Police Chief Hillen on retirement: ‘It has been a great career’

Kent County

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — After more than four decades of protecting and serving West Michigan, the Kentwood police chief will celebrate his retirement Friday.

Chief Tom Hillen started his nearly 43-year career in law enforcement back in 1977 as a cadet at the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.

He rose through the ranks, eventually became the chief deputy of the county, holding nearly every job on the force along the way.

He was an accident reconstructionist, on the dive team and the county’s emergency manager during one of the worst storms the county has seen in recent memory — the derecho.

“In ‘98, we got that disaster declaration. I felt good about having the county prepared in order to get that type of federal aid,” Hillen said.

For the past 10 years, he has been with the Kentwood Police Department, the last seven as the chief.

One of the many things he is proud of with his time at Kentwood is making sure his officers always knew he respected their opinions and making sure they had input when it came to problem solving. 

“The officers come up with some amazing ideas and things I wouldn’t have probably thought of. When you look back over the past five to seven years, you see the types of things we did that we probably never would have done had we not stopped out a little bit and sought input from them,” said Hillen.

He has met presidents, unlocked First Lady Barbara Bush’s limo before she knew her Secret Service agent had locked the keys in the car, he earned himself some presidential cuff links for that save.

However, it’s stories like delivering babies and funny traffic stops Hillen is reminiscing about as his storied career comes to a close.

“I asked her for her driver’s license, registration, proof of insurance. I told her why I was stopping her, and she said, ‘Oh well, thank you very much young man.’ She rolled the window back up and drove away. I was just standing there. What are you going do? I’m in pursuit of grandma? I don’t think so,” Hillen said.

He also took time to reflect on how much technology has changed during his time on the force.

“I would be in the dispatch center and at that time the computer was nothing more than a teletype machine. You would have to punch in code and as you did that it would punch out a yellow ticker tape with a bunch of holes in it. You would then rip off the ticker tape and feed it into the machine and wait for the teletype response. It could take seven to 10 minutes before something would even come back,” said Hillen

Now, police can run your plate in about 10 seconds.

When asked if he is ready to retire, he said he isn’t sure yet.

“I don’t know, you know, you work your entire career to get here then it seems like a very short time.  Then it’s time to pass the baton, but I’m excited about what lies ahead,” Hillen said.

He said what he would miss the most in two simple words — the people. But after nearly 43 years on the job, it’s time to pin the badge just one last time.

“You look back it’s been a great career, done a lot of great things, had a lot of opportunities. I’m very thankful for it,” Hillen said.

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