La Center's top cop retires

Forging strong bond with community a central part of Hopkin's leadership strategy

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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At La Center Police Chief Tim Hopkin's retirement party, city council members, friends, family and chiefs and sheriffs from all over the county showed up to congratulate him on 41 years of serving in law enforcement, and to wish him good luck.

"Good luck? Why do they keep wishing me good luck?" the 64-year-old asked as he shook hands and gave hugs at the Tuesday party.

Today is his last day of work. When asked what he'll do after he retires, Hopkin shrugged.

"I don't know," he said.

In 1971, he started out as an officer in San Clemente, Calif., at one point serving as a guard for President Richard Nixon and later working for the State Gambling Commission and the State Liquor Board.

He began working for the La Center Police Department in 1985 when the department had only one other officer and the town's population was 400. He became police chief in 1996.

"In many ways, I grew with the community," Hopkin said.

And they grew to know him.

At the party, there was a cake made out of Twinkies with Hopkin's name on it, written in cursive, and balloons attached to boxes of Twinkies. During a winter holiday festival, community members found out he liked them and Hopkins has been receiving boxes of Twinkies ever since.

With its population of 2,985, La Center has six patrol officers, a sergeant and the chief. That's about three officers for every 1,000 people, one of the highest ratios in the state.

As chief, Hopkin tried to teach his close-knit group of officers to be approachable, said La Center Mayor Jim Irish. He wants the community to know his officers and feel comfortable walking up to them, the mayor said.

"I think what the community doesn't realize sometimes is that police are human beings," Hopkin said. "They're not just a uniform."

Personal approach

Although only one of Hopkin's officers lives in La Center, he encourages them to get involved in their own cities by being part of community groups and activities. His approach to police work is personal.

"When we deal with people one on one, we understand them better," he said.

Irish said through Hopkin's leadership, the chief created a police force that not only gets the job done, but cares about the people of La Center.

"Besides that, he's one hell of a good guy and a good friend," Irish said.

While Irish spent about 10 days in intensive care for surgery to treat his esophageal cancer, Hopkin watched Irish's dog and checked on his family.

Irish is working with Clark County Sheriff Gary Lucas to get an interim police chief for the city while he conducts a nationwide search to find Hopkin's replacement.

"It won't be quite the same. He will be missed," Irish said.

Both Irish and Hopkin are Vietnam War veterans. Hopkin served from 1970 to 1971 in the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Two years ago, he headed an effort to get a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to Holley Park. He raised money and organized volunteers, and the city hosted a replica of the memorial for four days.

Technology changes

Over his career, Hopkin has seen law enforcement technology evolve and advance. Officers, for example, can scan a driver's license and registration bar codes when they're out patrolling and submit them electronically.

When he started, there weren't even handheld radios.

Hopkins can't predict the future of police work -- he says the technology is getting to be beyond his understanding -- but he knows that moving forward, police departments will have to connect with the community. When the public trusts officers, he said they will call if they see something out of the ordinary.

"We have to stay one step ahead of the bad guys," he said. "The police can't do it alone."

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://twitter.com/col_cops;patty.hastings@columbian.com.