Atwater, Minn., police chief will retire at month's end
ATWATER -- When Reed Schmidt took over as Atwater police chief in 1997, his goal was to keep his community safe and create a strong community relationship between the town's residents and the Police Department.
During the past 14 years, the amiable police chief accomplished that goal by doing what many law enforcement officers don't do anymore -- he got out of the squad car and talked to people.
"I'm old school," said Schmidt, who began his career in 1975.
Now 62, Schmidt is retiring and will be turning in his badge at the end of the month.
He wants to spend more time with grandkids and more time riding motorcycle with his wife, Mary.
Schmidt's official last day is Aug. 1. The community will have an opportunity to say farewell during an open house from 2-5 p.m. Sunday at the city office.
The decision to retire caused Schmidt to look back on his time in Atwater with fondness and satisfaction that the goals have been met.
"It's a definite loss to us," said Mayor Mark Olson, commenting on Schmidt's retirement. "He's given a great deal to Atwater."
Living out a dream to be a police officer that started when he was 9 years old, Schmidt's career included law enforcement jobs in other small towns including Perham, Madison and Goodview and a short stint in Hennepin County before he realized the big city wasn't his style.
When the 1968 Willmar High School graduate accepted the job in Atwater, he knew he'd found the place to stay.
"This was home to me," he said.
With the challenge to improve the department's reputation and relationships, Schmidt brought youth safety programs into the elementary school classrooms and hosted police campouts and picnics for kids in the city park.
He initiated community watch programs that helped senior citizens meet their neighbors and people sought Schmidt out for advice.
With a K-9 partner by his side, Schmidt took on the tough issue of illegal drugs in town.
It wasn't uncommon for Schmidt to take people home -- whether it was a bar patron who'd had too much to drink or a teenager out past curfew. Sometimes calls to domestic situations were resolved at the kitchen table over a cup of coffee.
The job was never about how many stops he made or tickets he wrote, but about building relationships, Schmidt said.
"People will call me up and tell me about their problems," he said. "That's small-town law enforcement."
He took those small-town police skills to Iraq for one year, working as a private contractor to teach Iraqis how to be police officers, which he said was another highlight in his career.
His only regret is that because he invested so much of himself in his job and the community, his own family was short-changed.
But Schmidt said it will be emotionally difficult to take off his badge for the last time.
It's the people that he'll miss, he said.
Technology, like computers in squad cars and e-tickets that have streamlined the paperwork process, has changed how police do their work, he said. While that added efficiency is positive, Schmidt said it doesn't remove the need "to keep that human contact with the people."
Even when he was attacked in 2006 in an incident that resulted in the loss of sight in his right eye and the eventual death of his K-9 partner at the time, Max, Schmidt said he never got angry and never stopped getting out of the squad car to talk to people.
He worries that new officers are being taught how to use the new technology but are not being taught to communicate.
"They don't take the time to listen to people," said Schmidt, who laments that he might be the "last of the generation" of old-fashioned, small-town police chiefs.
Despite a small population -- about 1,000 people, the Atwater City Council has made a commitment to keep the Police Department going.
Schmidt said he's hopeful the community-based policing style will continue in Atwater even after he leaves.
The two part-time officers currently working in the department grew up in Atwater and have learned the job by watching Schmidt. And one of the officers used to be a late-night teenager that Schmidt took home a few times for curfew violations.
Even though he's retiring, Schmidt said he'll stay involved with the community.
He's working on plans to turn the old city hall into a youth center, which could be up and running this year.
And he also let it slip that he might run for City Council.
In an interview several years ago with the West Central Tribune, Schmidt said he intended to keep working as a police chief until it wasn't "fun" anymore.
After announcing his retirement, Schmidt said the job is still fun, "but it's time to enjoy the other parts of life."