ELKTON — Det. Lindsey Ziegenfuss met with Elkton Police Department Chief Matthew Donnelly several weeks ago, feeling burdened because she had reached a crossroads in her personal and professional life.
An 11-year EPD veteran who had spent the past eight years as a detective investigating crimes ranging from thefts and burglaries to child abuse and murder, Ziegenfuss knew that her time with the agency was coming to an end.
Ziegenfuss had come to the realization that, due to the lack of daycare options and other hurdles created by the coronavirus pandemic, she needed to quit the force to be a stay-at-home mom for her two young children she has with her husband.
It was a tough decision to make because she loves her job.
Equally tough was broaching the subject of leaving with Donnelly because Ziegenfuss respects the EPD chief and, therefore, she did not want to let him down.
What transpired during that meeting epitomizes Donnelly as a police chief – and as a person, according to Ziegenfuss.
“He said, ‘I know this was a hard decision for you to make, and I support you.’ He said you can always come back. What he said to me was exactly what I needed. He was so understanding,” said Ziegenfuss, her voice choked with emotion as she recalled his response to her news.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Ziegenfuss, who, for the past decade, had witnessed the way Donnelly approached his job while matriculating from the rank of sergeant on up.
“He has always been very accommodating to us (officers) when it comes to family matters. He is a family man, and he always let us know that family comes first. His philosophy is that you have to take care of yourself and your family, before you can take care of others.”
His keen awareness of officers sometimes struggling to maintain a balance between their personal lives and their profession, a job typically marked by long hours, rotating shifts, stress and danger, is one of the qualities that makes Donnelly a good police chief, Ziegenfuss said.
Donnelly is retiring effective Aug. 31 after serving nearly 31 years with EPD, the last seven of which as chief of a department with 45 sworn officers, nine civilian staff members and an annual budget of approximately $6 million.
Ziegenfuss, whose own last day on the job is Aug. 21, hopes that whoever replaces Donnelly will possess all or some of his qualities, which includes seamlessly blending his low-key manner and personable touch with the authoritative mindset required to command a police department.
“He holds people accountable when they need to be held accountable, but he also understands that we are human. That is a hard balance to find,” Ziegenfuss explained.
‘At some point, this ends’
Donnelly, 54, is retiring because his law enforcement career has run its course, something he knew eventually would happen.
“I always mentally prepared myself that, at some point, this ends. I mentally prepared myself that I will not be needed as much, that I will not be in-the-know anymore, that when I’m gone, someone else will occupy this office, this position. If they’re smarter than I am and do a better job, I’m happy,” Donnelly said, adding, “I fully embraced the idea.”
His “family-comes-first” philosophy also factored into his decision to retire.
“I won’t have the stresses that come along with this position, which is the same stress that all first responders feel,” said Donnelly, who has three children, ages 25, 21 and 20, with his wife Karen, whom he married in May 1991. “A certain amount of that stress you bring home with you.”
Although he is retiring, Donnelly does not plan to sit idle.
“I want to continue to work, and I have a couple of opportunities in front of me,” Donnelly said, noting that those opportunities are not remotely related to police work. “I am done with law enforcement. I’ve completely had my fill.”
Donnelly said he appreciates the value of staying active, whether it be working, volunteering or taking up a hobby.
“It’s not good for your health or your psyche,” Donnelly said, referring to inactivity. “You have to wake up every morning with a purpose.”
Climbing the ranks
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Donnelly was in high school when he started considering a career in law enforcement.
“The idea that you could be helping and protecting people in the community appealed to me,” Donnelly said, adding, “As a young person, the idea of shift work also appealed to me.”
After earning an associates degree in criminal justice from Delaware County (Pa.) Community College, Donnelly, then 23, came to Elkton and applied for a job with EPD because, in part, he was friends with an officer on the force.
“A good friend of mine growing up, George Hill, was working here,” Donnelly said. “I showed up on a late September day. I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was a warm fall day, and I met (then) Chief Kal Krammes. I was hired as a cadet on Oct. 5, 1989.”
After passing a drug screening, a background check and a polygraph test and graduating from the four-month-long Baltimore City Police Academy, Donnelly started as a patrol officer. (At that time, EPD had approximately 20 sworn officers, about 25 fewer than the agency has today, he noted.)
Donnelly was promoted to officer first class in 1994, starting his relatively swift rise in rank.
