Back in high school, Dan Nelson will tell you, he certainly wouldn’t have been voted most likely to become a police officer.
Steve Baska, who later become his captain at The Dalles Police Department, remembered spotting young Nelson one day, sporting an 11½ inch green Mohawk on top of his lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame, and thinking, “Who is that freak?”
But after five years in the military, Nelson joined the department and became the kind of officer people requested by name.
His four years in the Marines matured him, his mother said in one of the three articles Newsweek wrote about Nelson and his unit, which was part of the first wave in Operation Desert Storm. He was also in Desert Shield and Earnest Will. He spent a year in the National Guard after that.
Coming back from the Marine Corps, he found, “people treated you so much differently if you look respectful and act respectful and that really shaped my belief for the rest of my life. Went out of my way to treat people respectfully and I got the same in return.”
Now unrecognizable behind the beard and curly hair he immediately began growing after his retirement last fall, he reflected on his 25 years in law enforcement.
He’s got funny cop stories and haunting ones; pranks he’s proud of and one dubious distinction: He’s the only officer in the department that he knows of to ever run over himself with his own patrol car.
He’d hopped out of his car, which wasn’t in park as he thought, to talk to some kids about fireworks. It rolled, pinning him to a deputy’s car. “No damage to either car since I was used as a bumper.” He groused that he “didn’t even get a Darwin Award for it.”
He’s also an observer of humanity who would like people to cut themselves some slack.
People always told him, “I could never do your job.” But he disagrees. “I believe that they can, because when you’re in the moment, somebody has to do something.”
He said, “I have seen, many times, just everyday people rise to greatness, because somebody had to. People can do our job.”
He said, for officers, it helps to come from the outside. “I don’t like noises outside my house any more than anybody else, but when you’re coming in from the outside, all your spotlights and flashlights and everything, it’s completely different.”
An empathetic officer, he said he didn’t do a very good job of protecting his heart from the awful things. “Some of the things you see and deal with, they just darken your soul. You can’t just think it away.”
Over several decades of policing, he eventually worked with three generations of families, some interactions good, some not so good.
A longtime baseball coach, sometimes Nelson was able to help ID suspects because he had old Little League team photos of them.
He never really thought about a career after the military, until one day fellow Marines were sitting around talking about what they were going to do when they got out.
Interested in law enforcement, he became a reserve officer. Once he saw what police really do, he was hooked.
“No two days are ever the same,” he said. People call the police for just about everything, including once when someone’s hot water heater wasn’t working.
It’s physically and mentally demanding every day.
“You’re actually in a position where you can make a change on a small scale for people that you come in contact with.”
He made a decision early on — inspired by the fact that former Police Chief Jay Waterbury had his home phone number listed in the phone book — to give his personal number to people, so they could reach him anytime.
One woman, who he figures he must’ve been kind to once, became obsessed with him, sending him thousands of emails — he finally blocked her after 3,000 — and even signed a letter to him in blood. He said it was sad watching her obvious mental decline over the course of the email barrage.
She wrote a children’s book and gave him three signed copies. Despite the context of it all, Nelson is still able to be complimentary of her. “She did something; that’s cool. I’ve never written a book.”
“She still affects my life, I have people call me all the time” about it.
He’s known for being generous with compliments. He shrugged it off. “I am, why not? Why wouldn’t you be?”
One of the best parts of a great job that he loved was the friendships he made, on and off the force. The satisfying part was solving crimes, especially nighttime car prowls.
“You’ll catch people breaking into cars and by the time you let the victim know they’ve been a victim of a crime, you’ve already solved it, got their stuff back and have the person in jail.”
Of the 15-plus murders he investigated, he said investigators solved all but one — and officers aren’t giving up on that case.
He also really enjoyed being a part of, and eventually running, the department’s Special Emergency Response Team for many years. “It was a very successful team with a good history,” he said.
He struggled when he had to admit he just couldn’t meet his own team’s standards anymore, but leaving it in highly capable hands made it sting less.
One downside of the job, having grown up in The Dalles (TDHS class of ’87), was on the rare occasions when he arrested friends. Most understood it wasn’t personal. But one good friend – “we hung out daily” – never spoke to him again once he became a police officer. “He hates cops.”
He’s watched the public perception of the police wax and wane. When he hired on, the TV show COPS was a hit. He was one of 250 people who applied for the position he got. Nowadays, the department might get 11 applications for each opening.When Rodney King was beaten by four LA cops in 1991, public perception of police tanked. After the Sept. 11 attacks, “we were all of a sudden heroes again,” Nelson said.
