After nearly 18 years with the Anchorage Police Department, including four as its public information officer, the gregarious Lt. Dave Parker is hanging up his uniform and retiring on Dec. 31.
Parker, 62, has worked as a teacher in Yemen, a pastor in Ivory Coast and France and a police chaplain in Washington state. He and his wife, Marge, have raised two sons and have eight grandchildren.
"A lot of water has passed under this keel," as Parker says, but it's a safe bet that he's best known here as the public face for the largest municipal police force in Alaska.
Parker and his wife talked recently with Anchorage Daily News reporter Casey Grove about his experiences as a police officer, serving as the department's spokesman and his plans for retirement. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO POLICE WORK?
Dave Parker: We got back from Africa sometime around 1983 and I became head pastor at a church in Bremerton, Wash. It's really easy for a pastor to become study-bound and it's a bad thing, because you're to serve the people and reach out with the gospel to people. And an opportunity came for me to become a police chaplain on a volunteer basis.
Marge Parker: Most go the other way. They're a cop first, then a pastor. That was kind of unique. He went out on calls with officers, just as a ride-along, and they would go on shooting scenes, and I knew on the shooting range he could out-shoot any of them. But they would not give him a gun. He had a collar he wore and his badge had a cross on it. I would've been a lot more comfortable thinking he was armed but I've never really worried about him.
DP: The worst day of my life was when they called me and said, "Padre, we need you on Bradley Street right now." Here, on the corner lot -- I still remember the lot, everything -- there was a man lying in a heap on the front lawn who had shot himself with a shotgun. Prior to shooting himself, he had beaned his wife's mother with the barrel of the shotgun, so (the mother's) husband had taken her to the hospital. (He) grabbed his soon-to-be-ex-wife by the hair and stuck the shotgun up underneath her hair and shot her in the head. And she was lying in a pool of blood in the garage of her parents' house. And their three children witnessed this. A little girl, a boy and a little girl. (The officers) said, "Padre, take these kids, because we don't want 'em here seeing what we have to do." I swooped up those kids and spent the day with them. I'll never forget that 10-year-old boy: "Is my mommy really dead? I told my daddy not to do it. Is my mommy really dead?" Boy, that was pretty tough. But you've got to be where people need you when you're doing pastoral work. That was just an opportunity to serve.
MP: I knew how much he enjoyed riding along with officers and being a chaplain, so I said, "Why don't you become a police officer?" So I always like to take credit that it was my idea that he did it to begin with.
DP: I'm a Calvinist and part of the teaching of the Protestant Revolution is no matter what you're doing, you're there to serve the Lord, whether you're making shoes or you're sweeping floors or you're picking up drunks off the street. You do unto the Lord, because that is the mission that God has put you into or the Lord has given you. So philosophically, there was no problem there. You're just helping people see the error of their ways.
[In 1993, the family moved to Anchorage, where Parker became a police officer and eventually a detective investigating crimes against children, including child sexual abuse, physical abuse of children and child homicides.]
WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO WORK ON THESE HORRIFIC CRIMES?
DP: When you go into that area, it's because you feel like you can make a difference. And you see kids who are so hurt, who need somebody to believe them, they need somebody to help them. They need somebody to help scoop them out of this horrible situation they're in and help them try to get back on track in their lives. And it can be tough. I (attended) between 40 and 50 child autopsies, because that's part of it. You have to collect evidence. That's where beliefs carry a person through. Without that, you'd just be lost. It'd be really easy to become a cynic.
MP: He always felt that it was his calling to do that particular job so that some younger officer didn't have to. At least we were further along in our life, he was at a later stage and our kids were already grown when he was seeing that. But if you were the father of a young child and had to go to two autopsies in a day, you'd be a basket case in a really short time.
WAS THAT DIFFICULT AND HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH IT?
DP: You go home crying at night. You look at these little creatures in the hospital, stuff sticking out of their heads, and pipes and things, and you just look at those little kids and think, "Wow, what a waste of humanity. What a waste." Having the spiritual mind-set helps, and being able to talk to other people about it. You don't want to see that but somebody's got to see it, so it might as well be you.
[Parker was promoted to sergeant in 2003 and put in charge of sexual assault investigations. Later, as a lieutenant, he spearheaded the department's efforts to get its Special Victims Unit, the Alaska Child Advocacy Center, the Sexual Assault Response Team and the state Office of Children's Services housed together in the Anchorage Multi-Disciplinary Center.]
HOW DID YOU BECOME THE POLICE DEPARTMENT'S PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER?
DP: When Paul (Honeman) left, the chief needed a public information officer, so he called me into his office and said, "Parker, it's you." That was October 2008. He said, "Parker, the most important job in this department is the public information officer, because it makes or breaks the department, and you're going to do it."
