GRAND RAPIDS, MI — A former Grand Rapids chief of police, remembered for forging long-lasting relationships between city police and the community, passed away at age 81 early Saturday morning.
William Hegarty served as Grand Rapids chief of police for almost two decades, from 1981-98. The former chief died surrounded by his family at 3:30 a.m. Saturday, July 4, the police department said.
A New York native, Hegarty was the first “outsider” to take charge of the department. After leading the New Rochelle Police Department in New York for eight years, Hegarty joined GRPD in 1981 and brought with him fresh, new ideas – his most important legacy being community policing.
“It was a new concept at the time, and he encouraged officers to get out of their cars and to interact in a more personal humane way with our citizens,” said Kurt Kimball, who worked alongside Hegarty as Grand Rapids’ city manager from 1987-2009.
“He was quick to embrace community activists in different neighborhoods and to try and befriend them,” Kimball said. “I think his legacy is introducing community policing, which continues to this day to be the recipe for improving racial relations in the city. Every police chief that followed him has tried to build on that.”
During his 17 years as chief, Hegarty helped connect the department with city residents by forging relationships with neighborhood groups, according to Grand Rapids Press archives. He created the Neighborhood Patrol Unit, which focused police resources in high-crime areas of the city.
When a rash of youth violence hit during the summer of 1994, Hegarty went to the toughest neighborhoods to urge residents to stem the tide, according to archives. Crime fell steadily during the last part of Hegarty’s tenure, as serious crime fell during 1996 to levels that had last been recorded in 1979.
Kimball told MLive that Hegarty was an “awfully gifted” police chief who, despite being introverted, had the gift of winning over anyone he met.
“He was intimidating,” Kimball remembered. “But he always had the gift of having the community eating out of the palm of his hand. He could go into, you know, a community meeting where tensions were high and he could calm people down.”
Hegarty embraced higher education throughout his career as a police officer, according to his biography on the Grand Valley State University website. He taught as an adjunct professor in GVSU’s School of Criminal Justice from 1984-97, and later donated funds to establish the Hegarty Criminal Justice scholarship.
Hegarty also had a big heart, Kimball said. The former police chief was passionate about helping abused children in Grand Rapids and, in 1993, he founded the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County, which provides resources to sexually abused children.
In 1991, Hegarty encountered a young girl, who came to the Grand Rapids police station seeking help with a sexual abuse case, he said in a 2018 interview published on the Children’s Advocacy Center’s YouTube channel. Hegarty was struck by the fear in the girl’s eyes, and began to reflect on how the police department handled child abuse cases.
The police chief sought to make the investigation process more comfortable for children who survive abuse.
“The way that we all respond to a child with these kinds of issues – we had to do it differently, radically differently,” Hegarty said in the video. “I wanted to bring together everyone with some kind of responsibility and skill to deal with this kind of a case.”
Since the facility opened, it has served over 20,000 suspected victims of child sexual abuse in Kent County, according to the center’s website.
Current Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne said he worked with the former police chief during his formative years with the department. Payne commented on Hegarty’s passing on behalf of the Grand Rapids police force.
“He cared deeply about his police department and about his community,” Payne said in a released statement. “Both were always in his heart and showed in his work. Our hearts in the entire department and community are heavy today.”
Sytsema Funeral Home in Norton Shores is handling Hegarty’s funeral arrangements.
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