After 44 years of public service, Dougherty County Police Chief Don Cheek, right, has retired from the Dougherty County Police Department. Above is a photo of Cheek as a Cpl. in the Albany Police Department in 1974.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Asked what traits the Dougherty County Commission was looking for when it appointed Don Cheek as chief of the county's police department in May 2003, Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard offers a somewhat complex answer.
"One thing we knew we had to do was find someone who could take that department to the next level," Sinyard said. "So we were looking for somebody who was 'all of the above.'"
The commission found what it was looking for in Cheek, a then-26-year veteran of the Albany Police Department who'd retired a few years earlier as deputy chief of the department. Schooled as a young beat cop by old-guard police who'd fought crime primarily with their wits, but wise enough to recognize the advantages of utilizing the latest law enforcement technology, Cheek indeed helped bring Dougherty County Police Department's crime-fighting capability into the 21st century.
On Friday, with 44 years of public service under his belt and with his department "able to measure itself across the board with any other force in the country," according to Sinyard, Cheek will hang up his badge. He'll turn the reins of DCP over to Chief Deputy Cynthia "Jackie" Battle, hop onto his Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited and ride off into the sunset.
It will be a bittersweet moment for the gentleman police chief who proved to be the embodiment of his credo: Be thorough and be professional.
"I think the hardest adjustment I'm going to have to make is not getting up to go to work in the morning," Cheek said. "I've been working for 44 years now, since I was too young to work legally. But I've heard people say that you know when it's time to step down, and it's time.
"I'm going to miss this job, but I'm going to miss the people here more. It's because of them, because of these people who depended on each other have their backs, that I learned to love this profession like I never thought I would."
LIFE-ALTERING FIRST NIGHT
Given that he idolized his FBI agent father (Marion "Eddie" Cheek) while growing up, many assume that Donald M. Cheek's career in law enforcement was a foregone conclusion. Not so, says the retiring chief.
"I was going to be a veterinarian," he said. "I actually started out in college in pre-vet medicine at the University of Georgia, but I got drafted -- and I as I tell advisees, it was not by the NFL. When I came back from overseas (with the Army in Germany), I needed a job, but my plan was to work a while and then go back up to Athens and finish school.
"My dad told me he'd help me get a job at APD, so I said, 'Why not?' I got home on a Wednesday and was walking a beat on Pine Avenue on Friday afternoon."
Policing was different in 1971. New recruits had a year after starting work to attend and complete the Police Officer Standards and Training Council-required police academy, and they actually had to purchase their own weapons.
Cheek had been an officer all of five hours when he and another beat patrolman walking Broad Avenue came upon a man who started running when he saw them. They gave chase, catching the fleeing man in an alley near the former First Baptist Church building. Turns out he had just broken into Bill Quick's Gulf service station at the corner of Pine and Jefferson.
"Me and the other officer were like: 'We caught him, now what do we do?'" Cheek laughs. "There were no radios back then, so we handcuffed him and walked him the two and a half blocks to the police station.
"I was so excited, I called my dad and said, 'I caught a robber.' When I told him what had happened, he said, 'No, son, you caught a burglar.' I use that illustration when I teach at the police academy, tell recruits, 'This is why you go through training before you go out on the job.'"
Cheek may not have had the terminology down, but there was one thing that became immediately apparent to him.
"I was hooked ... literally," he said. "I don't know how to describe the feeling, but I knew right then that this was what I wanted to do. I assumed every night was going to be like the first one."
With his career path now clearly defined, Cheek went through the police academy 5 1/2 months later and started a job that would take him to the top of his profession. He served 26 years with the Albany Police Department, advancing to the rank of major before retiring.
"I was fortunate enough to learn from some classic, old-school police officers -- men like Price Lee Westbrook, Bill Manley, Melvin Clegg, Raymond Slaughter, John Patton, Joe Monzie, Bob Prickett, men who mainly used their wits and did the job because they loved it," Cheek said. "They took me under their wing and taught me the basics, taught me how to be a police officer."
While with APD, Cheek spent much of his career in investigations. He and Monzie spent two years investigating a serial rapist whose capture cleared 40 cases, and they also brought in a pair of rapists -- called "Mutt and Jeff" in the media because one was tall and the other short -- who worked in tandem and actually listed a female sheriff's deputy among their victims.
