the finest reputations in the state," Potts said. "I want us to maintain that position and be even a little better when I leave."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380