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The End of a Road, Not the Story

Police Chief Jim Hloucal and upcoming Police Chief Lt. Chuck Deaton strand together in front of the police department building. (Photo: County 17 / Brooke Byelich)

Retiring Police Chief Jim Hloucal (Left) will pass the torch to incoming Chief of Police Chuck Deaton today, March 3. (Photo: County 17 / Brooke Byelich)

It’s been a long road as a police officer for Jim Hloucal, but it’s one he’s never taken his eyes off. From the kindergarten moment he knew he wanted to be a police officer, to his final moments as chief of police for the Gillette Police Department (GPD), his career has been his life’s calling and he never thought about anything else.

Until now.

Sitting in his office, cold February winds howled outside the large bay windows overlooking Gillette as Jim talked about his retirement plans.

“I’m going to do a lot more hiking and fishing, while I’m still young and fit enough to do so,” he said Feb. 23, sharing dreams about traversing the countryside in an RV, and exploring summer pines and green pastures in search of pristine waters.

Retirement was still days away at that point, but Jim said he’s ready. Rotating his shoulders and arching his back, the chief grimaced slightly in pain from injuries sustained after 30 hard-earned years on the force.

It’s been a long career, Jim said, and retirement will be a welcome respite. He set out to do what he wanted to do and, while it wasn’t exactly what he envisioned it would look like from that kindergartener’s perspective, it was a career of which to be proud.

Growing up, Jim didn’t have much influence or experience with law enforcement, aside from reading every crime novel he could get his hands on and tuning in every night for the latest broadcast of COPS. He could say it was in his blood; his grandfather had been a sheriff’s deputy with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Department, but he didn’t know any cops personally.

But the books and TV shows painted a dramatic picture of a career that a young Jim wanted for himself, a career filled with excitement, suspense, and uncertainty where anything can happen on any given day.

Jim graduated from high school in Cheyenne when he was 17. Two years later he graduated from Laramie County Community College and, in another two, graduated from the University of Wyoming (UW) with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Toward the end of his senior year, Jim began sending out applications to police departments across Wyoming and, upon learning they were hiring in Gillette, he signed up to take the applicant’s test at the GPD.

Jim was under no illusion that they would offer him a job, but he knew three things: he wanted to be a police officer, stay in Wyoming, and the experience taking the GPD test could prepare him for that role even if he didn’t get the job.

He passed the written and physical fitness tests and returned home to Cheyenne, where he worked at a local Target stocking shelves, waiting to hear whether he got the job and of openings at other police departments.

When Jim got the call, it wasn’t what he was expecting. It was the GPD, and they wanted him to come in for a psychological evaluation and a polygraph exam.

He had to think on his feet, juggling the prospect of moving across the state to join a police department in an unfamiliar community versus staying at Target in the hopes another opportunity would present itself.

Gillette, while not what he had envisioned, did have what he wanted: a larger police department with a vibrant, robust community. He was in without a second thought, quit his job at Target, packed up his belongings, and made the move.

On March 1, 1991, Jim donned the GPD uniform and entered the in-house field training program. After three weeks, he stepped out onto the street for the first time with a badge pinned to his chest and a gun on his hip.

“It was a little stressful,” Jim said with a laugh, recalling the first time he set out on patrol. He did his best to prepare himself mentally and relied heavily on his field training officer, Rod Hauge, who would eventually move on to become a lieutenant, and eventually, interim chief of police.

Jim had only been on the street for a couple of weeks before he left to attend the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, where he graduated the 10-week training course alongside 22 others and returned to Gillette. He had no idea what the future would hold for him, including the realities of becoming a police officer and the situations he would find himself in throughout his law enforcement career.

On his second day out of the academy, Jim and his training officer responded to a call that no police officer ever wants to hear: an 8-month-old baby needed aid.

Jim had barely completed his CPR training a few days ago, but he and Hauge were the first ones on scene and found a baby not responsive and not breathing. Jim tried his best and administered CPR like he had been trained to do.

“No,” Jim said quietly when asked if the baby had survived.  “Unfortunately, I’ve had several of those types of calls.”

Before he finished his field training, Jim responded to three suicide calls and witnessed first-hand the beginnings of a boom in methamphetamine cases throughout Gillette.

“It was a busy time back in the early 90s,” Jim said. Twelve weeks after he returned from the academy, he completed his field training and was ready to hit the streets by himself, though he wasn’t necessarily prepared for the aloneness.

“It’s different by yourself,” Jim said. “You don’t have that dialogue with another officer to make the right call.”

But the freedom after months of constant scrutiny, from watchful eyes carefully evaluating his actions on the street and every word written in his reports, was invaluable, he said.

