Barbara Lawlor, Nederland
Chief James Matheney’s office walls are still bare. He introduces himself to everyone who comes into the Nederland Police Department because few people recognize him. He is still learning where places are, who people are and what he is meant to do here.
Last week, Chief Matheney moved into his PD office and took over his responsibilities. It has been a whirlwind month for him and his family, moving across the country, from the third largest city in Michigan to the one of the smallest towns in Colorado. From Lake Michigan to the Rocky Mountains. From a staff of 250 to one of six employees. Culture shock? He doesn’t think so . He is fitting right in.
James Matheney grew up in Warren, Michigan near Detroit. Warren is a blue-collar town with a population of 150,000. As a teen, Matheney loved sports: football, basketball and hockey. He also loved music, was into playing jazz with his trumpet, becoming a studio musician. He was offered a scholarship but didn’t want to pursue a career in music. He went into international corporate law, wanting to move to Russia and set up businesses. “Those were my dreams,” says Matheney. “I was poor and I had a difficult childhood, learning to be independent at an early age.” He also learned that education was his way out, his continued ticket to independence. he studied hard and became a member of the National Honor Society.
But after he started college, his mom became sick and he ended up taking care of her until she died. During her illness, he worked and went to school part time, needing 13 years to finally earn an associate’s degree in law enforcement. He was working in a warehouse when his best friend suggested he apply for a job as a firefighter. He was told there were no positions available but there were some openings in the police department. These jobs actually paid three times more that what he was making at the time. Matheney, along with 1200 other people, took the required civil service exam and passed it. He was sixth in his class. He attended the police academy and went on to take a job in Warren.
He didn’t think of law enforcement as a career choice. It was something he could do to take care of his family while he went back to school. And then he met a girl. And then they had a child and another. When they divorced Matheney was given custody of his two boys. As a single father, he was working, raising the boys and dreaming about continuing his education. When the youngest boy was 16, Matheney went back to school, attending Madonna University and earning a Bachelor’s Degree.
In 1997, Matheney was a uniformed patrol officer in a one-man car in the worst area of the city where Detroit crime crossed the borders. It was a corrupt city and he learned how to police and then how to train officers. In 1997, there were gang problems that he recognized and he was hand-picked to go to Chicago to be trained in special investigations undercover drug work. “Our biggest problems at the time were the Asian gangs. The FBI asked me to work on a task force and I was with them for two years.”
Matheney specialized in kidnapping, offering protection for young girls in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and California. He was involved in rescuing three girls from a house, making 13 arrests in the process. Soon Matheney was promoted to detective in the criminal investigation division. After three years he was promoted to Sergeant in the family investigation team, working with juveniles and managing the school resource programs.
After five years, he was once again promoted, to lieutenant, then second in command of the 240 officer program with a $30 million budget. After a few months, the captain retired and Matheney was the acting captain. He had to have two years experience before he could become the legal captain so he was asked to be the planning and research lieutenant while he ripened in the job. It was his job to review policies and research upgrading the digital set up. When a new police commissioner was hired, a publicity hound who loved the camera and press conferences, Matheney found his niche.
In high school he wrote for a newspaper and discovered he was a decent writer, so he became the personal community relationship liaison, writing press releases and dealing with the media. He also worked on all events and programs that were community oriented. Matheney authored annual reports and attended the FBI Academy. “In 2010 I realized I could have a career as a leader and started a program with a religious officer getting the churches and the government together. The police department met with 10 churches, 105 faith-based organizations in the city and started a Church, Police and City partnership.” Matheney implemented and ran the program. If he hear of someone who couldn’t pay a light bill, he would send them to the church. It was a synergistic relationship, with many people being sent to the CPC instead of to jail. He recruited chaplains who went through the academy and rode along with police officers to assist in domestic violence.
On Feb. 22, Matheney got married. He began thinking of leaving his 25-year career in the police department. he was a dating a girl who became a prosecuting attorney. They lived three hours apart and dated for four and a half years. This was occurring when his youngest son went away to college and his oldest son moved out. He began thinking of his future. He was eligible to retire and he was getting married to Kathy, who was adventurous and used to live in Colorado. “But I am a workaholic. I wanted to still work, but wanted more of a balance. I decided to look for a forever home in Colorado or Washington.”
At first, Nederland didn’t entice the Michigan officer. It was too small, but when he visited his son, he found the town to be extremely charming, like his small town in Michigan. He couldn’t imagine a police station in a strip mall. With one day left to apply, Matheney was told he was stressed out and that became the impetus to realized that retirement was a way of reinventing himself. He would still be in law enforcement but would have access to all the outdoor stuff he loves, and Kathy loves the mountains. He sent in his application and forgot about it.
A couple of months ago, he received a phone call asking if he were still interested in the position. He set up a couple of interviews and was hired and here he is, he says, living without furniture. He arrived in time to see the Frozen Dead Guy Festival without having to work it. His first official day on the job was last Monday, March 10. After a few days in the office, he has come to identify Nederland as unique and quirky. “Everyone does their own thing without seeming to bother everyone else,” he says. “There seems to be a ‘no worries’ mantra.”
Michigan is a medical marijuana state so the recently legal marijuana retail stores are not so different. He says, “Colorado had the foresight to have the dispensaries.” At first nobody in Michigan believed he was really packing up and moving to the mountains. They didn’t believe it until he was gone.
Now he is here and not looking back, but rather he is looking at Nederland’s future. He says family always comes first, including his PD family. He’ll work shifts for his staff, he says. The second priority is having fun. “Don’t hate walking through the doors to the office in the morning. Enjoy yourself, laugh.”
He is passionate about travel, even took his sons to London for a four-day weekend. Matheney loves to immerse himself in different cultures, which explains, maybe, while coming to Nederland was not a culture shock. When James and Kathy married on February 22, the wedding reception was actually his retirement party. He says he thought that was fantastic, that his wife would take her day and make it his.
Being in Colorado has already brought about some changes. He has taken up working out, realizing that he is having a hard time breathing at altitude. “I hope I don’t have to chase any bad guys right now,” he says. As of this week, he is still waiting for his furniture and his clothes. Once he settles in, he plans to work on hiring another full time officer and a couple of part time officers as well.
He says that he is impressed with the present staff. “When town administrator Alisha Reis called and offered me the position, I asked for time to think, I had some issues. But she was fantastic and the department is professional, has integrity and is respected by the community and by the bad guys.” Chief Matheney was an internal affairs officer for awhile and says, “You can’t teach integrity. After talking to Alisha, I knew I wanted to work here.”