Hampton cop reflects on 30 years of service

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Henderson calls retirement 'bittersweet'

By Max Sullivan

Hampton Union, January 22, 2016

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Steve Henderson
Hampton Police Sgt. Steve Henderson is retiring after being with the department since 1986. He was a
union president and was part of the department's motorcycle unit. [Ioanna Raptis photo]

HAMPTON — Thirty years with one police department is a long time for any officer.

Sgt. Steven Henderson said his 30 years with the Hampton Police Department were meaningful. He retired Jan. 4 after three decades of working patrols, often with the motorcycle unit.

Over the years, he received numerous awards, including the Combat Medal award, the Above and Beyond the Call of Duty award and a letter of commendation for Outstanding Police Performance for capturing suspects while off duty.

Leaving the department after so many years is “bittersweet,” he said this week as he reflected on his career.

“It’s going to take some time getting used to it,” Henderson said. “I was blessed to be able to have worked for just a fantastic town.”

Henderson started his career in 1986 as a part-time police officer. He came from a family who owned a farm in Haverhill, Mass., where he said he first developed a strong work ethic. Upon becoming a part-time officer, he moved to Hampton. He was full-time by the next year.

Henderson said he always felt he had a knack for investigation, aware of suspicious activity. He recalled one instance when he, by chance, saw a bank robber suspect buy a gas can at the Mobil station on Route 1. He went back to the department and saw the same face in a picture being used by the detectives, who were investigating the robbery.

Henderson went back to the Mobil station, got the suspect’s plate number from the employee, and the department used it to find the suspect. It turned out the suspect was involved with several robberies in Massachusetts as well as the one in Hampton.

One of Henderson’s most daring acts took place in January 1995, when a man threatened to jump off the Neil R. Underwood Bridge to commit suicide. The man was on one of the cement partitions underneath the bridge with cinderblocks tied to his body.

Henderson said he jumped 30 feet from the bridge down onto the partition to get to the man. He jumped down the opposite side of the partition so not to startle the man, then crept around to handcuff him to a metal rung on the side of the bridge. He cut the rope with a knife.

“I landed. Thank God. It was cold,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s career also brought him face to face with devastating grief, as many times he was called to the scene of fatal accidents.

One he still thinks about to this day happened in 1991 when he responded to a call on Route 101 about two cars crashing into each other. Henderson arrived to find one driver, a young girl, unharmed. In the other car was a woman and her 2-year-old child. The mother was screaming, her daughter seriously injured. Henderson cut the girl from her car seat and removed her. When medics arrived, it was too late to save the girl.

“That one here bothered me for quite some time,” Henderson said. “To have a parent lose a child like that, it came back a lot over the years.”

Another instance that has stuck with Henderson was a call that year about a baby who had died of sudden infant death syndrome while sleeping at a daycare. Henderson said it was difficult to knock on the family’s door that day and tell them what had happened to their child.

“It was an extremely sad day for the family. I’ll never forget showing up there,” Henderson said. “Having to notify a family that their child has passed.”

Henderson was involved in more than one standoff in his time with Hampton police.

In 2002, he found himself negotiating with a woman who had threatened to blow up a car with herself inside using a can of gasoline. When Henderson responded, the girl had wandered from the car and stood on one of the beach’s side streets with a knife in her hand. She had cut herself and was bleeding. Henderson held his pistol pointed toward her and negotiated with her for five or seven minutes. Eventually, officers wrestled the knife from her and the woman was taken to Exeter Hospital.

Those five to seven minutes of negotiation felt like they lasted for much longer.

“It seems like forever when you’re there,” Henderson said.

The year before, Henderson was required to use his firearm in the line of duty. In 2001, he responded to a call reporting shots fired on Drakeside Road. When he arrived, he snuck around to the back of the house with a shotgun. There, he saw the suspect walk outside with a pistol in his hand, not raised but at his side.

For about 10 minutes, Henderson negotiated with the suspect, asking him to drop the weapon. They stood 15 feet from each other.

Eventually, the suspect began raising the pistol. Henderson fired his shotgun, shooting the suspect’s legs.

“I took the necessary force to stop the threat,” Henderson said.

The suspect survived the incident. Henderson’s shot was determined by the state attorney general’s office to be justified shortly after the incident, and he was awarded the Combat Medal award. He then took a few weeks to clear his head.

While Henderson had come close to killing him, the suspect held no bad feelings against him. Years later, the suspect called police for assistance related to his mental health. He specifically asked for Henderson to respond. Henderson drove the suspect to the station, the two talking together along the way.

While the Drakeside Road incident left Henderson shaken, he said the impression it left was nothing compared to how he felt after seeing the mother on Route 101 who lost her 2-year-old child, or the child who died at the daycare.

“I put that one behind me,” Henderson said of the shooting. “I put more thought into the little girl.”

After responding to so many accidents, Henderson received several thank you letters from families of those who died. He’s saved many of them in books alongside newspaper articles about his cases and letters of commendation. He said he’s “extremely appreciative” of the letters.

Henderson said working with so many families who lost loved ones helped him become compassionate toward others.

“You can go cold, or be compassionate, and I believe my whole career, I would be compassionate,” Henderson said. “I don’t think you ever get used to (tragedies). I think hopefully you would become more compassionate towards people.”

Before Henderson retired, he was placed on administrative leave. He declined to comment on the reason.

Hampton Police Chief Richard Sawyer said this week, "We at the Hampton Police Department congratulate Sgt. Henderson on his retirement and wish him well in his future endeavors."

Henderson said he intends to get back into police work, still feeling young at 56. He said he’s worked hard his whole life and is not ready to stop yet.

He said he’ll always remember his time working in Hampton, though, from the cases he worked to the people he met in the community and the friends he made in the department. He also said he appreciated the support from his family over the years, which he said was integral to his career.

“It’s very humbling. I was blessed to be able to have worked for just a fantastic town,” Henderson said. “We had a lot of support and lot of respect from business owners, residents, and certainly if I ever had to do it again, I certainly would have gone the same route.”

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