From 1,500 officers to a 15-member department: An officer's journey to becoming a police chief

David Hayes, who served with the Prince George's County Police Department for 20 years, is now a small-town police chief – a stark contrast compared to his previous years in LE

In the early 80s, David Hayes, who was attending Kent State University in Ohio, frequently worked out at a local YMCA. One day, while he was lifting in the weight room, Hayes was approached by a fellow lifter.

The man was a police officer and asked Hayes what he planned on doing after college.

"I am planning on becoming a lawyer," Hayes said.

Chief David Hayes.
Chief David Hayes. (Courtesy photo)

The officer quipped back, saying, "No, you don't want to do that. The world has enough lawyers. You should be a police officer."

He commented on how well Hayes communicated with people, saw he was in good physical shape and participated as a team player. The man told Hayes he would make a great police officer with these combined qualities.

With that suggestion in mind, Hayes took his first job as a seasonal officer with the Ocean City (Maryland) Police Department. His duties were primarily foot patrol, walking the three-mile boardwalk.

It turns out the man was right.

What started as a seasonal job eventually convinced Hayes to pursue a career in law enforcement. And the rest, as they say, is history.

An unforgettable ridealong

A photo of Hayes during his time with the Ocean City Police Department.
A photo of Hayes during his time with the Ocean City Police Department. (Courtesy photo)

In 1984, Hayes was hired by the Annapolis (Maryland) Police Department at 22 years old. He worked there for 16 months until laterally transferring to the Prince George's County (Maryland) Police Department.

Hayes worked four years of patrol for this busy urban department, answering calls and engaging in the pursuit of criminals. One pursuit, he shared, is one he will never forget.

"About three years on, it was Halloween night and it was my turn for a ridealong," Hayes recalled. "He was a 15-year-old police explorer. We responded to some calls and I eventually started through a known drug dealing area."

While driving through some townhomes, Hayes observed a male make an exchange with a driver and he began to walk away.

"I pulled past the suspect and exited my vehicle to make contact, but, immediately, the foot pursuit was on," he said. "While running the first few hundred yards, I noticed my explorer ridealong running alongside me. I yelled, 'Stay with the car!'"

He seemed to listen and peeled off.

"I continued around the back of residences and toward the main road. I was on my portable, advising other units of my location and direction of travel as we were heading into a nursing home construction site. All of a sudden, I heard a siren coming from behind me and I thought, 'That was quick!'"

As the car passed Hayes, he quickly realized it looked familiar: "It was my police car," he said.

The young explorer took it upon himself to drive it lights and siren. He then exited the vehicle, ran into a wooded area and tackled the suspect.

"I ran up to him and got the suspect cuffed. I recovered a good quantity of PCP," Hayes said.

After the incident, the explorer was removed from the program, but it wasn't the last time the two would meet.

Sometime later, while on a fire scene, Hayes saw a firefighter who looked familiar. He asked him, "Do I know you from somewhere?" The firefighter seemed embarrassed and looked down explaining, "I was the one who took your car."

Going tactical

In 1989, Hayes was assigned to the Prince George's County Police Department Emergency Response Unit as a full-time SWAT operator. He was trained as an entry team member as well as a sniper. In this capacity, he made 1,100 entries and responded to 135 barricaded hostage situations. Each one was a standalone story in itself, but Hayes shared two memorable incidents.

On one occasion, a suspect took his ex-girlfriend hostage after killing her new boyfriend. The suspect led officers on a high-speed pursuit, eventually crashing. The suspect exited the crashed vehicle while using his ex-girlfriend as a shield. He was holding a gun to her head, while the woman bled from a knife wound to her neck. But she was still alive.

Hayes received an Award of Merit while serving on the SWAT team.
Hayes received an Award of Merit while serving on the SWAT team. (Courtesy photo)

It was one of those moments in a cop's career where they know someone is going to die, Hayes said. Hayes' team was trying to line up a shot so as not to endanger the woman. A fellow team member and sniper was authorized by command to attempt a shot if one was available. He took a shot and ended the suspect's life. The woman was saved.

