Off duty: Heinrichs retires after 33-year career in law enforcement
WORTHINGTON — For the first time in his life, Chris Heinrichs is contemplating the reality of not donning a uniform, vest, badge and gun to go to work each day.
As far back as he can remember, Heinrichs always wanted to be a police officer, and this week he officially retired from a law enforcement career that included stints with both the Worthington Police Department and Nobles County Sheriff’s Office.
“My dad was a cop here in town,” explained Heinrichs. “I remember back in sixth grade, (the teacher) has us write about what we wanted to be when we grew up, but he said that whatever you wrote down, nobody probably would actually become that when you grew up. Well, I did.
“I never wanted to do anything else. If it had not worked out, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Heinrichs moved with his family to Worthington when he was 2 years old, attending the local schools until his senior year in high school. While he wasn’t too happy about it at the time, the move to Henning in northern Minnesota was fortuitous.
“It was a small town, and I was the new kid,” he said. “It turned out to be good.”
It was also where he met wife-to-be Stacy, who was his senior-year sweetheart. The young couple broke up and went their separate ways after graduating, later reconnecting and getting married in 2008.
Soon after he graduated from high school in 1979, Heinrichs headed to the Alexandria technical college — the place to go at the time for law enforcement training. A class started that September, but since he was only 17 years old, Heinrichs had to wait until November to begin the program.
“It was all I’d ever wanted to do, and when they questioned whether I could start school, I was devastated,” Heinrichs recalled.
But it was only a short delay to fulfill his dream, and he graduated from the two-year program in August of 1981. He was already working as a part-time peace officer for the cities of Underwood and Henning, but he wanted to get back to southwest Minnesota, so he took a full-time position with the city of Slayton.
“At the time, (cities) could set their own rules for hiring, and you had to be 21 for Worthington, and I was only 19,” he noted.
Heinrichs recalls that his orientation into the Slayton post was minimal.
“By day four, I was on my own,” he said. “It’s a little different nowadays.”
Heinrichs achieved his goal of returning to Worthington, joining the WPD in January 1989. The chief of police was Don Linssen, who had been one of his dad’s cohorts on the force.
“He told me, ‘Don’t forget: Work is work, play is play, and at work I’m your boss,’” recalled Heinrichs, adding that it’s an adage he has repeated over the years, particularly when his daughter, Rachel, married one of his deputies, Dustin Roemeling.
In September of 2003, Heinrichs made the switch from police sergeant to chief deputy of the Nobles County Sheriff’s Office.
“I did Turkey Day that year for the city, and the next day I came to work here,” he said, sitting in his office at the Law Enforcement Center where both entities are headquartered. “It was a promotion. ... They’d been without a chief deputy for six or seven months. The hardest part of it was moving from that side of the building into this office. But going from being a sergeant in charge of a shift to being chief deputy in charge of a department is a whole different thing.”
As he looks back on more than three decades of law enforcement work, Heinrichs says he enjoyed every aspect of the job — with a couple of notable exceptions.
“There’s nothing I hate — except paper service,” he said, referring to the task of delivering court-issued documents, often to people who don’t want to receive them. “That’s an ongoing festering wound that never stops.”
As chief deputy, Heinrichs also had the difficult task of informing family members of a tragic death, often due to a car accident.
But one of the most memorable occurrences in his career involved saving a life. He was one of the first officers on the scene when a youngster fell through the ice on Lake Okabena. As Heinrichs remembers it, the boy had been part of a school class that had gone to the lake earlier on that early spring day to look at all the geese. After school got out, he returned to the shore and went out on the ice to get a closer look at the birds.
“It was 1994 or ’95,” he recalled. “A call came through that there was a person in the lake. When I got there, a city crew was there, hauling a ladder out to put it across the ice to disperse the weight.”
Heinrichs and fellow officer Kirk Schelhaas crawled out on the ladder to reach the child, who was hanging on the edge of the ice. The ladder strategy worked well — until the ice broke.
“Schelhaas had started crawling back, so he was close enough to shore. I was left treading water and holding the kid. Thank God he was in shock and not fighting me. They used a pole to pull us out.”
Both the boy and Heinrichs were taken to the emergency room for treatment of possible hypothermia. Heinrichs was told that his bulletproof vest provided a layer of protection from the cold, saving him from more serious consequences of an early spring dip in the lake.
“It acted like a wetsuit,” he said. “Water got between the vest and me and heated up, just like it does on a wetsuit.”
Without a doubt, the biggest change in the law enforcement field during Heinrich’s tenure was in technology. He remembered that his first police vehicle — a 1980 Dodge — had a recycled lightbar that had been flipped to fit the vehicle. The car had a radio and a toggle switch on the dash to activate the lights.
“Now, it’s like an airplane cockpit in a squad car,” he described, with cameras and computers built into the vehicle. “We’re on the fourth new radio system I’ve gone through. To say the job has passed me by technologically would be an understatement. You need a college education just to run the car.”
The Worthington community has also changed, Heinrichs said, recalling a period in the early 1990s when there was a rise in violent crimes.
“Now things are back to where they were,” he reflected. “But when you’re a cop, you’re going to see the bad side of people.”
Heinrichs is particularly proud of a program that he helped start with the intent of deterring drunk-driving arrests. The Safe Cab program provides people with rides on two nights when there is a tendency to overindulge — King Turkey Day and New Year’s Eve.
“Myself and the Safe & Sober Officer at the time started that program,” he explained. “It took off, and Hagen Distributing got involved, and they’re the ones that really push it every year.”
As Heinrichs leaves his law enforcement career behind, his efforts to ensure public safety will continue through a different endeavor. About six years ago, he and colleague Chris Dybevick purchased Pellegrino Fire Extinguisher Sales & Service.
“We have probably 300-plus accounts we go to during the same month every year to make sure their extinguishers are up to snuff,” Heinrichs explained. “Every six years, we have to pull them, take them totally apart and refill them. We probably have our hands on 3,000-plus extinguishers each year, and that’s just our accounts, not what comes in the door. It keeps us busy.”
With more time on his hands, Heinrichs hopes to expand the enterprise, but he’s also fielded opportunities for other types of employment — all still under consideration. And wife Stacy has compiled a lengthy “honey-do” list, he added.
“I’ll have plenty to do,” he said, taking a moment to reflect on what he is going to miss about law enforcement. “I’m going to miss people depending on me, people coming to me with what they need, their problems — looking to me to fix things.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.