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Serving hometown for 31 years an honor, says Hassler
By Preston Knight -- firstname.lastname@example.org
MT. JACKSON -- Police Chief Rick Hassler never had to venture far to find a suitable career, and he plans to stay close to home while enjoying his retirement.
After 31 years with the Mt. Jackson Police Department, the last 29 as chief, Hassler has announced his retirement, his last day scheduled to be Dec. 31. A town native, he said he expects to remain in law enforcement locally in some capacity, just not as a chief.
It's time for a change, he said.
"I got to be police chief in my hometown," said Hassler, 55. "That's something I never thought I'd get to do. ... I don't want to get to the point where I'm complacent or burned out. It's time to do something else."
The town is hosting a public reception for Hassler on Monday from noon to 2 p.m. at the town hall. There will be a brief ceremony at 12:30 p.m.
Hassler went down the road that required less travel to do what he never thought he could; a brother-in-law who was a sergeant at the Shenandoah County Jail sparked his interest in police work.
"The more he talked," Hassler said, "the more I got interested."
At the end of 1979, he applied to join Mt. Jackson's force, his first and only department. He became chief in November 1981.
"More than anything else, [it was] a desire to do that type of work," Hassler said.
In 1980, the department had a chief, Hassler and a part-time officer. Thirty years later, the force has doubled, now having three full-time employees, in addition to the chief, and two auxiliary members. Hassler has applied to the town for more help through the years, but budget constraints have interfered.
Fortunately for Mt. Jackson, violent crime has not been a major factor in the last several decades. Hassler remembers only one homicide and two armed robberies through the years.
The homicide, in 1997 when Marie Henley was shot multiple times by her live-in boyfriend, sticks out as one of two tragedies the retiring chief will remember. The other haunts him even more -- the death of two children in an accidental fire at Perry Trailer Park in the early 1990s.
"That one, to this day, really bothers me," Hassler said. "We just couldn't get to them. ... Any time children are involved, it really gets you. It still bothers me. We really tried to get them."
Town Councilman Rod Shepherd said the chief's pride in his work has always impressed him.
"The level of professionalism he brings to his position is remarkable," Shepherd said.
Most of all, the chief's focus on curbing domestic violence has been noteworthy, Shepherd said. For about 15 years, Hassler was a domestic violence instructor at the Central Shenandoah Criminal Justice Training Academy in Weyers Cave and has worked with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, which honored him with a victim's assistance award in 2005.
The chief also had a three-year appointment to an advisory board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police to develop a training program on domestic violence issues. That sent him to New Hampshire, Minnesota and Wyoming.
When he first became a police officer, Hassler said he was trained to mediate and counsel, which he found to be ineffective as there was no immediate arrest of the abuser. Many times, victims were asked to stay with family or friends, instead of at home with their abuser.
"Forcing victims out of the homes made them a victim all over again, and we were the ones doing it," Hassler said.
Mt. Jackson made arrests mandatory for the abuser before the state did, he said.
"I just didn't like the way things were," Hassler said. "It was a big issue to me."
As he moves on, Sgt. J.D. Fadley, who joined the Police Department in 1999 and is second in command, will fill in until a replacement is hired. Town Manager Charlie Moore could not be reached for comment on the impending search.
Hassler said working as chief in a small town does have a double-edged sword component -- he often knows both victims and suspects in crimes. It's not as if he would have it any other way, though.
"As I told town council [in November], it's been a privilege and an honor to serve my hometown," Hassler said. "Town councils, mayors over the years, the employees, they've always been supportive. I'll probably miss that a lot."
But at least he won't be missing out from afar.