MP (who retired in May after 15 years teaching): He was stopping by my classroom to drop off a salad and I was correcting my math papers and he said, "Oh, by the way, I'm not a detective anymore. I'll talk to you later." And he walked out the door. I said, "What? You get back here and tell me now and I don't care if you're late to your meeting." He said, "Well that's how I found out about it." We had had so many (late-night) calls from crimes against children and the SVU, I thought, "Oh good, the calls are going to stop." Little did I know, it was traffic accidents and homicides and moose getting hit by vehicles, all sorts of accidents, and church roofs crashing. I had no idea.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU WERE CHOSEN?
DP: I had public speaking experience. And I did have a lot of detective experience, so I knew how the system kind of worked. But it's hard to find somebody to do this job. You've got a foot in both worlds, and buzzing down and taking the PIO's boot camp really helped me a lot, because it kind of gave me some ground rules to work with.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISTAKE YOU'VE MADE?
DP: Releasing stuff that we probably shouldn't have released. I made a mistake one time, we truly believed we had a homicide that turned out not to be a homicide, but it happens. One of the things that the PIO has to do is try to build up a reservoir of good will with the press so that people understand that the police department is going to be open, is going to be honest, is going to be honorable. Our job is to interpret the police world to the public. And in public safety, we'll try to use releases and trainings to help folks understand better how to keep themselves safe.
WHAT'S THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?
DP: Well, there are several hard parts to the job. There are times, as you know, when we just have to say, "We can't give you that information, not now." There are folks in the press who get a little insistent about the information they want and if you can't give it to them, that's just the way it is. The hours have been interesting, as you know. I've been kind of on call 24-7, 365. And I've missed much sleep. Now, a younger person with a family would have a harder time doing this than I have, because my kids are all grown and old people don't need as much sleep as other people (laughs).
IS THAT PART OF WHY YOU WANT TO RETIRE?
DP: No, I'm retiring because it's time. Mrs. Parker retired. She's starting to get a little arthritis in her hands and I want to get her to a warmer climate in the wintertime. I'll still do work. I'm going to try to get my teaching credentials up to date, just to do things like substitute teaching. I may do some fill-in police work.
MP: I'm ready for him to be retired too so we can enjoy retirement together. I'm ready for it to start. We both recently lost our fathers and you realize you don't want to wait too long. You have to have time to enjoy it in the later stages of life. You can't be tied to the job. And it's not like he's not going to work. He's going to do something.
WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO REMEMBER YOU FOR?
DP: I have tried to be as genuine with people as I can and as transparent as I can. I'm not perfect. I struggle just like anybody else to get the job done. It's scary now that people recognize me out of uniform. People walk up to me in the grocery store and say, "Hey, I really liked the way you said whatever," or, "What's the matter with you?" Actually, you very seldom get the detractors. They blog. They don't say anything to your face.
IS IT WEIRD BEING RECOGNIZED IN PUBLIC?
DP: The kids in the Sunday school class, they say, "Oh I saw you on TV this week!" Being on TV is the big thing. I went down to (the Alaska Federation of Natives convention) and a lot of people from the Bush communities, they watch the news and they recognize you. One little kid wanted my autograph. Chief (Rob) Heun warned me about that. He said, "Everybody's going to know who you are. And secondly, some people are going to think you're the chief of police." And I've been with the chief, Chief Heun and Chief (Mark) Mew, and people have walked up (to me) and said, "Aren't you the chief of police?" You are the face of the department. And for that reason, you kind of have to be more circumspect in the way you comport yourself. Because you don't want people getting the wrong idea about the department. That doesn't mean I'm perfect. But I sure don't text while I drive.
People still come up to me and they saw (an) article and say, "I appreciate what you're doing," and Christians will come up and say, "You're really encouraging to me," and stuff like that. I enjoy that part. But just being recognized, I don't know. My grandmother had a great saying: "Fools' names and fools' faces always appear in public places."
MP: It's pretty funny. At first, he'd be talking to people who would stop him and they'd be talking like old friends and I'd say, "Who was that?" and he'd say, "I don't know." Over the years, many people have come up and shaken his hand and told him how much they appreciate the work he's done, so now I tend to expect it. In the old days, (he'd say) "I can't remember which side of the law they were on, the good side or the bad side."
ARE YOU GOING TO MISS PUTTING THAT UNIFORM AND VEST ON EVERY DAY?
DP: Yeah. Because for years I didn't wear a uniform but you saddle up all the same. When you come to work, you have to go into a different mind-set. Because there are people out there who want to hurt you. It doesn't matter if the person is a PIO or street officer or detective. And you have to be wary. Not paranoid but prepared, like a Boy Scout. There's a certain feeling that you get when you have to wield authority that you have to keep in check. You can't allow there to be a "badge heaviness" -- that's what they used to call it, "badge heavy." You have to use that judiciously and use it for the betterment of society. Unfortunately, there have been people that failed in that, and they weren't duty driven, so they don't recognize it as a duty, they recognize it as a privilege. There's no privilege here. We're judged by stringent standards, by the public and the police department, more stringent standards than anybody on the street. That's a good thing and it has to be that way. If you don't want it, don't become a cop. But yeah, it'll be kind of funny not putting on the uniform every day.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.