'I've had a good run'

12 May 2009 by CHIP SMEDLEY, Staff Writer for the Sunday News

Retiring police Capt. Donald Palmer has been a witness to change during decades of service to the city but, he says the need for integrity endures.

After 38 years on Lancaster's police force, Capt. Donald Palmer has a mind full of snapshot memories 

"I don't vocalize this to my family," he said, "but when we're driving around the city, I can pass any given spot and remember a call. Everything from driving through an intersection and remembering pulling someone over for running a red light there, to passing a porch and remembering a homicide."

He smiled and shook his head. "I wish I'd have taken notes. I could write a book."

If he did, he'd be working on the final pages right now. Palmer is retiring after a career begun as a cadet and ending as the man in charge of supplying officers with the tools needed to do their jobs.

Palmer turns 60 April 17, and city code says he must retire. He'd like to stick around.

"I leave on the 17th, but that's not to say I couldn't do the same job on the 18th that I'm doing today."

But he understands.

"I knew when I signed on that if I stayed long enough I'd have to go," he said.

And, as it is with Palmer, he's thinking of others.

"The bottom line is, there are other people here who have aspired to be promoted and deserve to be," he said. He smiled, saying: "I sat there as a lieutenant for the longest time thinking, 'Aren't those guys up there ever going to retire?'

"I've had a good run."

Chief Keith Sadler said that's an understatement.

"I think if you asked Don about what kind of legacy he's leaving here, he'd just look at you and laugh," Sadler said. "But as far as leaving his mark on this department, he has been invaluable.

"His leaving is going to be harder on us than it is on him."

Palmer's run began in the summer of 1969 as a summer intern.

"I was originally headed to the state police," he said, "but as a result of working six weeks here, I decided municipal police work was more in tune with what I wanted to do." He was sworn in as an officer Nov. 17, 1970.

Palmer spent his first 20 years patrolling city streets and learning. One of the first, and most valuable lessons, came from veteran cop Tom Lefever.

"He told me not to sit there worrying about what the next call is going to be," Palmer said. "When that radio starts up you need to get into the mode of taking care of what is happening and what needs to be done."

He learned you can't second-guess yourself.

"In this job you make decisions every day. ... Most times you make the right one. And if you make a wrong one, you learn from it so you don't make the same mistake again.

"If you started to second guess everything," you wouldn't be able to do your job, he said.

Palmer also learned about life in the fishbowl.

"People watch you," he said simply. "If your attitude is terrible, that's what they'll remember.

"You have to conduct yourself at all times in a way that people can depend on you," he said. He tells young officers, "At this point in time, you've spent your entire life getting here. When it comes to your reputation, in this job, it takes 30 seconds to undo everything you've done. If you make the wrong decision it can haunt you forever.

"Integrity and honesty are absolute keys to the job."

Sadler agreed. "A lot of people have this false impression that police leaders have to be tough or arrogant," he said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. ... Don is incredibly competent and he doesn't have to prove it."

In addition to ascending from patrolman to captain, Palmer also served the force twice as its interim chief.

The biggest changes Palmer has seen, not surprisingly, involve technology.

"When I came on, the old-timers used to talk about going from call boxes to portable radios," he said. "In the early '70s in the radio room, we had two shelves that had a series of 28 or 29 books — each one the size of a phone book — that had [vehicle and license] registration information for all of Pennsylvania. When you called in the plate number of a car, someone had to go through those books and get back to you with the information."

But with wireless computers in today's cruisers, he said, "It only takes a few seconds to get all of that information."

The police got their first in-cruiser computers in the early 1990s, Palmer said. "At my age I had none of that in school." So he taught himself.

Self-education and collaboration are critical to success, he said.

"I decided a long time ago that if I started looking for credit for things, then nothing would get done to help the department."

Another major change, Palmer said, is the department's growing willingness "to accept input and criticism from the community.

"In the '70s" he said, "there was a tendency to act like we knew it all. Now, there's much more interaction between community groups, the police department and businesses."

The fact that Palmer never acted like he knew it all impressed Sadler.

"When I first came here, I would ask Don about something," Sadler said. "He would lay things out for me and all the while I was thinking, 'That's what I was hoping he would say.' "

Palmer's not sure where he'll go next. "It doesn't have to be in law enforcement," he said. He does know he's not ready to retire and that he wants a line of work connected to the reason he got into law enforcement in the first place.

"I just thought that I could help make things better for people," he said.

"But I don't figure I'm any different than the rest of the people who get into this."