“We’ll always make mistakes,” he said in response to how he managed those early days on his own. “You rely heavily on your fellow officers; you rely on your teammates if you need help.”

The job was different compared to the fictional tales he had grown up on, but Jim never once lost his initial drive and dedication that he exhibited from an early age. As different as the job may have been from his initial perceptions, it was every bit as interesting and complex as he had been led to believe.

The job would offer more opportunity than Jim could have ever imagined beyond the restrictions of driving a squad car around town, he said.

During his career, he advanced through the ranks rapidly, making patrol sergeant, and eventually detective sergeant, after only 11 years on the force. Further advancement seemed out of reach, but a little over two years after becoming a detective sergeant, Jim was approached with the prospect of another promotion.

This time it represented a key turning point in Jim’s career that would ultimately set him up for success within the department. But to take the plunge and step into this new role, he needed to willingly sacrifice an exciting life on the streets and hunting down bad guys in exchange for a desk, an office, and the insignia of a lieutenant.

It was another role, with new responsibilities, and instead of overseeing a single shift or division, he would oversee several. Instead of a handful of bodies, he would manage dozens.

It didn’t take the fun out of the job, Jim said. Once he took the position of GPD lieutenant, it quickly became apparent that he would be faced with an entirely new set of challenges in a career rife with them.

But the prospect of challenge is what Jim lived for and he overcame them one day at a time, he said, relying heavily on his intuition and on the officers below, above, and around him.

“I had very bright, dedicated, and talented people around me,” Jim said. He strove to model his behavior and to fulfill his duties based off the examples set by his peers and predecessors.

After completing a 10-week course from the Chicago School of Police Officer Command, Jim stepped up to the plate and carried out his duties.

His efforts did not go unnoticed. After only two-and-a-half years serving as lieutenant, Jim was made aware of then GPD Chief of Police Rich Adriaens’ plan to leave Gillette for a job with the Sheridan Police Department in 2010.

Not once had Jim ever entertained the idea of going for the position of top cop. Then again, he had never really thought about assuming the role of a lieutenant either, but there he was. And the opportunity to become chief had presented itself in a most obvious manner.

“It was a tough decision,” Jim recalled when he filled out the application, wondering all the while if that moment was the right moment or if he had enough experience. He did have some leadership expertise from detectives, patrol, and his relatively new role as a lieutenant, but he had never overseen other departments like animal control and evidence.

“But I knew I wanted to put in 30 years with the department,” he said. At that point, he had barely passed the 19-year mark. He submitted his application with the same attitude that had been his dogma throughout his entire career: to expect the best but plan for the worst.

Jim prepared himself with the possibility that he would retire at 30 years as a lieutenant, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The decision came down from the City of Gillette on the morning of June 8, 2010 in the form of a public announcement from then City Administrator Mike Muirhead. Jim was to become the next chief of police.

Looking back at his first days as chief, Jim noted that the job was unlike any other, with some elements remaining the same as his time as lieutenant, but the responsibilities associated with his new office were far above and beyond what he had considered.

His first experience with leadership had been the supervision of a single officer when Jim was a training officer on patrol, this final move up the ladder of leadership placed around 80 officers and civilian personnel under his command.

Jim no longer had the luxury of thinking about apprehending criminals or directing his divisions to do so, those responsibilities now fell to the lieutenants under him. His new position as chief meant that he needed to study case law, trends in crime, and devote a good portion of his time developing police department policies to coincide with changes coming down from the State Legislature.

On top of that, it was his job to ensure that every officer under him had the things they needed to be successful and to recruit new blood to replace officers up for retirement or those leaving under different circumstances.

The latter has proven more and more difficult as time moves on, Jim said. Finding recruits who are like himself, with the same drive and dedication, is rare. Most of the officers he’s brought on since his time as chief have had several other careers before they put on the badge and stepped out onto the street.

Police departments nationwide are short-handed; people just aren’t as interested in becoming a police officer as they once were, according to Jim. That, however, is a problem for future police chiefs to handle.

For Jim, it’s the end a of good book spanning 30 years. A book filled with ups and downs in a story that Jim wouldn’t trade for anything.

There is nothing he would have rather done, no other career that could have pulled him away from his path as a law enforcement officer. Every decision he made in his life was to the goal of one day donning the uniform and pinning a badge to his chest to stand alongside his brothers and sisters on the thin blue line.

“It’s been an outstanding career,” Jim said. “I can’t say it’s what I envisioned, but there were definitely more positives than negatives.”

At the end of today, March 3, the torch will be passed to GPD Lt. Chuck Deaton who served alongside Jim for 29 years and will lead the department into the future.

For Jim, the GPD couldn’t be in better hands.