MATTAWAN, Mich. -- Each week, Grand Rapids Harley Davidson and West Michigan’s Most Wanted recognize a member of law enforcement who’s gone above and beyond the call of duty to help the community they serve in.
This week, Chief Donald VerHage of the Mattawan Police Department is being recognized. After more than 50 years in law enforcement, Chief Donald VerHage retired on Friday.
He started his career on April 19, 1965. VerHage worked several years with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety before his time in Mattawan.
Chief VerHage says he's seen a lot of changes in law enforcement over the years, the biggest being the advancement in technology.
"I think the biggest change for us is the technology and the equipment," said VerHage. "We have changed our weapons, because we have gone from the six-shooter .38's to the semiautomatic."
"We now have in-car computers, we have reports that we do on the computers, the traffic tickets that we write in the car on the computer and print in the car. The video cameras in the car, again are a phenomenal piece of technology because you have right at your fingertips proof or evidence of what happened and it's right in front of you on video."
Reflecting on his more than 50 years of service, Chief VerHage says although his time in Kalamazoo and Mattawan differed in many aspects, he's taken positives from both experiences heading into retirement.
"There's a big difference between policing in a larger city like Kalamazoo and then coming here to Mattawan," said VerHage. "It's a small community where we only have a couple thousand residents, although we have a very large school system which is all in the village. What has really changed is the immediate direct contact with people who live in our area, because in a small community you get to know everybody. In larger cities you don't have that opportunity, part of it is because of time."
After more than 50 years, VerHage says the transition to retirement may take some patience.
"I have a little anxiety about leaving because this is what I've done for 50 years," said VerHage. "Everyday I've reported for duty and at the end of my shift, thankfully, I have been able to go home safe. It's going to be a change but it's another chapter."
Though VerHage plans to enjoy retirement, he says elements of the job will stay with him.
"You really have that connection of what's going on and you try to stay abreast of what's going on," said VerHage. "Not only as far as crime that occurs and where it occurs, but in laws that are developed and created and enforceable. So you stay a little interested that's for sure."
VerHage says he doesn't have any immediate plans for travel during his retirement, but adds trips to visit family in Colorado and Illinois will likely hit the top of the list in the coming weeks and months.
When asked about some of the most memorable moments of his career, both extreme lows and highs came to mind.
"Some of the tougher ones are obviously dealing with one of my officers that was killed in the line of duty, that was very difficult to have to deal with that. To deal with informing the family, going through the funeral and the memorials that come up... that was a very difficult time."
"I think some of the highs are certainly some of the promotions along the way, those are always exciting and enjoyable."
VerHage expressed a particular fondness for his time on road patrol in Kalamazoo with the motorcycle unit.
"I really did enjoy the motorcycle assignment that I had in Kalamazoo, I was able to ride a Harley for three years," said VerHage. "I didn't have to buy the Harley, Kalamazoo did (laughs)."
"I worked the lab unit for 13 years as a crime scene investigation unit and there was a lot of highlights in that because as the crime scene investigator you are the person that is out there that is having to secure the evidence that is going to prove the crime that was committed, and hopefully develop who the suspect may be in that crime if we didn't already know, but if we knew who that suspect was they'd be able to show it was in fact that suspect who was involved."
VerHage said some of the strangest experiences on the job came working around 2:00 a.m. for rescue calls when first responders were assigned to use large fire rigs to respond. VerHage says the department has since shifted to SUV vehicles for those particular responses, but the times when the big rigs were required created some interesting incidents.
"One of the strangest was I found a dog one night when I was on patrol and he had a bucket stuck on his head," said VerHage. "That poor dog probably would have died, but I was able to pick up the dog and cut that bucket from the dog's head and saved the dog. That was strange because as a police officer you wouldn't think you'd have to do that."
VerHage, humbled by the outpouring of support from the community after word of his retirement spread, shared a message to his fellow service men and women, or anyone who's taking steps to become a member of law enforcement.
"I just want to thank everyone for all the support along the way and just let people know that as a law enforcement officer, we are human just like everyone else out there and hopefully we are doing the right thing," said VerHage. "My information to other people who are either in law enforcement or desiring to be there would be to remember that you are a public servant, you are out there to serve the community, and treat the community as you would want to be treated as a citizen."
Congratulations to Chief VerHage on his nomination for the week of May 9.