HOWARD LAKE, MN Howard Lake Police Chief Dave Thompson came into the position four years ago already fully capable of handling a city’s population.
He had just retired from the Army, where he worked as the director of emergency services at Fort Campbell, which is located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. In that job, Thompson was responsible for approximately 1,000 enlisted people.
The first time he looked for a post-Army position, the opening for a police chief for the City of Howard Lake appeared on his computer screen.
Thompson was immediately intrigued by the possibility for several reasons.
First, he grew up in nearby Watertown.
Second, his young daughters, like most Army kids, had already attended many different schools. Thompson and his wife, Amy, wanted their girls to have some stability throughout their high school years.
Thompson recalled that if he would have stayed in the Army, his children would have attended three different schools during their high school careers. He was afraid they’d feel like they weren’t “from anywhere.”
Thompson responded to the Howard Lake employment ad, thinking, “It’d be nice to go home.”
He landed the job, beginning to work for Howard Lake in October 2013.
Thompson admitted there were initially a few moments of culture shock. He was used to being in meetings for much of his workdays. “I hadn’t been in a squad car on duty for 12 years,” he remembered.
Trends in calls
He said there were helpful similarities between his old and new job. Stress and adrenaline played parts in both. He felt prepared to handle that.
“I don’t know any different; I was in the Army for 25 years,” he said. “There are brief moments of excitement and stress,” he said. “Stressful things come in spurts.”
In his years with the City of Howard Lake, Thompson has seen a drop in the number of thefts, as well as a decrease in the number of domestic calls. He clarified that it used to be the same two residents were causing 20 percent of the police department’s domestic calls. Those two people have since moved on.
Thompson said dealing with situations involving illegal drugs, or the misuse of prescription drugs, is something his department works on very hard.
He said he and his officers work closely with Wright County’s special investigations unit. The county department has a sergeant and three Wright County deputies working full time investigating illegal drug activities.
Thompson noted his own department now has more time to target “lower level” drug crimesthe ones that operate under the special investigation unit’s radar.
Thompson said marijuana is the biggest illegal drug he and his officers encounter, followed closely by methamphetamines. He indicated that criminals marketing opiods are on the rise, although he and his officers have also dealt with heroin, cocaine, and illegal use of prescription drugs.
“You can’t be complacent about that,” he said. “Your attitude has to be that you’re prepared.”
Calling the cops
Thompson indicated he wishes residents better understood how phone calls to law enforcement work.
He said many people, who seem to believe they’re bothering someone, simply call Thompson’s office and leave a voice mail about their situation.
This can be frustrating, since police officers are typically working outside of the office, and may not have the opportunity to check voice mail for several hours.
“If you really want to get us, call dispatch,” Thompson advised. Wright County Dispatch prioritizes the call, asks the caller for imperative information, and sends the call directly to the nearest deputy’s squad car. “You’re not bothering dispatch,” Thompson said, “it’s their job.”
He was careful to point out that people should always call 911 in an emergency situation. In non-emergency situations, Wright County Dispatch can be reached by calling (763) 682-7600.
The bad and the good
Thompson said some of the hardest calls he has taken involve serious medical situations. Performing CPR on a person and thinking they have a chance, and later learning that person didn’t make it can be difficult.
He also said seeing children in dangerous or neglectful homes is hard, too, especially when drug use is happening. “You can just see the whole family declining,” he said.
For every difficult situation, however, there is a positive to balance things out.
“I like interacting with the kiddos,” Thompson said. “They’re the best part.”
He enjoys distributing ice cream coupons to kids wearing their bike helmets, visiting day cares, and even picking up an impromptu game of football.
“I was a Royal,” he said about growing up with the Watertown mascot. “But I’m a Laker now, for sure.”
Thompson said if a young person asks him what they need to know about becoming a law enforcement officer, he doesn’t mince words.
“They should start preparing now, and stay out of trouble,” he said.
He encourages future officers to keep their grades up, and remember that they’ll need an associates degree. Additionally, any drug use for prospective officers is not acceptable.
“Marijuana use might seem like no big deal,” he cautioned. “It is a big deal when you want to be a police officer.”
Thompson said he enjoys his job, and the citizens of Howard Lake. “It’s rewarding to help people and be a part of the community,” he said.
Thompson indicated he’s seen the city move in very positive directions during the past four years.
“Businesses are moving in,” Thompson said. “Houses are being built that wasn’t happening before.”
Specifically, he is proud his department now supports the school with a resource officer, and that his officers are steadily ridding the city of lower-level drug criminals.
All-in-all, he’s quite happy with his post-Army retirement, and appreciates working with his department’s officers and other city staffers.
“We have a vision of where the city wants to be,” he said. “And the police department has a part in that.”