Police Chief James Dykstra retires after 41 years

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    WEST MILFORD-After 41 years on the West Milford police force, Chief James Dykstra recently took his last ride in a police car. He feels ambivalent about his mandatory retirement — looking forward to the freedom, yet not ready to let go. On June 30, his last day at work, he took some time to look back and share a few refections on his career. Dykstra was 24 when he was hired as a patrolman for West Milford. A graduate of Wayne High School, he had served four years in the Navy and worked two in construction prior to joining the force. His entire training, he says, took place at a private shooting range with the then-chief, who declared him ready for duty after an hour of practice. On his second day of work he was told to lead a funeral procession. Although he had moved to West Milford, he didn't really know his way around. "I was scared to death I wouldn't find the cemetery with all those people following me and I'd end up leading them to somewhere they didn't want to go." His fear was groundless, however, as he did manage to get there. That was in 1964 when the police didn't use computers, and the one police car (yes, they only had one) didn't have air conditioning. In fact, they didn't even have a copy machine. By 1982, Dykstra had been promoted to sergeant and spent 10 years as the traffic officer. This entailed investigating some 50 fatal car accidents, many of them involving alcohol. "I saw some terrible things — real tragedies, and some things have left scars," he said sadly, pointing to the center of his chest. So, it is not surprising that alcohol abuse has been of great interest to him. He has taught a number of classes on the subject, and in addition, has served as an expert witness in criminal DUI cases. He was also the first one in the department to become a Breathalyzer operator. Prior to that, he said, it was hard to get a drunk driver convicted. With the advent of the Breathalyzer and video in police cars, that has changed. Twice during his career, Dykstra was involved in rescues that he said are the highlights of his career. In the early 70s, there was a near drowning of a man at Terrace Pond in Upper Greenwood Lake. The victim was pulled from the water by a Scoutmaster who was in the area. Dykstra gave the man oxygen and carried him all the way around to the other side of the pond so a helicopter could pick him up. The second incident was in March of 1983. Two fisherman fell through the ice at Bearfort Waters. Dykstra was attempting a careful rescue when one of the men went under. Dykstra abandoned caution, ran across the ice and jumped in. He had to hold them up while fighting their panicky grip in the freezing water until a boat arrived. Paul Costello (who was just appointed chief) assisted in the rescue. Dykstra was hospitalized for exposure and was later awarded a medal of valor from the governor. Dykstra was the first officer on the West Milford police force to earn a college degree. It took him 12 years as a part time student, but he earned a bachelor's in criminal justice from Rutgers, then went on to get a master's in public administration. Today, he says, about half of the department has been to college. He moved up in rank, serving as acting chief twice, and was appointed the position in April 2001. Technology, of course, is the biggest change he's seen over the years. "We used to have the old clackety teletype machine, and you had to cross reference everything by hand," he said. Computers, then databases, then networks have made the job much more efficient. The department consisted of 15 officers when Dykstra started. Today, if all positions are filled, it boasts 48. The former chief isn't moving to a retirement community in Florida to play bingo. An avid sportsman, he plans to canoe, sail, kayak, hike, cross-country ski and fish. He'd like to try his hand at fly fishing and painting with watercolors. And you'll probably be able to find him running in his favorite place — Waywayanda State Park. He runs several times a week and often enters road races. He finished the New York City Marathon in 2001 and in 2003. He plans to stay in West Milford with his wife of 40 years, Connie. They have two grown daughters.