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'I have been fortunate,’ retiring Kentwood chief says of 42-year career

Kentwood Police Chief Tom Hillen, a renowned accident investigator, has met three U.S. presidents and once popped a lock on First Lady Barbara Bush’s limo.

KENTWOOD, Mich — After more than 42 years in law enforcement, Kentwood Police Chief Tom Hillen on Friday closed out an exemplary career that had him rubbing elbows with everyone from purse snatchers to presidents.

The renowned accident investigator worked for the Kent County Sheriff’s Department for more than 30 years before joining the Kentwood force in 2009. He became police chief in 2012.

“I have been fortunate to have had two great law enforcement careers both at the sheriff’s office and in Kentwood,’’ Hillen said. “I can proudly say this has been the perfect capstone experience of a profession I have loved.’’

Advances in technology and training, he said, has changed the way police officers do their jobs.

“Back in the '70s and '80s, we were collecting evidence, hoping that someday we’d be able to do something with it,’’ Hillen said. “And then DNA comes along and starts solving many crimes that occurred.’’

Law enforcement, he says, has become “very professionalized.’’

“I think 70 percent of my department here has a bachelor’s degree or better,’’ Hillen said. “And maybe 25 percent have an associate degree.’’

Before coming to Kentwood, Hillen made his mark as an accident investigator for the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. 

“That was an incredibly rewarding job,’’ he said. “You were able to take a terrible scene and then put it back together. And, at least in most cases, bring some sort of closure.’’

He served as Kent County’s emergency management coordinator during the derecho event of 1998 that resulted in four deaths and $172 million in damage statewide.

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“Having the county prepared is an important role,’’ Hillen said. “It was really about developing relationships and getting a team of people in a room that could function in a crisis.’’

He also participated in presidential motorcades and had occasion to meet three presidents – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But it was a chance to help First lady Barbara Bush that won him accolades from the U.S. Secret Service and got Hillen a pair of cufflinks.

“That was the most memorable thing when I popped the lock on Barbara Bush’s limo when she was in Grand Rapids,’’ he laughed. “The keys were locked inside. Probably saved that secret service agent's job.’’

Interdepartmental cooperation, he said, is a hallmark of effective police work – be it with local agencies or the U.S. Secret Service.

“A lot of people just don’t see it, it’s happening behind the scenes,’’ Hillen said. “And it works.’’

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That spirit of cooperation, Hillen said, has led to partnerships in Kentwood that have helped drive down crime. Working with local merchants was part of the strategy.

“And instead of just catching a shoplifter, we’re taking down organized retail theft rings,’’ Hillen said. "And mainly, that’s because of the relationships.’’      

Relationships with the community, Hillen said, have an impact on crime.

“If you want a safe neighborhood, you’ve got to be committed to that, working with your neighbors, working with the city, working with law enforcement,’’ Hillen said. “We can’t do it alone.’’


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