Retirement parties can be bittersweet occasions, colored in loss, particularly when health issues have forced someone dedicated to his career to end it.
So tears flowed Thursday as fellow Waunakee Police Officers, firefighters and several other Waunakee employees gathered to honor Sgt. Geoff Hutchinson during a celebration at the Waunakee Public Library.
Hired in 2002 and promoted to sergeant in 2005, Hutchinson was diagnosed with a brain tumor in October 2018 and underwent surgery just a month later, Waunakee Police Chief Kevin Plendl told the crowd as he outlined some of Hutchinson’s achievements during his career.
“Geoff’s plan was always to return to work. Unfortunately his medical condition did not allow him to return to the job that he loves,” Plendl said. “Geoff has a very strong passion for this job, for the field of law enforcement.”
Hutchinson became the Waunakee department’s firearms and taser instructor, and after much research, brought scenario-based training to the force.
“I think we were woefully lacking before Geoff took over that program, and I don’t think there’s a better program in Dane County,” Plendl said about the scenario trainings.
He also worked with the senior center and took part in several programs, such as Special Olympics.
Plendl noted that in each department, each officer brings a talent and earns a reputation for certain skills. Some might be good at detecting drugs on people while others may have a knack for information technology.
“Geoff was our fix-it guy,” Plendl said. “The response we had a lot of times is, if it’s broke, let’s just wait for Geoff’s next shift to fix it.”
Early in Hutchinson’s career, when he worked many night patrols, he gained another reputation. Plendl described how Hutchinson did a lot of foot patrol, checking on buildings.
“He was really that proactive guy trying to find burglars and stuff,” Plendl said.
But that wasn’t what he was known for, the chief added.
“Geoff found a lot of extracurricular activity going on in vehicles. It was actually to the point that he wasn’t the IT guy; he wasn’t the drug guy. Geoff was the rendezvous break-up guy,” Plendl said.
Plendl described the department’s surprise two years ago when Hutchinson decided he would ride in the Police Unity Tour across several states to Washington, D.C., an event that raises funds for the law enforcement memorial.
“We didn’t even know Geoff owned a bike,” he said.
Hutchinson trained and finished the ride that year.
Last year, as he was battling cancer, he participated in the tour again, this time during a week off chemotherapy treatments, Plendl noted.
Hutchinson received several letters of commendation during his career, but Plendl shared two written after critical incidents that could have ended badly.
“In law enforcement, when we talk about a critical incident gone bad, it really means one of two things: somebody could be seriously hurt or somebody could end up dead,” Plendl said.
One involved a suicidal person reported in February during bitter cold, whom Geoff, working with other staff and fellow officers, located.
“That person would not have survived had they not acted quickly, done several investigative techniques and were able to get that person into custody and gotten them the help they needed,” Plendl said.
The other incident occurred in October 2018, when officers responded to a search warrant at a residence. The case was a sex crime involving a juvenile victim from another state with the suspect living in Waunakee, Plendl said.
Plendl said he viewed body cam video of Geoff and the operations. Officers gained entry to the home, and the suspect was located in the garage. Though at gunpoint, the suspect would not follow the officers’ directions.
“This is probably the most dangerous time, when law enforcement is dealing with someone, when there’s chaos, and there’s multiple officers involved the situation,” Plendl said.
But Hutchinson took control of the situation, directing one officer to give commands and another to transition to a laser.
The officers safely took the suspect into custody, Plendl said, adding the outcome could have been different.
“When you think about what could happen when you watch things on a national trend from a law enforcement standpoint, that was no more than a brief paragraph or two in the Waunakee Tribune. Had it gone differently, had Geoff not followed his training and his experience, it could have been on a national scale as an officer-involved shooting in a bad situation,” Plendl said.
Plendl also read an email he received about Hutchinson, thanking the officer for stopping to help change a tire on the side of a busy roadway.
“Geoff wasn’t working at the time,” Plendl said. “Geoff was driving down the highway and stopped to help someone. Geoff has always been a person who is willing to help others, which I think is a lost art in the world.”
Unable to hold back tears, Hutchinson accepted a framed collage from Plendl and then composed himself to say a few words.
He thanked the officers he had served with, community members who supported him through his cancer, and Lt. Joe Peterson and Plendl.
He also thanked his wife, Amy.
“This job requires seeing good people on their worst days. You see death. Your work terrible hours. You put a bulletproof vest on, preparing for the worst. And you miss countless holidays and family gatherings. Amy never complained once – well, that may be a lie. But she unconditionally supported me every day I came to work,” Hutchinson said.