The Fullerton Police Department honors retiring officers with a ritual known as the “Walk of Honor.”
Fellow officers, professional staff, friends and family of the retiree form a line along the outside walkway of the police department that proceeds left onto the Highland Avenue sidewalk and left onto Commonwealth Avenue, culminating at the flagpole, in front of the station.
The honoree leaves the station through the front door, receiving hugs, handshakes and well-wishes along the way.
A few hundred well-wishers usually turn out.
The most recent Walk of Honor was staged Thursday.
About 1,000 turned out.
Police Chief Dan Hughes, punctuating a 33-year career at FPD that began as a cadet two weeks out of high school, is moving on.
Starting Monday, Hughes will be the vice president of security and emergency services at the Disneyland Resort.
A crowd of current and retired officers, firefighters, police volunteers, cadets, Explorers, elected officials, police chiefs from neighboring cities and community members swelled five and six deep around the station as Hughes said his farewells.
“It’s been such a privilege and honor to be the police chief for some amazing people who I think have the most difficult jobs in the world, for what they are willing to risk for people they don’t even know,” Hughes told Behind the Badge. “It’s just been an amazing experience for me.”
Hughes’ legacy, especially during his nearly four-year reign as chief, is well documented.
He became acting chief in 2012, in the midst of arguably the rockiest period in FPD’s 100-plus year history.
In 2013, Hughes became the chief by a unanimous vote of the City Council.
He was the first Orange County chief to mandate the use of body cameras for all officers, and he formed a Chief’s Advisory Committee and Directed Enforcement Team.
Hughes organized and attended informal neighborhood meetings, listening to residents’ concerns, and he posted the department’s policy manual online.
“Anytime we needed anything, he came personally,” said Chief Dennis DeMaio, chief of the Cal State Fullerton University Police. “He has made recommendations and advised me in a lot of areas over the last five years, and every one of them has worked out.”
The chief was an integral part of the Orange County Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership, better known as OC GRIP, helping to initiate the program in Fullerton schools.
He expanded the department’s homeless liaison officer program and forged a partnership with the Coast to Coast Foundation, a nonprofit that works with police to provide services for homeless citizens.
“He has the heart and passion for this community,” said Marie Avena, Coast to Coast founder. “An amazing leader … a very compassionate man. That is who he is.”
Cpl. Stewart Hamilton, president of the Fullerton Police Officers Association, said Hughes is leaving the department “better than when he found it.”
Assemblywoman Young Kim said Hughes “blessed the city of Fullerton.”
And to think Hughes, whose roots in Fullerton are as deep as anyone’s, never had any intention of becoming chief when he started out.
He was born and raised on the west side of Fullerton.
His mother and grandmother still live in the house.
Hughes was a senior at Sunny Hills High School, driving a bit too fast in the school parking lot, when an interaction with a police officer made an impression.
The officer admonished the 17-year-old, pointing out that he would soon be 18 and the decisions he makes today could impact the rest of his life.
“He was so kind and yet firm,” Hughes recalls. “That person had such an impact on my life that I really wanted to be police officer. It changed my thought process of wanting to do good for the community and really wanting to be part of something that is really important.”
Hushes signed on to be a police cadet at FPD and soon was going on ride-alongs and having regular interactions with officers.
“I just felt this internal passion that this is what I was called to do,” he said.
Jump ahead to June 21, 1990, a day Hughes calls the worst of his career.
Hughes was on surveillance while partner Det. Tommy De La Rosa was undercover as a drug trafficker, selling $4 million worth of cocaine.
But the operation took an ugly turn, when the would-be drug buyers shot and killed De La Rosa.
Fast forward again to the weeks and months following July 5, 2011, when an encounter between officers and Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill transient, turned violent and Thomas was killed.
Months of protests followed.
The chief at the time took a medical retirement and Cpt. Kevin Hamilton became acting chief, but Hamilton also was close to retiring.
“It broke my heart to see the protesters outside,” Hughes said. “Many of them were people I grew up with. Many were outside the city of Fullerton.”
The notion of outsourcing police services was even raised.
Hughes, a captain at the time, was approached to serve as acting chief, a position he had never really considered.
Hughes is an unwavering Christian and spent time “fellowshipping” with groups within his faith community and with his family.
“I wasn’t certain I wanted to do it but I felt that I was almost called to do it,” Hughes said. “The thought of having our department outsourced, to me, did a great disservice to the officers who had been my heroes, the generation of officers before us, two of them who lost their lives in the line of duty and many others who had been injured, all for what this department stood for.”
He took on the challenge, first as acting chief and then chief.
Now it’s off to Disney, where Hughes said he will learn more about his exact role in the coming weeks.
“Everybody I have met at Disney has been incredibly kind and I’m impressed with their level of commitment to excellence and I certainly want to be part of that and contribute in the best way I can,” he said.
His 17-year old son Grant, who Hughes calls his hero, had this to say:
“I know that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, but my dad makes wherever he is the happiest place.”