After making corporal in 1995 and sergeant in 1998, Donnelly was promoted to lieutenant in 2002. As one of his many lieutenant duties, Donnelly served as the EPD public information officer and, as such, he provided press releases and other information to the Cecil Whig and other news outlets. Donnelly was attributed as an EPD source in numerous Cecil Whig articles during the next decade.
In 2007, while still a lieutenant, Donnelly graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. after successfully completing the 11-week-long program. Among the areas of study, the academy provided classes in police budgeting and management, which served Donnelly well as he continued to climb in rank.
Donnelly did not aspire to be police chief.
“I never thought I’d be the chief. Even as I progressed through my career, I never wanted to be chief,” Donnelly said, adding, “But the opportunity presented itself, and it was kind of a carpe diem thing for me.”
After Donnelly was promoted to captain in 2012, making him second-in-command in the department, Elkton Town Administrator Lewis George appointed him acting EPD chief in July 2013, following the retirement of then-Chief William Ryan, who had served eight years in that position. The Elkton Board of Commissioners confirmed that appointment.
By that time, George and Donnelly had known each other professionally for nearly 25 years, and there was a mutual respect. In 2014, George appointed Donnelly to the EPD chief position, a move the town board also confirmed.
“Chief Donnelly joined the Elkton Police Department in 1989, shortly before I became the Town Administrator, and from the beginning of his tenure with the Town he embraced the community and developed a warm regard for the citizens and business community that he served,” George told the Cecil Whig.
Serving as EPD chief was “a responsibility that he took very seriously and that provided him the leadership role that he held until his recent decision to retire after 31 years of law enforcement service with Elkton,” according to George.
“Like any good Chief of Police, he attributed the success of the Elkton Police Department in its mission to protect and serve the community to the dedicated and committed men and women of the police department, and the teamwork that he and the other members of his team developed over the years were key to the continuing success of the police department,” George said.
As did Ziegenfuss, George expressed his respect for Donnelly as a person, in addition to as a professional.
“Personally, I have the greatest regard for Matthew Donnelly and I admire his dedication and commitment to both his law enforcement career with Elkton and, most importantly, his caring commitment to his family,” George said.
A collaborative effort
A police chief cannot serve in a vacuum, because law enforcement efforts have an impact on local businesses, community events, town residents and other facets of a municipality.
Donnelly was cognizant of that fact.
In addition to interacting with the officers in his command, Donnelly worked closely with George, the town’s board of commissioners, advocacy groups and the Elkton Alliance, which comprises the municipal chamber of commerce.
When Donnelly started as chief, he banded together with municipal leaders and various groups to address a situation that made patronizing businesses in downtown Elkton and its outskirts less desirable.
“One of the first things on my plate as chief was eliminating the homeless encampments in parks and on other town property,” Donnelly said, adding that the ridding of those encampments involved a widespread group effort that took about one year.
Donnelly’s affable personality and his years of experience as an EPD member were well-suited for the team work necessary to function effectively as a police chief, according to Ziegenfuss.
“He is a good communicator. He’s constantly walking through the halls, talking to everyone. He’s so personable and easy-going. He’s very likable,” Ziegenfuss said, before shifting her comments to Donnelly’s experience. “He’s been serving here for 30 years and he has made it through the ranks. He understands this community, and he’s involved. He doesn’t just sit in his office.”
Today, aside from the negative impact related to the coronavirus pandemic, downtown Elkton is thriving because of popular restaurants, gift shops and even a couple of artisan brew pubs that offer live music on certain nights.
Also making downtown Elkton a destination, there are numerous, regularly-scheduled community events, including First Friday, Fall Fest, Music on Main and National Night Out, all of which involves coordinating policing efforts with other municipal departments and event planners.
With his days on the EPD force dwindling, Donnelly reflected on his 31-year career during a recent Cecil Whig interview inside his office at the department’s headquarters at 100 Railroad Ave.
“I am very thankful for the Town of Elkton for allowing me to work and serve the Town of Elkton. I am humbled by it all — that I was hired, that I was trained and that I was provided the opportunity to be promoted and to achieve the position of chief. I will leave it to others to say if I was successful. And the successes I did enjoy, I attribute them to the men and women of the Elkton Police Department and my family,” Donnelly said.
He paused for a few seconds and then added, “I have fond memories of working with my brother and sister officers. I am honored and grateful to have worked with them and to have had the opportunity to lead them for seven years as chief.”