“We all get painted by the same brush for bad things that happen outside this area. So you explain to people, ‘You know that cop you hate for doing that? Well, I hate him too.’”
Perhaps surprisingly for a Marine combat veteran and a police officer, Nelson stands by the right of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem in his protest of police brutality against people of color.
“It doesn’t offend me. I think a knee is still respectful. He was given that advice by a combat veteran because he still wanted to be respectful to the flag and the vets. His whole protest was against police brutality and I feel he has the right to say whatever he wants.”
He cites one of his favorite quotes: “I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
He said, “I very much support the First Amendment, it’s my favorite. Second Amendment is pretty close.”
Over the years, he’s seen countless changes at his work and in society.
Within the department, the biggest change is better equipment. On the streets, various street drugs have gone in and out of fashion.
“There have been times when we couldn’t make a drug arrest for nothing and other times when every grandmother you stop has got a meth pipe on her. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but there are highs and lows.”
Prior to a few years ago, there might’ve been three or four heroin arrests ever. “Now it’s maybe more popular than meth.”
When he first started, nobody had a cell phone. Now, some people have three. “Usually one’s a cheater phone. I stopped a guy one time and one cell phone was for calling his girlfriend and the other was his wife. When he went to jail, the wife got both phones, and was not thrilled.”
And then there’s social media. It’s been huge, both as a positive and a negative. “People get so wrapped up in it and will feud each other. You try to say, ‘Well, then just don’t log on anymore, it’s not that important.’ It never works, they are never willing to give it up.”
In a high-stress job like policing, teasing and pranking is part of the culture. Nelson of course got razzed for running over himself with his car, and even got teased for being attacked by a dog.
In that instance, he was backing away and tripped, and the pit bull lunged at him.
As Nelson was kicking the dog in the neck, fellow officer Brent Larson shot the dog off him.
Nelson said he would’ve been killed or seriously injured otherwise. “I am scared of dogs now because of that.” Not if they’re teeny, he clarified. “There’s a point about the 35-pound mark where I am afraid of dogs.”
Despite that, he doesn’t think pit bulls should be banned, because he knows “some really awesome pits.”
While he’s been razzed by other officers, he’s also proud of his own pranks. Once he re-programmed a sergeant’s phone so every speed dial button would call the same person, who was a frequent caller to police.
Another one he didn’t do, but found hilarious, was when someone put a booster seat in the car of a shorter-statured officer.
That kind of levity is needed to counteract the horrible parts of the job. For an officer, death notices are easily among the worst duties. “I’ve had to go tell a lady I know that her mother, father and son were all just killed in a plane crash. After that I just drove down the street and cried.”
The child abuse cases were the worst, and animal cases too. “I’ve had to listen to dogs burn to death. You go to places where it’s not sanitary for even animals to live in, so yeah, animal cases got to me too. Obviously the kid ones too. I think we all know what kind of cases happen there.”
He’s gotten a couple death threats, and took one pretty seriously. And on the other end of the spectrum, he’s also been hit on, including by a grandma when he went to a domestic violence call. “You’re pretty handsome,” she said. “Thank you, ma’am,” he replied.
He’s been groped a couple times in crowded bars and offered a $100 bribe by a drunk driver. The driver got arrested for the bribe, too.
He’s been left speechless a few times on traffic stops, too. Once, a woman explained she couldn’t wear her seatbelt “because she was extremely buxom.” He turned beet red and just walked away.
Another woman he pulled over asked him out on a date. The police explorer riding with him razzed him, and he concluded the stop quickly.He got five speeding tickets before becoming an officer. “I wrote very few speeding tickets while I was a cop because I felt it was pretty hypocritical.”
He never liked the siren in his patrol car “because it was so loud. I probably should’ve used it more.”
In a town that supports its police officers, sometimes he had to leave extra large tips to cover his bill at restaurants because the owners refused to charge him. But it’s illegal to accept gratuities, he said. “You get fired, and charged.”
He finally had to stop going to some places because they wouldn’t stop giving him free food.
He thanked the citizens of The Dalles. “Overall, I’ve been treated very well. Made friendships, felt the support.” After five Dallas police officers were killed in 2016, “I drove around The Dalles during that time and I felt that there was no question that these people are on my side. And it was very comforting.”
As for life after retirement, he has no immediate plans, though he does enjoy the idea of teaching. He also considers himself a rancher, noting he has “three head of guinea pig.”