Those and similar cases remain fresh in Cheek's mind.
"Unfortunately, major cases have major victims," he said. "That was why this job resonated with me: seeking some sense of justice for the victims."
Cheek said the murder of Thelma Raybon was the most gruesome he ever worked. The owner of an Albany bridal shop was stabbed "excessively and brutally" by her assailant, whose capture gave Cheek a measure of satisfaction.
"Over the years, those kinds of cases stayed with me," Cheek said. "I was fortunate, though, to be able to go home and talk with my wife (Donna) about the tough days. Having her in my life, I've been unbelievably blessed. I definitely married up."
CHANGES IN SCENERY
Cheek retired from the Albany police force in 1997 and worked briefly as chief investigator with the Dougherty County District Attorney's office. He'd started working as an adjunct criminal justice instructor at Darton College in 1994, and in 1998 he left the district attorney's office to work as an assistant professor of criminal justice at Darton.
Cheek stayed at Darton until 2003, when then-DCP Chief Bill Kicklighter retired.
"Some people approached me about the job at DCP, and the more I heard the more I considered it," Cheek said. "It became one of those 'be careful what you wish for, you might get it' situations. I knew the department had been run well, and the more I looked into it the more interested I became."
Cheek took over as chief of the Dougherty Police Department in 2003 and quickly adjusted to a new type of police work.
"You serve a different function than you do in a more urban department," he said of policing the unincorporated portion of the county. "You have a lesser volume of calls, and that allows you to spend more time with each call you respond to. I think that's one of the reasons DCP has a way higher-than-average clearance rate.
"Of course, at DCP, it helped that we had a complete buy-in throughout the department. We're blessed to have a special breed of officers on our force."
'SINGLE WORST THING'
On Christmas Eve 2010, Cheek was at home when dispatch called to say units were responding to a robbery in progress. He asked for an update and was called a short time later with news that has haunted him every day since.
"Disptach said Lt. (Cliff) Rouse had been shot and was en route to the hospital," Cheek said. "I quickly got dressed and headed straight there. When I found out he'd succumbed to his wounds, it was a surreal experience. It didn't seem possible that this could have happened to such a special young man.
"That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with in my life; it was the single worst thing that ever happened during my career. Even as we were in shock and hurting at the loss of a member of our family, we had to remain professional and do what we were trained to do."
A HOME RUN
With 44 years of service under his belt, talk of retirement started creeping more and more into Cheek's conversations. When he was diagnosed with a slow-progressing form of leukemia, the decision became easier for him.
"My health was definitely a factor in my decision," he said. "The anemia and getting tired were the worst of it, but my doctor also said I needed to reduce stress in my life. I'm still able to get up and do things, and I wanted the opportunity to do them with my family.
"My wife and I want to travel, and we plan to spend more time with our kids (Kathryn, Kristy and Rob) and our (five) grandkids. I'm going to ride my motorcycle and play golf, and I know Donna's going to have plenty of projects around the house to keep me busy."
Cheek recommended, and the Dougherty Commission approved, Battle to serve as interim chief of DCP starting Friday when Cheek leaves the station house for the last time as chief. Battle said she's honored to follow in the footsteps of the man who taught her so much.
"I always enjoyed working with Chief Cheek because he brought so many good ideas to the department," Battle said. "I learned a lot just watching him, and we're definitely going to miss his experience and his leadership.
"I don't think things are going to be a lot different around here because Chief Cheek left us a good base to stand on. I plan to just try and do the best I can, to continue the good work he always did."
Sinyard, meanwhile, said the county police department is stronger because of Cheek.
"Chief Cheek brought an incredible level of accountability to DCP, and he had a complete understanding of law enforcement across the board," the commission chairman said. "He had a comprehensive knowledge of the law and of the budgeting process, and he brought a deep sense of integrity and honor to the department. He definitely was all of the above.
"Don Cheek knew how to build the right kind of police force, and he built a permanent foundation that I believe will continue to stand long after he's gone. When we brought him on board, we definitely hit a home run."