In another circumstance, Hayes and his fellow team members responded to a "shots fired call" in an apartment complex. It involved another ex-boyfriend.  

The man had entered his ex-girlfriend's apartment. He shot and killed her friend, and shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend. The team did not know this at the time – they were just aware there had been shooting and screaming inside the apartment. The team introduced tear gas into the residence, hoping to convince the man to give up.

Suddenly, the wounded ex-girlfriend bolted out the door. Hayes and a team member were able to get her out of the line of fire. Just as they did this, the suspect came running out, gun in hand and directed it at the SWAT officers on the inner perimeter. Once again, Hayes' fellow team member happened to be at the right place at the right time – this time with his MP-5. He immediately stopped the man's threat before he could do any further harm.

Hayes served a total of eight years in SWAT but left when he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the Community Policing Unit. He also served as sergeant of a 25-member K-9 unit, placing him back with the tactical team again.

'The worst shift of my career'

On September 11, 2001, Hayes was close enough to see a crew of six – along with 58 passengers' lives – disintegrate in a ball of fire as terrorists flew Flight 77 into the Pentagon. 

In response to this and the other horrific events of that day, Hayes and his team were dispatched to Andrews Air Force Base to help secure the facility.

But it wasn't until Hayes was nearing retirement that he experienced his worst day on the job.

Shortly before his retirement, on June 21, 2005, one of Hayes' fellow officers, Cpl. Steve Gaughan, stopped a vehicle with three suspicious persons in it. This triggered a foot pursuit. One of the suspects ran between some buildings and began firing at Gaughan.

Gaughan returned fire, wounding the suspect, but Gaughan was mortally wounded and doctors could not save him.

Gaughan, who was posthumously promoted to sergeant, left behind his wife, son and daughter.

"It was the worst shift of my career," Hayes said.

Just weeks after Gaughan's death, Hayes retired after 20 years with the Prince George's County Police Department.

New beginnings

In 2005, with one retirement secured, Hayes decided to join the Sagamore Hills Township (Ohio) Police Department. A year later, Hayes accepted the Chief of Police position in the 15-person department, noting it was "quite a contrast" from 1,500 officers in Prince George's County. Hayes still holds the position, where he and his officers protect 12 square miles.

Hayes, now 61 years old and quickly approaching 40 years in law enforcement, said his experience in both a large and small department "brings a different police career than many."

Hayes' son graduated from the Columbus (Ohio) Police Academy in January 2019.
Hayes' son graduated from the Columbus (Ohio) Police Academy in January 2019. (Courtesy photo)

"I was with the Prince George's County Police Department for 20 years and then became a small-town police chief. Two hugely different careers – going from full-time SWAT, K-9 supervisor, SWAT team leader and patrol shift commander – to a chief of a small department."

Even the community meetings, he said, are vastly different.

“In Prince George’s County, I attended community meetings where the major problem was violent crimes, drug dealing and shootings. At the community meetings I attend as chief now, the major problem is speeding complaints. I went from one of the most violent counties in the U.S. to the safest community in Ohio.”

But when asked if he would do it all again, Hayes didn't skip a beat: "If I was given another opportunity, I would choose to be a police officer all over again."

In fact, when his son recently decided to become an officer, Hayes said many people tried to convince him to talk his son out of joining law enforcement: "I didn't talk him into it and I wouldn't talk him out of it. That was his decision and now he has been an officer for 3.5 years."

Throughout his nearly four decades of policing, Hayes tipped his hat to the many men and women he has worked with over the years, noting he wouldn't have been able to do his job safely without them.

"I give thanks to all of the officers I worked with over the years, the officers I work with now, my son and especially the heroes who lost their lives protecting their communities," he said.

NEXT: 'I would do it all again as long as I could start in 1968': A veteran LEO recounts his 53-year career

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