Police Lt. Len Hatcher has seen many things on the job.
He’s had a partner shot, seen a 15-year-old girl sexually assaulted and stabbed to death, and has had to identify the bodies of children dead in a house fire. All of those things were hard to see, but never in his 28 years as a law enforcement officer did it cross his mind that maybe he should change careers.
“It never made me change my mind to be a police officer, it just made me realize that this is real,” Hatcher said. “I said I’ve got to be more careful.”
Hatcher, 49, retired March 1 from the Garner police department after more than 26 years on the job. He was honored at the Garner town council meeting and was presented with his badge and gun.
“He’s such a kindhearted man and always... does the right thing,” Town Manager Hardin Watkins said. “Everybody talks about his integrity and how he just really wants to do things the right way. He was a quiet leader. Never showy or flashy but just took care of things.”
Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema said the same at the town council meeting.
“Len is really the sort of consummate professional,” Zuidema said during the presentation. “He’s very unassuming in what he does. You wouldn’t know that he is a fantastic leader if you didn’t have a chance get to know him because that’s not his persona. To do 27 years in anything is a long time. To do 28 in law enforcement is amazing and to be able to leave that with struggling to find anyone that would say anything but the nicest and most positive things is an accomplishment.”
Hatcher’s philosophy has always been to treat people with respect. He tried to put himself in the shoes of others before approaching someone.
“If I stopped someone, I would say (to myself) if this was my mom being stopped how would I want her to be treated,” Hatcher said. “That’s what I’ve always done.”
He said officers never know what a person may be going through. If he had to write a ticket, then he would try to be courteous and explain why he was writing the ticket.
Seen it all
Hatcher has served in many different sections of the department as lieutenant. He has been lieutenant over administration, patrol commanders, special operations and investigations.
So he’s seen a little bit of everything.
When the ConAgra plant exploded in June 2009, it was nothing like anything he had ever seen before. He and another officer were the first to arrive on the scene. The front wall of the building had fallen over and smashed cars. People were coming out of the building in herds.
A man was walking toward him with his shirt burned off, hair singed, face black from smoke, heat waves coming off him and skin peeling.
“He looked just like a cartoon character,” Hatcher recalled.
The man asked him for help but he couldn’t because his skin was in such bad condition.
“He’s like ‘Help, help.’ I’m tell him ‘Look stand here, EMS is on way.’ They came probably within a few minutes,” Hatcher said.
He said the man explained to him that he was lighting the furnace when the explosion happened, so Hatcher thought the man was going to be OK after EMS treated him. But EMS explained that his burns were so bad that he was likely to die from infection in a few days.
“And sure enough a few days later he ended up being the fourth casualty,” he said.
From electrician to officer
Hatcher said he’s known he wanted to be a police officer since 11th grade. He initially thought he wanted to be an electrician. A Clayton native, he and his classmates went to a vocational day at the community college. One of the classes was a police science class and the teachers were doing a demonstration on how to handcuff suspects.
“I saw that class and I said that’s what I want to do,” Hatcher said. “After that one visit, I was hooked.”
After high school, Hatcher attended Johnston County Community College. While in school, he applied for the Clayton Police Department and got the job. He studied and went to school during the week days and worked nights and on the weekends.
A little more than a year later, while with Clayton, the department sent him to a traffic investigations school in Garner. He said the officers teaching the class were Garner police officers and they let everyone know how good it was to work in Garner.
And it paid more.
“About $3,000 or $4,000, which in ‘88 was a lot of money,” Hatcher said. “It still is a lot of money but back then it quite a bit more. It was basically going from $15,000 to $19,000.”
He applied and was hired in August 1988. The department helped pay his tuition to finish school at N.C. Wesleyan College.
His proudest moment as an officer was winning “Officer of the Year” in 1992. He won the award in a vote of his peers.
Hatcher said the hardest thing about being a police officer was having to leave his family and not being there with them during “those times when its bad for everybody.”
For instance, hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms, he said.
“They don’t have the man of the house to be with them,” Hatcher said. “They got to muddle through without that or use someone else for that while you go do your job.”
He said he’ll miss his fellow officers, but he’s glad to be retired.
Hatcher said he plans to hang with his children and a lot more. He has a son who is 19 and in college and a daughter who is 12. He’ll work on some projects around the house, and go fishing with his son.
He plans to take it easy for three months and not think about work and just enjoy retirement.
“But we’ll see how this goes,” he said.