When he retired on Sept. 15, Dave Shelton left as the longest-serving officer in the history of the Kelso Police Department.
He saw much in his 39-year career that could have left him cynical and hard-hearted. But watch the video of his final sign-off, which has gone viral in recent weeks, and you know instantly that Shelton remained centered.
“So Kelso, for one last time, 2 Lincoln 1-6 is secure,” Shelton, 61, says from his patrol car, showing some emotion.
Then he turns to his son-in-law Sam Sanden, who was filming outside the vehicle. “We’re done. Let’s go zip-lining.”
“I knew that after I signed off, that I was no longer gonna be getting in the police uniform,” Shelton recalled, fighting back tears during an interview Friday afternoon.
“(I was) no longer part of the team. I still get along great with the guys … they still all like me, but it’s different now … there were times when our lives depended on each other.”
Dave Shelton’s wife, Barb, and their daughter Sharnessa accompanied Shelton for his last shift and sign-off. Their son Tory, a police officer in the Longview Police Department, listened to the sign-off in his police car as well.
A sign-off tells dispatchers the officer is off duty. Officers and dispatchers across agencies get to know each other over the police radio.
Shelton said his path to law enforcement began after joining officer Wayne Nelson (who later became Kelso’s police chief) on a ride-along. He was a student at Lower Columbia College trying to decide what to do with his life.
Halfway through the ride, Shelton said, he knew he wanted to be a cop. He joined the Kelso Police Department as a non-commissioned reserve at 19 and became a full officer two years later.
There were some bumps along the way, like the time early in his career when he mistakenly pulled a woman over for what he thought were expired car tabs. He realized the mistake while walking up to the woman’s window, then froze.
“I stood there, and I didn’t know what to say,” Shelton said.
Nelson explained the mistake to the woman and sent her on her way. Then he told Shelton something that he didn’t forget.
“He said, ‘A police officer doesn’t always have to be right, (but) he has to be reasonable,’ ” Shelton said.
Shelton said he’s seen the community change for the worse in his four-decade career.
“Drug use and mental illness is probably on the forefront,” Shelton said. “The burglaries and the thefts, those things are usually happening because people are using drugs, don’t have a job and can’t afford them, so they’re out prowling cars.”
“We have moved so far away from family and community.”
Shelton added that the most rewarding parts of his career were when he worked in schools, both as an elementary school D.A.R.E. officer and on patrol at Kelso High School for seven years. He cherished opportunities to interact with students when they needed guidance.
Family was a value that Dave came back to repeatedly. Police often have difficulty de-stressing from work when they come home, Barb said, but her husband would be genuinely present with the family as soon as he walked through the door, she said. He was also a major influence in his son’s decision to become a police officer.
Tory Shelton has worked for Longview PD for more than five years and previously served eight years with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office.
The two officers worked on several calls together over the years. The one that sticks out is when they both became involved in a high-speed chase that ended when the driver of a pickup slammed into a garage on a one-way street.
When it was over, Tory Shelton told his father he nearly shot the suspect because he feared he was about to back over his father.
Memories like that rushed through his head as he made his final, emotional sign-off, Shelton said.
“Is there a life after police work? Absolutely,” Shelton said. “But it’s different … I miss interactions with the guys I work with. I miss dealing with the public.”
The sudden popularity of the video was a shock to the family. On the downside, it brought with it comments wishing death on Shelton and his family. Some made claims that Shelton “took too many lives” or would no longer be able to “shoot anyone and get away with it.”
“He never even shot his gun,” Barb said, “so how’s he gonna kill anybody?”
Shelton confirmed that he had never shot his gun once while on duty.
But the positive comments far outweigh the negative ones, and one from 12-year-old in particular touched the family.
“I dream of being a police officer and this has inspired me so much more to become a police officer,” the comment read. “THANK YOU!”